March 29th, 2007

American Evolution

We recently got a satellite TV system after several years with no TV access, and there are fascinating differences in the ads from what we saw years ago, differences with marked social and political implications.

Commercials reflect the concerns of the target audience. Marketers work hard both to create demand for products – usually by trying to convince us that there’s something wrong with us and the product they’re pushing is the way to make it right – and to figure out what already-existing concerns and demands they can target. If there are sociologists and anthropologists centuries from now, one of the best sources of information they will have on our culture is what we watch on TV, with the ads among the most useful parts.

The first thing that jumps out is the increased sophistication and cleverness of some of the ads. Amid the expected shouting hacks and glib talking suits, there are more ads that are funny or otherwise attention-grabbing. The Geico commercials running now – the Cockney gecko, the sensitive cavemen, and the over-the-top celebrity reps for stoic customers – are cute enough to make us look forward to the next in each series (even if we’re perfectly happy with our current insurance company and have no interest in switching.) There are some others that are just about as good.

The next trend, though, seems to be a clear reflection of a strong demographic trend, the aging of the baby boomers. There are saturation-level ad campaigns for Life Alert systems aimed at the elderly, “erectile dysfunction” and “male enhancement (whatever that is)” pills, hearing aids, hair replacement, motorized wheelchairs, sleep aids (a very common issue as we age is an increase in insomnia), pills for arthritis and other aches and pains, weight loss programs, with middle-aged or older models talking about how they’re back to the weights of their early adult years, cell phones with huge number pad buttons and ads talking about how they’re ideal for older folks who can’t deal with a lot of confusing extra functions, and gadgets to help cope with failing memory. No doubt there are others I forgot to list. Also, for ads in general, the beautiful people shown being made happy by using the featured product tend to be older than they used to be. Other than the diet plans, these are all things I can’t remember ever seeing advertised on network TV a decade ago or earlier.

A third trend: a lot more ads aimed at people in dire financial straits – second mortgages, debt consolidation plans, plans to start side businesses, books supposedly full of info on little-known government programs that give away money.

Finally, the fourth trend that stands out stretches across many kinds of ads: a tone fostering and catering to an attitude of entitlement. Never before have I heard so many ads telling me what I deserve to have or to be able to do, with no mention of what I’ve done to be entitled to all this cool stuff.

So – taken together, we have a picture of targeted consumers who are image-obsessed, are feeling older and not handling it very well, are used to living beyond their means, and have the somewhat spoiled attitude that they should get whatever they want, without having to do anything in particular to deserve it.

Another fact that is less well reflected in advertising: America is looking a lot more multiethnic than it used to, in general and in positions of influence in politics, mainstream culture, and business. This is being reflected somewhat in the programs themselves, but not so much in the ads. There’s a lot more programming in Spanish, a reflection of the reality of the fastest-growing part of the population. More programming is depicting members of minorities, as well as gays and lesbians, as just regular people, and accepting interethnic families as included in the norm. I’ve seen a few ads showing interracial couples and heard one radio ad featuring a gay couple as consumers without making any special deal about them being who they are, but most of advertising hasn’t caught up yet with the programming or with America.

So what does all this have to do with politics?

Well, the dependable core of the Republican party, especially the socially conservative right wing of the right wing that make up most of Bush’s dwindling base, are on average middle aged or older. When pollsters track trends in views on foreign policy, acceptance of minorities, same-sex marriage, abortion, legalization of marijuana, and other litmus-test issues, they see strong trends for opinions to be divided by age group. The people who are hawkish on foreign policy, favor religion over science, scoff at global warming, and are hostile to minorities and non-heterosexual people tend to be older. Younger voters, on average, tend to have the opposite views and to be more upset by political corruption and the massive influence of corporate money. As the polled audience gets younger, their aggregate views get more progressive decade by decade. And the boomers are starting to die off in significant numbers. Also, members of minorities and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are a lot more likely to be Democrats and to hold more liberal views on social issues.

Not to be morbid, but just to address the facts, this means that over the next few decades the Republican party is going to experience a big decline if it stays in its current form. To progressives, this sounds good, but there are some potential problems, both for the Democrats and for all of us.

First is the main problem for the Democratic party: since 1968 it has been shifting from liberal to Republican Lite. If this continues, the increasingly progressive electorate will have little more use for them than for the current version of the Republican party. If the Repubs want to remain relevant, they may do so by reinventing themselves, returning to their roots in the era of Lincoln by becoming real advocates for political reform and the welfare of the downtrodden and the common people. If so, good for them. Today most people with progressive views seem more concerned with policy than party, and will probably vote for whoever proposes to do what they feel needs to be done. But if the two main parties continue in their present directions, the Dems as well as the Repubs are likely to become relics as some other party that speaks for more of America becomes prominent and rises in popularity.

But the biggest worry is a problem that should concern all of us: that attitude of entitlement. As the good Reverend Richard Rohr put it in a recent interview with a local journalist here named Arthur Alpert, citing Will Herberg: “… Our operative belief system is the American Dream – materialism, success, money, and power.” That appears to be caused by two sources. One is the growth of the power of corporations and the fact that corporations almost always have a damn-the-torpedoes, short-term, totally self-centered focus on making as much money as possible this year, and to hell with the long term, the public, the environment, and the rest of the economy. The other root cause of the American public’s resemblance to a spoiled child is the cumulative effect of decades of advertising aimed at creating exactly that attitude coupled with a desire for the products being hawked.

The attitude of entitlement is what has led to the arrogance of our current foreign policy, to the “let them figure it out later” credit-spending binge that has led to the deficit we face now, and to our government’s resistance to admitting the seriousness of global climate change and our own role in it, along with the accompanying need to do some things about it that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable. That attitude of entitlement is also something that may be just as prominent in younger voters as in the older crowd. This in turn means that we can’t count on it dwindling. But unless it changes, we’re not likely to accept the sacrifices we’ll have to make to fix the economy and slow down climate change, and if we keep stalling on those challenges we’re in for a real train wreck down the road.

So how do we get more Americans – a majority of us – to face up to accept unpleasant realities and the truth that it’s up to us to do something about them, starting immediately? Well, as Reverend Rohr said in the same interview, there are two paths of transformation. One is the path of suffering, i.e. learning the hard way. The other is the path of reflection – what Reverend Rohr calls the path of prayer, but a path that many also walk through psychotherapy, recovery programs, and other non-religious routes.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the idea that America will become a reflective society. It’s not how this culture came about – most of our history was brought about by people more inclined to action than contemplation. We do tend to learn the hard way most of the time.

The bright side: personally, I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for character, brains, and resilience. Maybe it’s because for so long politicians and corporations have been operating on the assumption that we aren’t very bright or mature. But when the really rough and scary problems have hit America – the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II – the ordinary people of America have dug in, faced what was in front of them, and done whatever was needed, made whatever sacrifices it took, to overcome those problems. Ordinary people, here and around the world, have always been underestimated both by our/their enemies – the Germans and Japanese two generations ago, Al Qaeda today – and by most of our own leaders, and have always ended up proving themselves greater than anyone would have predicted.

I believe that the next few decades will hit us, and the rest of the world, with a volley of pains and troubles that will be bigger than anything any generation has ever faced since perhaps the time of the great plagues that killed a third of Europe in the 14th century. The impending problems are many and a lot of people have described them in this blog and elsewhere. But I don’t believe those impending problems are our impending doom. Many of us and our children and their children will suffer and many will die. But whatever America looks like in another two or three generations, I believe it will be here, and I believe it will be better than it is now.

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Posted in General, Politics, Current Affairs, Religion, Television, Economics, Science, Poll Results, Miscellaneous, DailyFeatured, Gonzo's Grab Bag, Budget, Environment, Race, Patriot, Global Warming, Gay and Lesbian Rights

17 Comment(s)

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  1. SteveIL Says :

    I’m not trying to be facetious here (yeah, I can avoid being an insulting SOB sometimes), but do you really believe the Democrats are becoming like Republicans?  Conservatives like myself see this in just the opposite manner.  We see the Republicans as very much like the Democrats of 1960.  And you don’t even want to know where we think the Democrats are (I did say I’d be polite).  Simply amazing.

  2. Liberal Jarhead Says :

    Yes, Steve, and I think you’re right too.  Both parties have migrated rightward, and a lot of the leading Dems now are farther right than the mainstream Republicans of the late 1960s. From where I stand, that means both parties have gotten more aligned with corporate money and farther from representing average Americans who can’t afford to buy access or advertising.

    From what I can see in polls and the news, middle America is fiscally conservative and socially moderate. On issues like minimum wage, the ability of ordinary people to sue corporations who screw them over, health care, and other things that have a big impact on people’s daily lives, I don’t think either party is paying attention to what most voters want or need. The issues that parties use to divide us and turn us against each other, like same-sex marriage, don’t affect the lives of anyone except those directly involved, but they make great wedges to distract people and get them to support candidates that don’t take care of their actual interests.

    From where I stand, the main difference between the parties is who their unreasonable/fanatical bases are; in each case, it’s a sliver who make so much noise they have influence far beyond their numbers. For the Republicans, it’s the religious right that want to play American Taliban. For the Democrats, it’s the caricature Volvo liberals who would abolish the military, ban all gun ownership, etcetera. But beyond the noise those subgroups make that others take to represent the parties, both Dems and Repubs pretty much sell themselves to the highest bidders.

  3. steve Says :

    Commoditization is the major problem with our TV ads and our politicians.  

    My favorite TV ads are the the ones that show you a unique product.  Usually if involves something like knives cutting cans or stain remover.  Some have a narrator and some have that Billy Zane guy with the “Just for Men” beard.  The ads are fast, snappy and usually involve a twist toward a related product.  For example, Billy’s Oxy Clean may get you a sample bottle…  All these ads eventually involve a time limit to order and a “double” or 2 for the price of 1 offer at the end.  The product ends up as a bundle, efficiently priced and memorable.  Another great ad is the Head On product…  It gets you to watch it because it is so freaking annoying and repetitive.

    However the rest of the ads and our politicians and political pundits are a commodity.  You can’t stand one well here is another.  Remember that green tea kick going around through the beverage industry?  Well, how many beverage products do you see that feature green tea?  The idea and health benefits of green tea are completely unknown to the average person.  A few health nuts and nutritionists swear by it and someone like Coca Cola picks up on it.  You have no idea why it’s good for you, but hey… if they put it in a Lipton Tea bottle (a name you already know) it must be good.  A complex product made simple.

    We do the same thing in politics.  Think of the pro-life/choice movement.  The idea of being one of the other is so complex and so close to the heart that many of us have deep feelings about it.  But if you look at for example, the Republicans you can commoditize them, even if you don’t know them simply by the labels.  McCain=pro-life.  Guiliani=pro-choice.  Example “I am Republican but I won’t vote for that guy because he is pro choice” or take the Democrats, “I like Obama but I wish he was pro gay marriage, so I’ll vote for Hillary”  Complex issues made easy because we turn them into labels.  We derive those labels from our own social cliques.  If we don’t know about a topic like abortion rights or gay marriage, we automatically default to what the label means around us.

  4. Liberal Jarhead Says :

    Yeah, Steve, that trend toward dualistic “either/or” thinking is another aspect of the dumbing down of our culture. I think that’s been pushed by everything from advertising to politics (”either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists”) to education shifting from an essay-question kind of system to a true/false or at best multiple-choice format in which every question can be summed up in a short sentence and has a definitive and even shorter answer. In reality, as you indicate, if an issue were that simple, most of the time it wouldn’t be an issue, because one answer would be clear enough that people wouldn’t have much to argue about.

    That could be called the teenager’s disease, that delusion that complex things are simple and easy. Lots of things look that way until you have to do them or look at them in depth - that’s why when our kids are teenagers they think we’re idiots, and then after they get out into the real world and have to function as adults our IQs zoom upward and they start asking us for advice.

    I think that’s part of Bush’s problem. He’s always had so many people rescuing and enabling him, he’s never had to grow up and solve his own problems and clean up his own messes.

  5. Jersey McJones Says :

    I hate car ads.

    There, I feel better now.


  6. Jenn Says :

    I love the “sensitive” caveman ads. All of them. Especially the one in the airport where he get’s all huffy and storms off on the people mover.

    Oh, and I too hate car ads. Loathe ‘em.




  7. Tom Harper Says :

    I hope you’re right about the age thing, that when the aging conservatives die off they’ll be replaced by people who are more liberal and open-minded.  But when Richard Nixon signed legislation to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, everybody thought he was committing political suicide.  With millions of 18-year-old idealistic hippies voting, look out.  And look what happened…

    I’ve also heard that among Generation Y, their biggest priorities are wealth and the feeling of being pampered and catered to, and that they’re looking for a chance to buy an “experience” rather than a product or commodity.  (I heard this at a seminar for how small businesses can attract more Gen. Y customers.)  So those entitlement TV ads might start getting worse and worse.

  8. Jersey McJones Says :

    I agree with Tom about his concerns.  As Americans grow more spoiled, fat, and stupid, conservatism is only bound to rise.


  9. Dr. Forbush Says :


    We lived in Germany for three years where the ads happen between TV shows, which makes them more tolerable. When we came back to the US I spent three months being completely annoyed every time a TV ad interrupted the show I was watching. The result was that I turned the TV on less and less. Since I watch so little TV now I am continuously surprised by the attitudes exploited on TV.

    On your observation of political evolution you make a common observation that the political spectrum is evolving in a particular direction. But, this is not exactly the whole picture. In a very interesting book called, “Generations: the history of America’s future, 1584-2069” by William Strauss and Neil Howe the authors show a cyclical behavior of political attitudes. I wrote about it last year right here.

    Each generation begins with some idealism, but over time events shape how that idealism is changed to be more pragmatic. Remember, the older conservatives of today were once the hippies of the 1960s. Their idealism encouraged them to seek answers and they found them in religions. Some found their answers in Eastern thought, but a larger group found their answers in Christian fundamentalism.

    We can’t extrapolate the idealism of today’s youth and their thoughts about gay marriage to what their ideas will be tomorrow. But, according to Strauss and Howe the current youth will eventually evolve into a generation that values a strong society that works together for the common good. This is promising, but the cycle will continue to repeat itself as well.

    Thanks for the great insight into our culture from being “outside” the TV screen….

  10. Ron Says :

    “I’m not trying to be facetious here (yeah, I can avoid being an insulting SOB sometimes), but do you really believe the Democrats are becoming like Republicans?  Conservatives like myself see this in just the opposite manner.  We see the Republicans as very much like the Democrats of 1960.  And you don’t even want to know where we think the Democrats are”

    I don’t know why you are having trouble with this. As true believers on opposite poles, neither party is doing enough of what we want them to. The Democrats are not progressive enough to me. The Republicans are not…fascist and authoritarian enough for you or something. Not really all that weird to say your party is going the way of The Other when it isn’t responsive enough.

  11. Jersey McJones Says :

    I wish I could find it online, but I remember reading a study that showed that as people grew older, they became more liberal a few generations ago and that trend sort of reversed in recent generations.  It also showed that demographics have a lot to do with political leanings and that education was a prime motivator of that.  If the current anti-intellectual trends hold, it is very likely that we will become all the more conservative, but - and this is a big but - if conservative practices cause severe societal decline, people will suffer and become more liberal.  On the other hand, as Marx said, if the elite control the media and it’s telling of history, people may well be so disinformed that they will not recognize the true causes of their suffering, but - here’s another big but - with the rise of the internet and open communications and the decline of mass media people may not listen to the elite.  It’s a tough prognostication.


  12. steve Says :

    So what you guys are saying is that you want conservatives to die?


  13. Jersey McJones Says :

    Don’t be so conservative, Steve.  It’s ‘Die out’, not ‘Die’.


  14. Dr. Forbush Says :


    That should be, “Don’t be such an extremist, steve. It’s die out, not die.” 

  15. Liberal Jarhead Says :

    No, Steve, just that the generation that’s dying of old age now is more reactionary and conservative than the younger ones that will be around a bit longer.

  16. Jersey McJones Says :

    Thank you, LJ.

    Get it, Steve?


  17. steve Says :

    Doc FB… Jersey.. Um…lighten up? It was a freaking joke… sheesh!

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