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Noam Chomsky: Advertising is Turning Americans into Uninformed, Irrational Consumers

In his newest book, “Occupy: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity” published by Zuccotti Park Press,  linguist, professor and philosopher Noam Chomsky takes aim once again at what he calls the “most extensive propaganda system in the world.” Calling to task the American public relations and advertising field, Chomsky writes that the industry uses “separation and marginalization” in order to manipulate Americans and turn them into selfish, uninformed consumers.

According to Chomsky, the creation of the American consumer actually pits citizens against each other, encouraging each person to compete for the best iPhones, techno-gadget and high-end splurges and discouraging them from joining together to meet their needs communally.  The end result, he demands, drives “the population to irrational consumption, which does separate them from one another.”

To illustrate his point, Chomsky points out how advertising turned young women into smokers in the 1920’s. After realizing that young women were a virtually untapped market for the tobacco industry, a well-connected advertising executive named Edward Bernays paid young, attractive models to walk along New York City’s Fifth Avenue holding cigarettes.

“His message to women was, ‘You want to be cool like a model? You should smoke a cigarette.’” Chomsky says, adding, “How many millions of corpses did that create?”

He further points out the cigarette advertising campaign was heralded a success, despite the death toll. This, he says, emphasizes another important aspect of the American consumer market promoted by subversive advertising, a lack of empathy and desire to work towards the community good.

“If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority,” Chomsky explains, calling carrying a ‘dangerous’ notion. “That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself.”

He concludes that one of the hallmarks of ‘good propaganda’ is “getting people not to think in terms of their own interest, let alone the interest of communities,” essentially abandoning their own needs and engaging in irrational consumption.

To overcome such an ingrained culture in American life, he insists, takes a lot of hard work for community activists and others seeking to buck the trends. “I don’t think it’s impossible,” he says, “but it is not going to happen easily.”

Photo Credit: Duncan Rawlinson via Creative Commons

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.