Drive-By Ads: Who Owns the Public Square?

A lot of people had a lot of fun at Boston’s expense last week.

Maybe justifiably so, to some degree. I don’t buy Boston Police Comish Edward Davis’ explanation (dutifully echoed by the Globe) that the fact that terrorists boarded planes at Logan Airport on 9/11 excuses the over-reaction that resembled a small War of the Worlds-style panic any more than anyone else.

Nor have I any intention of arguing with the conclusion that up here in New England we don’t always get the latest cultural spasms until the rest of the country has already passed them by. In fact, I kind of like that about us. I never have thought much of the way you guys snatch at the latest piece of cultural poopery like a hungry actor snatching at a roast beef sandwich in a gutter. We may have our faults, but in my opinion that’s not one of them.

No, what bothers me is the whole concept of “viral advertising” and the incredible corporate assumption behind it: that they own our public space and can do anything they like with it.

Advertising has become so pervasive that it’s impossible to escape. Commercial television runs 3 mins of ads every 4 mins, billboards clutter the landscape to such a degree that even out here in the boonies you can’t drive to your local supermarket without passing at least three of them, the clothes we wear are walking ads, the internet is 90% commerce and even in the blogiverse there seem to be ads on almost every sidebar, sports stadiums and university libraries are no longer named after giants in the sport or famous alumni but corporations, and even grade school classrooms are subjected to ads for toys and gum and soda pop. We are assaulted virtually every minute of every day by some form of advertising. Very soon I expect to wake up one morning to discover there’s an ad on the side of my apartment building. Maybe on my front door. Maybe on my forehead.

Advertisers now find it’s hard to cut through this high-decibel static they’ve created, so they’re moving to the next level: drive-by ads. Turner Broadcasting – and the other corporate entities who use this technique – have decided that they have every right to put their ads anywhere they want to put them without getting permission from us or our representatives. In their world, we are passive targets who exist mainly for the purpose of slurping up their latest anemic product, propping up their newest lame programming, swallowing whole their most recent attempt to sell us something we don’t need or necessarily even want until they tell us we do. To them, our public spaces represent nothing more than unconventional advertising venues they may appropriate for whatever purpose they choose any time they choose for any message they may choose to foist on us.

There’s something deeply sick about that attitude, and something profoundly undemocratic. In the single-focus world of the corporatocracy, the only community that counts – that exists – is the community of consumers, and it’s a community they own like they own their Indonesian factories and their mansions on Fisher Island. They don’t have to refrain from invading the public square – or ask permission to invade it – because you don’t ask for permission to invade something you own.

How much further are we going to let this insanity go? How much more of our lives, public and private, are we willing to fork over to commercial interests dedicated to turning us into shopping robots willing to lay down hard-earned money for useless, trivial effluvia just because they need to boost their profits? Are we, in the end, willing to buy into the total commercialization of America and hand over our political system, our public spaces, our families and even our bodies without a murmur of dissent?

Here’s what Boston says: NO.

Gov Duval Patrick wants Turner to pay for the chaos their guerrilla ad campaign generated, and I can already hear the snickers: “Boston wants Turner to pay for it’s scaredy-cattedness.”

But Patrick is right. These people have got to be stopped, and hitting them in the pocketbook is the only thing that gets their attention. They also need to get the message loud and clear that we own our public spaces, not them, and we decide where ads will be allowed and where they won’t, not them. To give up control of our own public square is tantamount to giving up control of our right to free speech and peaceful assembly in favor of their “right” to sell us more stuff.

If that’s really what we want, we deserve everything we’re going to get.

Giggle if you must, but I’m proud of Boston for standing up to that. Where are the rest of you?

One response to “Drive-By Ads: Who Owns the Public Square?

  1. Pingback: The Coke Museum: A Corporation Worships...Itself «

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