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Selling Words

Selling Words: Free Speech in a Commercial Culture

R. George Wright
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Selling Words
    Book Description:

    All of us grumble, from time to time, about the ever-increasing commercialization of American life. Whether in the form of overt corporate sponsorship--as evidenced by the "branding" of every major sporting event--or the less conspicuous role of commercial interests in the funding of the arts, America's corporations are a ubiquitous presence. While debates rage over the televising of liquor ads and the degree to which Joe Camel encourages adolescent smoking, of far greater concern, R. George Wright argues, should be the passivity with which we accept excessive commercialization. For many, the spread of commercialization by any means other than fraud or deception today seems merely a reflection of the capitalist pursuit of well-being. Yet owning and spending, for the middle- class consumers Wright discusses, is at best only weakly related to their happiness. In recent years, corporate America has shrewdly sought shelter from reasonable regulation by embracing the First Amendment. Focusing on such flashpoint issues as the Internet, tobacco advertising, and intentionally controversial ads, and exposing the dangerous elephantiasis of our commercial culture, Selling Words serves up a forceful warning about the perils of conflating commerce with First Amendment rights.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8461-7
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    It was observed some years ago that the bright lights of Times Square must be a magnificent spectacle to those unable to read. Indeed, our commercial culture seems a marvel to us, to the extent we lose sight of the possibilities of human development, well-being, and genuine freedom.

    Our survey begins with a brief excursion through the perpetually cash-strapped Arrid-Mentos Junior High School. Arrid-Mentos, formerly named for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is located on a small section of Minerva Street now officially redesignated as Ford Bronco Drive. As you now may suspect, the school has entered into a series of...

  5. chapter one Commercial Speech in Context
    (pp. 12-77)

    Consider a typical car commercial, one emphasizing high performance or attractive lease terms. Were it not for the ad producers’ technical artistry, the odd disclaimers and qualifications would stand out: This stunt was performed by a professional driver on a closed track. Always wear your safety belt. Do not attempt this at home. Or the stream of lease terms and conditions such as required down payments, interest rates, and total payments is delivered so quickly as to call into question whether the seller really wishes us to dwell on such matters.

    Not all these disclosures are made by the seller...

  6. chapter two Tobacco and Patronizing Speech
    (pp. 78-107)

    For some time, a battle has been under way between tobacco sellers and government regulators of tobacco advertising. It is not surprising that the tobacco sellers’ arguments are patronizing, superficial, self-serving, and hypocritical. But perhaps more surprisingly, the counterarguments by the government regulators of tobacco advertising are equally so. Tobacco sellers contend that the purchase of cigarettes by adults is normally a free and voluntary choice, no more reflective of addiction or a lack of consent than the desire to continue to live in the same house or to go to the same job day after day. Although it would...

  7. chapter three The Commercial Colonization of the Internet
    (pp. 108-134)

    Ordinarily, we do not think of the Internet as the embodiment of commercial values. But some elements of the “traditional” or “original” Internet culture are conducive to the culture of buying and selling. Consider, for example, the freedom and plasticity of one’s Internet identity or identities. The real, non-cyber, world, or “meatspace,” tends to consign us to standard categories. Those who are, say, young or Asian or female or disabled are readily identified and perhaps even stereotyped. In cyberspace, however, we can reinvent or disguise ourselves according to our purpose, and we can assume or construct various identities. Finally, authoritarianism...

  8. chapter four What Are Controversial Ads For?
    (pp. 135-156)

    Some ads are controversial and shocking ads, though this is not intended as a judgmental or metaphysically ambitious claim. The focus of this chapter is on the predictable and even intended reactions to ads, justified or not, of a significant portion of the viewing public. For the most part, we ignore ads that are offensive or shocking to some segment of the audience but that the ads’ sponsors did not intend or predict to be so. We also ignore ads for controversial products, such as tobacco. Finally we do not simply assume that any ad that is controversial or shocking...

  9. chapter five How Do Ads Describe Us?
    (pp. 157-179)

    Commercial advertising addresses different groups of people with mixtures of insult and flattery, but also with some broad recurring themes. Many groups—teenagers, women, young adults, even baby boomers—are encouraged to think of themselves as independent minded and sometimes even as defiant of authority, and these themes of rebellion and independent mindedness are interpreted in different ways for different groups. Ultimately, though, rebellion is supposed to take the form of market-based consumption. Rebellion is against those who would deprive one of consumption or who would presume to dictate one’s consumption choices. Rebellion typically aligns the rebel with one product...

  10. chapter six The Current Status of Commercial Culture and Some Political Responses
    (pp. 180-198)

    Some time ago, the Swedish Space Corporation considered placing giant illuminated commercial billboards in space, but it noted that “astronomers are against the idea because they would mix up billboards with stars.”

    This problem is not confined to astronomers, and let us hope that we all continue to see some distinction between the celestial and the commercial. Eventually, however, astronomers may not be more able to prevent the commercial blighting of the heavens than computer scientists can prevent the commercialization of the Internet. In the meantime, perhaps our short attention span will save us; that is, we may quickly lose...

  11. conclusion: Commercialization and the Status of the Poor
    (pp. 199-204)

    If commercialization is both pervasive and unfulfilling, why don’t we recognize this and try to make changes for the better? We have offered a number of answers in this book. Let us emphasize again one of the most disturbing: the commercialization process changes not only what we value but also what we are capable of valuing. Thus it may hinder our very capacity for enjoying less commercial values.

    For example, suppose a society undertakes what we call an arm’s length contractualization of marriage. Persons enter into arm’s length contractual marriages because they recognize that too often the ideal of trust,...

  12. notes
    (pp. 205-208)
  13. bibliography
    (pp. 209-242)
  14. index
    (pp. 243-244)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-245)