By Mary Hood Hart
In May, my husband and I visited Ireland on a pilgrimage led by our pastor. I had toured Ireland 28 years ago, when in my teens. Aware of Ireland’s now booming economy, before my recent return, I was concerned that the country I remembered as pristine and peaceful might reflect this new prosperity by an increase in commercialism. And while I can’t say Ireland has remained exactly as I remember it in the 1970s (cell phones are everywhere!), I must say the Irish have been excellent stewards of their extraordinary landscape. The natural beauty of the country has not been tainted by billboards, neon, a proliferation of tourist traps. The Irish have managed to balance a booming economy and tourist trade with protection of their natural resources.
Cruising Lough Leane, the largest of the Killarney lakes, Jim and I tried to imagine the American version of such a peaceful setting. We lamented that, in America, the quiet lake, surrounded by mountains and thick, green forests, would be overrun by jet skis, water skiers, charter boats, kayaks, and accompanying sales and rental centers. Eateries, lodges, and condos would line the lakeside. We could even envision banner planes trailing ads for a “$4.99 all you can eat breakfast buffet.” At the time of our cruise, our boat was the only vessel on the water. And there were no commercial properties in sight, only the remains of Castle Ross and an old monastery.
While Jim and I joked about the proliferation of advertising and commercialism in this country, the sad truth is that much natural beauty in the United States has been spoiled by commercial exploitation. Many beaches, lake fronts, and natural wonders have been tainted by unrestrained development. However, not only our natural resources have been harmed by commercialism. In addition to intruding on nature, our consumerist society has encouraged advertising to creep more and more into our personal space, infecting even the most fundamental aspects of daily living.
A disturbing addition to this onslaught has recently originated in California. According to an Associated Press article “Drivers rake in money for turning cars into billboards on wheels,” companies based in California are now paying drivers to advertise the companies’ goods and services on their personal cars. Drivers and companies are matched through Internet services, who profile the drivers to determine if they and their vehicles are suited for the job. The ads, printed on vinyl and wrapped around the car from bumper to bumper, are considered by the companies to be an inexpensive alternative to billboards. Drivers who agree to carry the ads on their cars receive anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 a month to advertise as they go about their daily routines. Of course, not everyone who applies is selected to “drive an ad.” Drivers are chosen on the basis of their driving habits (distance traveled, destinations), personal image, and the make of their cars. Once the ad is placed on their vehicles, their driving is tracked to show where and how far they travel.
This latest advertising ploy is one more indication of how comfortable most Americans are with the ubiquity of advertising. Over the last several decades, we have let advertising creep into our homes (through TV and radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, junk mail, fliers). We’ve let it enter our public schools through fund raisers, classroom television news supported by commercial breaks, and other programs that provide freebies to the schools in exchange for exposure to young consumers. We let advertising enter certain areas of our faith lives through our church bulletins, donated raffle prizes, sponsorships of charitable events.
Yes, a tremendous amount of good has resulted from the business world’s generosity to charities, schools, and churches. Even so, we must not be lulled into a sense of complacency about the effects ever-present marketing has on our cultural and individual psyches. We must remember that the entire point of advertising is to influence attitudes and behavior. When we embrace advertising at every turn, we increase our risk of compromising the integrity of our institutions and our own personal character.
From information gleaned through grocery store discount cards to tracking devices placed in personally owned “billboard-cars,” marketers have become Big Brother of the current age. The fact that so few of us mind being monitored so closely is a frightening commentary on our vulnerability and our willingness to sacrifice personal privacy — even integrity — in exchange for a good deal.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 8 to 16.