By Donella Meadows
–July 1, 1993–
A company called Space Marketing, Inc. of Roswell, Georgia, has figured out how to send into orbit a reflecting mylar sheet that can create a billboard in the sky. The image, the size of the full moon, would be visible at dusk and dawn. Right there in the middle of the fading sunset an advertiser could write “Sony” or “Pepsi.”
The CEO of Space Marketing, exuding the hyper-enthusiasm found in small children and public relations people, describes this possibility as “a tremendous opportunity for a global-oriented company to have its logo and message seen by billions of people on a history-making ‘high-profile’ advertising vehicle.”
Does anyone but a marketer consider this a good idea?
Among those who have already registered their opinion that the heavens should remain an ad-free zone are the American Astronomical Society, the Public Interest Research Group, the National Audubon Society, and the National Consumer League. Senator James Jeffords (R-VT) has introduced a bill to prohibit space advertising — though presumably such a law could only affect images launched from the United States. Corporations from the rest of the world could still cause “Benneton” or “Toyota” to shine in the sky.
Clearly to prevent the commercialization of the heavens some sort of United Nations action is required. While they’re at it, I’d like to suggest some other places where advertising should be prohibited. Over the telephone. In the mail. On earthbound billboards. On playing-field fences, on airplanes, buses, and subways, in movies, in schools, on public radio and TV, on blimps or balloons or floating behind airplanes. There ought to be places where people can be free from being advertised at, starting with nature and our own homes.
I never realized how strongly I feel about this issue until the day when the students at a certain prestigious business school pushed me over the edge. This school runs an exercise in which the students manage fictitious companies in a computer-mediated, speeded-up world, competing against each other, working through several years of business experience in one high-tension week.
The “business game” happened to take place down the hall from my office. I was aware of it only through the occasional muffled curses or raucous cheers in the hallway — until the year the students went into serious advertising.
They covered the walls of the building with ads. As the week progressed, the ads got bigger, more colorful, more elegant. They were taped to windows and to mirrors in bathrooms. They were suspended from hall ceilings to hit passersby literally in the face. As in a cocktail party, where you have to raise your voice to be heard over the crowd, which causes the crowd to be louder, which causes you to have to shout even louder, it became more and more difficult in this escalating ad race for any single ad to be noticeable. So the obvious next step was to make the ads raunchy. I won’t go into details, but believe me, as the week wore on, the students devised some extremely attention-getting ads.
Everyone in the building complained about the visual pollution, but I was the one who exploded. One morning, wending my way through visual yells, screams, grunts, and come-ons, I felt a rage welling up that was far out of proportion to the week of inconvenience I was suffering. That rage had been simmering for years, stoked by automated phone calls at dinnertime, hours spent sorting and recycling junk mail, passages through garish commercial strips with big, blinking, yellow and red signs. I didn’t get mad at the students; I got mad at a world that was always grabbing at my attention in order to sell me stuff.
I burst into the business game headquarters and blew up. I asked why the student corporations had put up their signs without paying rent for the public space they occupied. I threatened to sue. I suggested that the the Women’s Studies Program might like to come over and view the contents of the ads. I asked why the blankety-blank business school couldn’t teach their students a little social responsibility.
The business professors blinked for a minute and then smoothly incorporated me into the exercise. I got an environmental law professor to “represent” me, we had “hearings,” we instituted a zoning law limiting advertising to certain spaces and a billboard rental fee. The sexist ads disappeared. The women in the building received sincere-sounding letters of apology from student CEOs.
I hope that bunch of future entrepreneurs got the message. The inherent dynamic of advertising leads inevitably to more and more intrusiveness. The louder it gets, the louder it must continue to get for the next message to be noticeable. The whole purpose of marketers is to figure out how to trumpet their products anywhere and everywhere. If they could, they’d put ads on postage stamps, on church pews, on the ceilings of dentists’ office, in the sky, on the insides of our eyelids as we sleep.
The very logic of the market system means that marketers cannot and will not limit themselves. Only the larger social system can do that. If it doesn’t, commercialization will take over not just our skies, but our lives.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993