When, forty years ago, I cycled into Tito’s Yugoslavia the first thing I noticed was the visual tranquillity. There were no advertisements screaming at me. It was as if I had been used all my life to noise and then suddenly I was exposed to silence. I didn’t realise I had had a headache until it was gone. The sheer delight of coming across the first petrol station in the countryside, marked only by the word PETROL, has remained with me and I long for such tranquillity again.
I remember noticing that there were just as many shops selling western goods in Zagreb as in any other European city and the hotels and tourist areas did not seem at all austere. The lack of visual intrusion must have been fairly absolute in the brace of communist countries I passed through because I remember my surprise at finding a banner stretched across the Bulgarian road just before the Turkish border. It wasn’t advertising anything; it just said, Tourisme, passeport √† la paix.
I am living in a very different world now. The streets of Indonesia are filled with auditory, visual and olfactory noise. During the recent, seemingly never ending, election campaigns we have been assaulted with images of the candidates wherever we look. But it is not just the sheer ugliness and repetition of the same images and texts which is disturbing. The most extensive advertising in Indonesia is for tobacco products. The portrayal of quirky, youthful, sporting images and the sponsorship of music events grate hard on the intellectual and moral senses. These are lies. They are lies with a get-out clause. At the bottom of each such image is an identical statement of the harm that such products cause. The statement is identical and boring. The images are vibrant and dynamic. If you say they are lying, the companies can say, ‘No we are not. There is a health warning.’ But they are lies none the less, because the effect is to create an image and to brand their brand and their catch phrases into the mind. That is the point of a brand – to burn itself into the psyche.
Advertising is approved. It is purported to be in the interests of the economy – no matter how many deaths it promotes. Heavens above – tobacco companies sponsor traffic police shelters and have dynamic LCD displays on their roofs. What more could anyone ask in the way of government approval – that the police are sponsored by them!
It is not just tobacco advertising that is lying. All advertising lies. The image is more important than any merits the product may have (including the images of politicians) – approval through visual repetition. The claim that all advertising does is to inform is untrue. It panders to desire: the desire to possess, to be smarter, richer, more fashionable. It transforms desire into need. It emphases difference and promotes inequality.
But perhaps the most damning thing about advertising is its intrusive nature. You can’t shut it out. It draws our attention: after all, it is designed to. It adds to the complexity of stimulus, distracts us and makes it difficult to contemplate, to assess and analyse our world. In short, it is anti-thought.
Television, of course, is all of that too. In most cases it is possible to avoid its pandemonium through the simple expedient of not having one. Regrettably in waiting rooms, departure lounges and restaurants all too often one does not have the choice.
So, corporations, religious and political organisations are able to thrust their lies into our faces every day whenever we venture out of doors or foolishly turn on the television set. What about individuals? What about freedom of speech? What about discourse, the soil on which thought grows?
The powerful are protected; the weak are persecuted, watched, restricted and discouraged.
A new libel law was enacted in Indonesia making it unlawful to say anything bad about anyone on the internet. Before clicking the send icon on Facebook or MSN cybernauts have to remember that if they make any complaints or adverse comments that their friends could pass on they could face the double jeopardy of being sued and facing a term behind bars.
In most of the un-enlightened world both clerics and rulers are particularly averse to being ‘offended’ or having their self-images of dignity challenged. Independence flag wavers, new prophets and those with an unorthodox interpretation of doctrine and practice regularly find that they are left with only the cockroaches and rats in their cells to declaim or preach to.
It is not only in the un-enlightened countries that one has to watch one’s tongue, pen or keyboard.
Libel laws are weapons to protect the rich from criticism. The ‘west’ proclaims a free press. It may be free, but it is not independent. Open discourse is at the mercy of supply and demand. There is a careful cost-benefit analysis of the commercial value of opinion and news and the risk of being sued: proportional, of course, to the size of the chequebook of the potential litigant.
The printed press now faces another threat in this age of information: internet news providers. In the United States many newspapers and journals are shutting up shop. No one wants to buy them anymore when they can get instant, ‘breaking news’ on their mobile phones and MP3 players. The habit of pondering and brooding over a newspaper seems pass√© now. The culture of instant, pile it high, sell it cheap is the manufactured demand of the day. Fast food comes with fast news.
The internet economy is based on advertising. People expect things ‘free’ – paid for by advertising. Newspapers and magazines have always relied for their commercial viability, no matter what their apparent political stance, on advertising. The market pays for everything and it can dictate its own terms.
Adverts always lie. They lie subtly. They may not lie with words but they do evoke false desires and suggest fulfilment of those desires through images and sound. ‘This attractive lifestyle can be yours to command if you buy our product. Cool, clever, beautiful people use our products. You can be associated with them if you display our label. Our chocolate is alluring like you, our beer is cheeky and funny like you, and our cars are powerful and sophisticated like you.’
Commercial lies, the lies that maintain the status quo are allowed and encouraged. They are the oil that smoothes the economy. They are important and unchallengeable. If you, the individual with no money or power, challenge the status quo you will be sued relentlessly, you will be prosecuted, you will be crushed – or worse, you will be sidelined and ignored.
But, as in many things, we are enslaved by our own consent. We do not have to believe. As long as we have voices to speak and ears to hear; hands to write and eyes to read we can share our experiences, observations and thoughts. As long as we have free hearts and believe that we are men and women and not slaves or pawns we have nothing to fear. If we are afraid of the truth and acquiesce in lies then we have already surrendered our humanity and have no purpose to our existence.
The biggest lie of all is the lie we tell ourselves; that we are weak and that there is nothing we can do.