Make the ad guys pay 

Do you feel unloved and unnoticed, like a single, tiny, worthless atom in the ever-expanding gas that is mass society? Well, you are right to feel that way. No one – outside of perhaps six people, most of whom are faking – cares in the least about your search for a soul mate, your exercise regimen, or the terrible things that bowl of chili did to your esophagus. But here’s the good news: Even if hardly anyone is willing to pay attention to you, many thousands of important people are scheming to get your attention. In mass consumer society, there is one precious thing about each individual, no matter how lowly or no-account they may be, and this is the attention he or she can potentially apply to the ever-proliferating ads and commercials around us.

Among advertising’s brave new frontiers are bathroom stalls, the annoying little stickers on fruits, supermarket checkout dividers, the plastic bags that enclose your dry cleaning, the baggage carousels at airports, and the bottoms of holes at golf courses, whatever they may be. EDS – Ross Perot’s old company – is testing talking ads at ATMs: You won’t just get cash, you’ll get free advice on how to spend it. Some gas stations have installed video monitors to regale you with commercials at the pumps. Rental cars are beginning to come with cassette tapes full of ad-rich local travel tips. Tractors in New Jersey tow special steamrollers that imprint ads on the beach so that whether you look down at the sand or up at the ad-bearing planes in the sky, you’ll be reminded to reach for a Corona and excise that unsightly bikini hair.

You’ll go to the toilet stall, hoping to pick up some hot new phone numbers or savor sketches of your co-workers’ genitals, only to be briefed on the latest mutual fund. You’ll reach for a plum and learn of a new video to rent – and if this seems like a trivial intrusion, imagine how Eden might have turned out if that apple had carried a tiny sticker bearing the message, Liar, Liar. There is no moment of your life, insignificant as that life may be, that Madison Avenue is not plotting to invade, conquer and colonize. The goal is nothing less than to occupy your entire cranium, where ads will drive out all those economically useless musings about the purpose of life and replace them with an endless tape saying, "Now with calcium ... One investor at a time ... Softer and more absorbent than ever ... Like a rock ... Go to bed, Tweetie Bird ..."

Will we eventually reach a saturation point where every patch of blue in the sky, every morsel of Styrofoam packing material, every possible surface the eye might alight on will be filled with injunctions to spend? If so, it will happen first on TV, where the ad clutter has already driven millions away from the networks. But does that bother the networks? No, indeed, their defiant response has been to actually increase the number of commercials, to the point where they now fill 15 minutes and 44 seconds of each prime-time hour – up 25 seconds from last year.

And, yes, they know that you’ve been using those commercial breaks to get your homework done, your beer mug refilled, and your personal relationships kept in working order, so the ad guys are ever more ingeniously knitting the commercials right into the shows. One device is a "crawl" along the bottom of the screen, simulating a news bulletin, but telling you what to drink or watch next. Another is something called the "Live-Video Insertion System" – pronounced Elvis, of course – which inserts brand-name products into an already-made show or even, potentially, an AMC movie. And if you give up and decide to do your homework you may find yourself agonizing over the new math book that enlivens its word problems with kid-friendly brand names such as Nike and Oreo.

The technologically gifted are fighting back. If you are clever enough to operate a VCR, you can tape all your favorite programs and fast-forward through the commercials. If you are a Web surfer, you can buy software with names such as Junkbuster and Web Washer that will block the ads before they pop up on your computer screen. Naturally, the ad guys are irate. "It’s like a shoplifter coming and taking your money away," one complained to The New York Times – suggesting that it may eventually become illegal to click away from an ad-dense Web site or change the channel during a Metamucil commercial. Perhaps there will be surprise quizzes, administered by door-to-door ad cops, in which you will be required to identify such mysterious entities as Uunet, Zantac, and Ditech or forfeit your TV set.

But fortunately, the ad guys have figured out a less coercive approach: They’re beginning to realize that they may have to pay people to pay attention to commercials. FreeWay, for example, a new long-distance phone company, offers two minutes of long distance talk for every ten-to-fifteen second commercial you’re willing to sit through. In Sweden, a company called GratisTel offers free calls if you don’t mind having them interrupted every two to three minutes for a commercial. The next step is obvious: Instead of paying people in kind, as with long distance calls, pay them an hourly wage to watch, read, listen to, or otherwise absorb a steady diet of commercial messages. After all, if ordinary consumers crave attention, they pay someone – a prostitute or a therapist – to give it to them. Why shouldn’t the ad guys pay, too?

Surely there are individuals so destitute or so lacking in any form of interior life that they will leap at the opportunity to sell their precious attention, hour after hour, to the purveyors of investment counseling and cat litter. Ideally, the professional ad watchers can be sequestered in a special state of their own – a currently empty one, such as Nebraska, for instance – along with all those people who voluntarily carry advertising on their baseball caps and T-shirts. Let them frolic together – the ad watchers and the human billboards – and leave the rest of us to ponder over the vastness of the universe and the meaning of our paltry existences within it.

Here’s how you can encourage more companies to pay people to watch their ads: Simply refuse to buy from any company that does not pay people to pay attention to its ads, or does not pay them a living wage to do so. For the time being, of course, this will mean boycotting any product that is now or has ever been advertised. Believe me, there will still be plenty of things to buy – including generic canned goods, books written by this columnist, and a tempting variety of illegal substances. If we boycott advertised products long enough, the important, big money guys may even, eventually, notice. Yes, they’ll be forced to pay attention to insignificant us.

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