Between 1875 and 1920, advertising helped to create a new kind of economy and a new kind of society. Until then, many of the commonest articles of consumption were made at home. Virtually all other goods came from local workshops and local merchants. Relatively little merchandise circulated nationally or had brand names. Most products were in chronically, and sometimes catastrophically, short supply. Religion and philosophy alike deprecated the vanities and illusions of this world.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, consumer industries were finally mechanized. Their output and number grew dramatically. But while the sheer quantity of things exploded, society’s will to consume them did not. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had to be persuaded to satisfy their material needs with mass-manufactured wares, and it was advertising that persuaded them. Its message was, “Thou shalt covet thy neighbor’s car and his radio and his silverware and his refrigerator and everything that is his.”1 This transformation was no less profound than the Industrial Revolution, and did much to eliminate ascetic attitudes that were as old as the human race.

Yet the current intellectual orthodoxy, shared to one extent or another by all of the works under review, suggests that advertising no longer has such power. Stephen Fox, whose book The Mirror Makers is arguably the best general history of advertising, speaks for the consensus among historians when he suggests that since the Twenties advertising has “functioned more as a mirror than mindbender, responding to American culture more than shaping it.” Even Torben Vestergaard and Kim Schroder, the Danish authors of The Language of Advertising, who charge that the business promotes bourgeois mentalities, think that it reinforces rather than imposes them.

If, however, advertising currently seems less important, it has lost none of its appeal as a subject for analysis. All the authors under review see it as a royal road into the mind of the inarticulate majority—especially women, who make at least 80 percent of all consumer purchases and are thus the prime target of advertising.

The business does not want for apologists—most recently David Ogilvy, the founder of a very big agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and the author of the celebrated Confessions of an Advertising Man,2 the best-selling book about advertising; John O’Toole, the chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding, another giant; and Jane Maas, the president of Muller Jordan Weiss, a mid-sized firm. Ogilvy’s new book, Ogilvy on Advertising, which takes a strictly practical approach, will fascinate anyone who has ever done any kind of self-promotion—writing a résumé, for example. O’Toole and Maas, who devote more effort to defending their profession than to analyzing its work, are sincere but dull.

Those who defend advertising are themselves defensive, resisting attacks upon its effectiveness and ethics on one page, admitting them on another. Respectable opinion has always disdained advertising, so it is one of the few industries that must talk its product both up and down, depending on whether it wants to attract customers or deter regulators.

What is known about its effectiveness, at least, can be stated quickly. On the one hand, direct-mail advertising shows which ads are and are not effective, since the prospective purchaser receives the sales pitch solely through the ad and responds directly to it.3 Written and broadcast appeals clearly influence behavior. On the other hand, this influence is limited, since one half to four fifths of all new products fail to find a long-term place on the market.

But the tendency to belittle the effectiveness of advertising has gone too far. Although few now credit it with the ability to create primary demand for commodities, almost all experts believe that it can shape secondary demand for particular brands. As we shall see, that power and its implications have often been underestimated. Advertising is far from impotent and quite as far from harmless.

The actual number of ad agencies in the United States was something of a mystery even before 1985, when the current wave of mergers began. More than 650 of the largest firms, employing some fifty thousand men and women in the United States, belong to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. About three thousand firms hang out their shingles in The Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies.

In 1982 they had a gross income of $6.51 billion. Their clients paid $44.2 billion for space and time in the mass media. (Agencies usually receive 15 percent of these costs as a commission.) Since 1925, the total expenditure on advertising in the United States has amounted to 2.3 percent of the gross national product. That outlay, the world’s highest, does not, in the opinion of such practitioners as O’Toole and Ogilvy, even get us the world’s best advertising, by their standards of effectiveness and inventiveness. Both O’Toole and Ogilvy find that the “best” ads are prepared in the United Kingdom, where only 1.24 percent of the GNP is spent on advertising.


In any case, advertising accounts for one fifth of the total selling costs of American industry, behind both sales promotion and direct salesmanship. Absolute expenditures on advertising vary among industries, of course: those that spend the most money produce alcoholic beverages, candy, cars, cleansers, cosmetics, electrical and office equipment, food, toiletries, and soft drinks. Proctor & Gamble, which sank $773 million into national advertising in 1983, heads the list. Sears spent $732 million. Then came Beatrice Companies ($602 million), General Motors ($595 million), and R.J. Reynolds ($593 million). The federal government holds twenty-eighth place.

Highly concentrated industries, like motor vehicles and tobacco, spend about 1.6 percent of their sales incomes on advertising—more than industries, like clothing and printing, where productive capacity is dispersed (0.9 percent of sales). Farming, that truly competitive industry, spends nothing whatever on advertising.

Ad agencies first appeared in the United States in the 1840s. By the 1860s, agents had evolved into brokers who bought newspaper space in bulk and resold it at a profit to advertisers, who provided the copy. The owner or foreman of the printing shop prepared the physical ad. Copywriting first emerged as a separate activity in the 1890s, and by 1910 many agencies specialized in preparing ads rather than in placing them.

This was the heroic age of advertising, when it created needs out of thin air. The need for mouthwash, for instance. Gerard Lambert had inherited a company that made a lotion used first as a surgical antiseptic and then as a treatment for throat infections. He didn’t really care how it was used, so long as he could sell a lot of it.

Together with two copywriters, Lambert hit on the idea of promoting Listerine as a “mouthwash” in the early 1920s. Having invented the cure, the three men proceeded to invent the problem, which they called “halitosis.” The country was soon informed of its existence and dangers in a series of advertisements written by Milton Feasley.

The ads “resembled scientific efforts to control for independent variables,” as Roland Marchand nicely observes in Advertising the American Dream. “Night after night,” reads a typical story,

she would peer questioningly into her mirror, vainly seeking the reason.

She was a beautiful girl and talented, too.

Yet in the one pursuit that stands foremost in the mind of every girl and woman—marriage—she was a failure.

Many men came and went in her life. She was often a bridesmaid and never a bride.

(This line, used for more than thirty years, is among the best known in the history of advertising.) What could be wrong? Only one thing, apparently—halitosis. “And even your closest friends won’t tell you” (another celebrated line). Feasley would read these lines for laughs at Lambert’s parties.

Respectable opinion was not amused. In the middle of the nineteenth century, only marginal businesses, such as those producing medical concoctions, advertised routinely, and when they did they jeopardized their credit ratings. Serious magazines, if they condescended to run ads, kept them in the back of the book. Early in the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called it “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service [as radio] to be drowned in advertiser chatter.”

Meanwhile, most economists had little to say about advertising. Some thought the expenditures of competing companies largely nullified one another. Others saw advertising as a sort of guilty secret because it seemed both to promote and subvert “perfect competition,” the reference point of the classical theory of the market.

Perfect competition requires highly standardized products, many buyers and sellers, and “perfect information.” Every buyer knows what every seller proposes to charge for every product and feature. Price competition, the inevitable result, forces sellers to use their resources efficiently. Consumers benefit doubly—first, because all products are as cheap as possible and, second, because the sum of society’s wealth is greater than it would be in an imperfect market.

The point is not that the conditions of perfection obtain in reality, or even that they ought to. The point is that insofar as they do obtain, they have certain social consequences, at least if other conditions, such as advertising, do not nullify them. Advertising dose nullify them, however. It thus helped to generate the theory of “imperfect,” or monopolistic, competition. The theory of monopoly concedes that advertising deflects consumers from the rational aim of buying in the cheapest market and makes them, instead, want a certain brand, irrespective of cost. (Since the company that produces the brand is the only one that can do so, it has a “limited monopoly.”) Advertising therefore supplies information but also helps sellers to evade price competition, even when products are standardized.


Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), Keynes’s mentor, was the first major economist to investigate these matters. In a book published in 1919, he distinguished, opaquely, between “constructive” advertising, which helps consumers to “satisfy their wants without inordinate fatigue or loss of time,” and “combative” advertising, which “obtrudes itself in the incessant iteration of the name of a product, coupled perhaps with a claim that it is of excellent quality.”4 Combative advertising he denounced as a “social waste,” for its expenses must be deducted from the seller’s profits or added to the buyer’s costs, and it often enables the “force of mere capital” to defeat worthier enterprises.

Born under the dark cloud of informed disapproval, advertising soon became an object of fear, anger, and, finally, regulation, as brazenly and even cruelly manipulative ads, like those for Listerine and most cosmetics, became commonplace. In the late Twenties, a powerful inhibition collapsed, and agencies started to exploit radio, formerly regarded as too private for commercials. During the 1930s George Gallup found out that more people read comic strips than the news. This discovery led advertisers to exploit emotional symbols and techniques derived from psychoanalysis and behaviorism. In the 1920s, John B. Watson, a founding father of behaviorism, went to work for the J. Walter Thompson agency. It is not difficult to detect his influence in some of its work (“The Eyes of Men…the Eyes of Women Judge your Loveliness Every Day”).

During the late 1940s and the 1950s, television—an even more powerful selling medium than radio—became even more deeply commercial. There were rumors that a motion-picture house in New Jersey was flashing ice-cream ads on screen so quickly that they slipped past the conscious minds of customers and influenced them subliminally. (In 1957 James Vicary had suggested doing this, but there seems to be no evidence that it would work or has ever been tried.)

Systematic efforts to explore the consumer’s subconscious—that is, motivational research (MR)—inspired Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957. Packard condemned manipulation that treats consumers “as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, [and] irrational emotional blockages.” But he thought that most advertising “not only plays a vital role in promoting our economic growth but is a colorful, diverting aspect of American life.”5

Soon thereafter John Kenneth Galbraith unveiled his own very influential criticism of advertising, first in The Affluent Society (1958) and subsequently in The New Industrial State (1967). Galbraith’s complaints were more fundamental than Packard’s. He did not believe that advertisements are mainly concerned to present information. Nor did he think that the huge sums many corporations spend on them largely cancel one another out.

This conventional view, Galbraith argued, hung on the idea of consumer sovereignty: the belief that consumers should and do control the market through their purchases. Galbraith insisted that consumer sovereignty was an illusion because the wants and needs of the consumer were manipulated by advertising and as a result were largely false.

“In the absence of the massive and artful persuasion that accompanies the management of demand,” Galbraith claimed,

increasing abundance might well have reduced the interest of people in acquiring more goods. They would not have felt the need for multiplying the artifacts—autos, appliances, detergents, cosmetics—by which they were surrounded.6

The so-called free market, Galbraith concluded, was dominated by de facto cartels of large producers, which decided what they could most profitably sell and used advertising to sell it.

Galbraith’s case had two weaknesses. Most important, he failed to show that advertising does in fact have the power he ascribed to it. Of course, short of an experiment that would eliminate advertising, one cannot prove conclusively that it makes us buy things we would not want or need otherwise. Flourishing sales of harmful products, foolish products, useless products, and products distinguished only by their higher prices make advertising a tempting target for blame.

Yet even the circumstantial evidence indicates that such products must have an appeal that is at least partly independent of advertising. Michael Schudson (Advertising, The Uneasy Profession) and Fox, as well as William Leiss, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally, the authors of Social Communication in Advertising, point out that experiments seem to show that we no longer care very much about ads. Each of us sees, on average, 1,600 or so of them a day, and notices 1,200. We respond—not necessarily with favor—to only twelve. We appear also to pay more attention to ads for products we already have. Some experts consider advertising purely defensive—mainly intended to prevent customers from defecting to rival brands. Others say that it can increase the total consumption of a product, but only if general economic conditions permit. Should underlying demand fall, “advertising is powerless to halt or reverse the trend.”7

The second problem with Galbraith’s position is his failure to justify his conception of “false needs” by the lights of any comprehensive theory. He never tells us how we should evaluate any need or why he is qualified to judge the needs of others. Perhaps he assumes that he and his readers share a community of tastes, but that is not enough. For it is not self-evident that a need stimulated by advertising is intrinsically false. The sum of human needs is not and ought not to be fixed. Unless advertising has a truly hypnotic power—and Galbraith has not shown that it does—an ad that attempts to persuade us that we have an unrecognized need can be a legitimate vehicle of information. After all, the idea is not intrinsically implausible, and, besides, how else could any new product come to market?

We might as well admit that austerity is not in the American vein. But Leiss, Kline, and Jhally go further: They not only reject ascetic attitudes but argue that “the propensity for using material objects as social intermediaries” is among “the cornerstones of the human personality”—in traditional as well as modern societies. People in traditional societies are just as apt to use goods to send social messages as we are, they say, but have fewer messages and fewer goods. Gorged with choices, we have hardly any traditions to guide us in making them and thus need advertising to do so.

As an argument against the ascetic life, I find this notion persuasive. As an argument for the current practices of the advertising industry, it carries less weight. Perhaps the propensity to use goods for sending social messages—what the authors call a “discourse through and about objects”—really is an “instinct.” It does at any rate appear to be universal. Why, however, couldn’t the proprieties and institutions that guided our ancestors help us as well? They do, at times. Occasionally, a voice is heard from the past, the voice, for example, that in 1963 moved the networks to take commercials off the air for almost four days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Besides, the way advertising associates values with products is so imaginative that it often amounts to misinformation, and at times to plain lying. We are foolish indeed when we allow ourselves to be led by so faithless a shepherd.

Marshall, Packard, and Galbraith commented on the institution of advertising. Advertisements themselves fascinated Roland Barthes, who tried to show how their visual elements, their manifest symbols, tend to presuppose such received ideas as monogamy, heterosexuality, and private property. These presuppositions he called “myths”—that is, ideology. In other words, they are historically limited institutions that advertisements, acting as a mechanism of social control, implicitly treat as self-evident and eternal.8

In The Language of Advertising Vestergaard and Schroder embrace this view in both its aspects: semiological (concerning the study of symbols) and ideological. The notion that advertisements form a nexus of symbols has also spread beyond Barthes and his followers, deeply affecting Leiss, Kline, and Jhally, as well as Roland Marchand. Marchand, for example, explains how ads have used “visual clichés” to create impressions—like the ad showing a Kelvinator refrigerator illuminated by a mysterious source of light that seemed to imply divine approval. Sometimes, alas, the study of ads seems to be no less absurd than the ads themselves. Wilson Bryan Key,9 for example, believes that he has detected the word “sex” both on the surface of Ritz crackers and in the first cover Norman Rockwell drew for The Saturday Evening Post, in 1917.

Such semiological work can have ominous implications, however, for Leiss, Kline, and Jhally show that ads have in general become steadily less informative. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-1920s, the product itself, described in text, was the center of most advertisements. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s ads started to feature illustrations linking the product to some ideal state of affairs—marital happiness, say—and the text explained the connection. (This is the period discussed in Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream.) By the 1960s, textual exegesis had become unnecessary. Today

the visual frequently stands on its own, undescribed and unexplained. The language of ads becomes condensed, allusive, conversational, or poetic. It is the visual that conveys the story, use, or reason for consumption…. The assumption is that the audience is capable of very complex visual decoding; that it can construct an understanding of an ad simply from a montage of visual signs.

The tendency to manipulate increasingly sophisticated ways of saying as little as possible is no accident. It derives from the fact that, to quote Ogilvy, “so many products are not different from their competitors.” As George Lois, chairman of Lois Pitts Gershon Pon/GGK, told 60 Minutes in 1981,

I’ve never worked on a product that was better than another. They hardly don’t [sic] exist. So what I have to do is create an imagery about that product…. Advertising to me is poison gas. I put a commercial on the air, I spray it and I make people fall down. I make people say “I want that product.” Not because the product is so much more wonderful than another product, but because they want to be involved in buying that product, they want to be involved in owning it.

Advertising, that is, entertains us.10 Or does it? Even Ogilvy, O’Toole, and Mass admit that many ads are boring, and Lois, long an enfant terrible of the industry, is even more emphatic on that point. For the sake of argument, we might put this admission aside. We might also assume that “good advertising kills a bad product,” as advertising people believe, arguing that consumers know the difference between good and bad products and act accordingly, which is possible. Finally, we could concur with the experts that advertising no longer creates needs out of thin air, but only influences the market shares of competing products.

Even granting these points, “good advertising” can be, and is, used to conceal the essential identity of many competing products. It inhibits price competition. By rewarding persuasiveness rather than efficiency, it makes the market a less rational allocator of resources. You may think that perfect markets are not desirable, but each kind of interference in the market has to be judged on its own merits.

Madison Avenue cannot afford to claim that its efforts have no effect at all, and it does not attempt to claim—outside of its ads, of course—that most products are really different. It implicitly acknowledges that successful advertising dampens price competition. The industry points in exculpation to another issue altogether: economies of scale. Its defense is that advertising, to quote O’Toole in The Trouble With Advertising, helps us enjoy “things that many of us would not be able to afford were it not for the economies brought about by mass distribution through mass communication.”

Advertising may well promote such economies of scale. But although economies of scale lower the cost of production, they do not necessarily lower the cost to the final consumer. Remember that advertising tends to diminish price competition. Long ago, Marshall noted that the United States had the world’s lowest wholesale prices and highest retail prices.11

Advertising does at least give the free press a source of funds that is independent of the government. It cuts the cover prices of newspapers and magazines, and gives us free TV and radio. Of course, the cost of the advertising that pays for these good things is included in all other products, so that the money you save when you buy newspapers and magazines you pay out when you buy anything else.

Advertising provides almost 100 percent of the revenues of television and radio stations, 75 percent of the revenues of newspapers, and between 60 and 100 percent of the revenues of magazines. This does indeed give advertisers much editorial influence,12 however indirect. Editorial influence is not, however, the heart of advertising’s impact on the mass media, which it shapes instead by shaping the way the press and television define their own markets. Special-interest and trade magazines have become more numerous recently because they present many advertisers with a more effective way of reaching prospects than general-interest publications do.

The similarity among many competing products is the ethical, as well as the economic, crux of the industry. The ethical consequence is what Schudson, in his fine book, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, calls the “persistent, underlying bad faith” of much American advertising.

At least one prominent advertising man proposes, as we shall see, to eliminate truth as the standard for visual media, and thus advertising. Ogilvy, O’Toole, and Mass, I suspect, are no more attracted to that doctrine than I am. Ogilvy, in particular, claims that factual advertising “always sells better than empty advertising.”

Yet some of Ogilvy’s own work has not been terribly factual. No one can complain about the famous ad whose headline read, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” That claim—virtually a direct quote from a review—and the arguments in the copy all touched upon legitimate criteria that real customers use in judging real automobiles. We even learn the car’s price.

Ogilvy could tout the product in this purely factual way because it was distinctive. He was not always so fortunate. You may, for example, remember his Hathaway shirt ads, consisting mainly of photographs showing the elegant Baron Wrangel sporting an eye patch. Wrangel was not wearing it for any medical reason; Ogilvy had dreamed up the idea to give these ads “a strong does of ‘story appeal’ [that] would make readers stop and take notice.”13 In other words, the patch was calculated to make them speculate about the adventures, presumably heroic, that had evidently cost Wrangel his eye. The copy was often funny and interesting—the ad I am looking at as I write these words told a nice little story about an unusual striped tartan—but rarely gave any real reason for buying Hathaway shirts. In due course, moreover, Wrangel’s countenance became so famous that the company’s advertisements could dispense not only with copy but also with the name of the product. Less factual ads would be hard to imagine.

If Ogilvy at times failed the test of factuality, many of his rivals have never attempted to meet it. He himself admits that after six months of looking at car ads, “all I found was fatuous slogans and flatulent generalities.” Was this, as he thinks, a mistake? No. Facts can only sell a product that is distinctive, like a Rolls Royce, or good, like Japanese consumer electronics, or cheap, like vegetables in season. Should it be any of these things, it usually sells itself, and the ad is a mere conduit of information. If the owner of a brand-new luxury car were prepared, let’s say, to sell it for $5,000 and you wanted one, the form of the message would hardly matter, so long as it was clear. The form only becomes important to the extent that the message itself is not self-promoting. At this point, the province of information ends and that of persuasion commences. Hence the famous definition of advertising given by John E. Kennedy, a celebrated copy writer: “salesmanship in print.”

Surveying the literature on advertising as well as a great many ads, I find four fundamental techniques for selling undistinctive products. First, you can invent a completely spurious reason for buying it (“The Dentifrice of the Rich”). This approach is currently illegal in some of its manifestations, and arouses too much resistance in others. The second technique is to find some claim that is not unique to the product but has not been appropriated by any of its competitors. Ogilvy himself tells us proudly in his Confessions:

When we [Ogilvy & Mather] advertise Shell, we give the consumer facts, many of which other gasoline marketers could give, but don’t. When we advertise KLM Royal Dutch Airlines we tell travellers about the safety precautions which all airlines take, but fail to mention in their advertisements.14

This kind of advertisement is bad faith pure and simple, whether or not it works. A claim can provide a rational basis for choice among products only if it is unique to one of them. “The ingredient most doctors recommend” may be a reason to buy aspirin, but it is not a reason to buy a particular brand of aspirin. If there are no differences, price ought to be the decisive consideration. After all, the advertising people themselves tell us that it is good to consume, and the less we pay for any commodity, the more we can consume.

The third technique is to make no claims at all or, at any rate, no claims that really pertain to the product. Instead you attempt to create a state of mind—for example, by giving the product an image, as Oglivy did for Hathaway shirts. Jane Maas, who correctly says that she has “never recovered from being a cheer-leader,” innocently presents us with a prime example in Adventures of an Advertising Woman. The Society for Savings Bank in Hartford told Mrs. Maas’s agency it wished to be seen as “innovative.” Do not ask whether the bank really was innovative. The important thing is that it wanted to be so regarded, and would pay to acquire this image. Maas’s agency, angling for the account, concocted what she calls ” ‘a big idea’ that will change their [the bank’s] image” in the desired manner. The idea consisted of a slogan, “Society is on the move!” and a gimmick: a proposal that the bank’s employees wear running shoes in the office for the first month of the campaign. The agency won the account and went to work.

Focus group interviews with many of the bank’s customers and potential customers told us that the theme “Society is on the move” was well received and suggested that the bank was innovative. The running shoe as symbol added an extra dimension. Some people even said that the idea of bankers wearing running shoes made them seem more warm and human.

Another way of avoiding claims while manipulating the prospect’s state of mind is to make ads that “resonate with the experiences a person has in relation to a product,” thus connecting it “to the real lives of human beings.”15 In 1964 Tony Schwartz, the chief theorist of this approach, created Lyndon Johnson’s famous “daisy” commercial, which illustrates what he had in mind.

The commercial—which was broadcast only once, on a night in September 1964—first showed a little girl picking petals off a daisy. She counts, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine….” Then she looks up, and the camera focuses on her eye. The screen goes blank, and a man is heard saying, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one….”

The film now cuts to an atomic explosion, and we hear Mr. Johnson, off-screen, declaring, “We must either love each other, or we must die.” Finally, an announcer urges us to vote for the President. Moments after the commercial appeared, the White House was beseiged by phone calls protesting it. Johnson asked Bill Moyers, then his assistant, what was happening. “You got your point across, that’s what,” Moyers replied.16

Many slice-of-life commercials continue this ignoble tradition.17 Indeed as Leiss, Kline, and Jhally suggest, commercials that fail to make real claims seem to be the wave of the future.

It may be an unhappy future. Advertising cannot consistently tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If we are to settle for something less than the whole truth, so far as it can be known to us, what shall we settle for? “Some of the truth” would be the answer of Ogilvy, O’Toole, and Maas, the three advertising professionals whose books are under review. By this they mean not the amount of truth that can reasonably be compressed into a reasonable amount of space, but the product of efforts to suppress an important fact: the similarity among competing brands. If “some of the truth” in this sense is an acceptable alternative to all of it, the value of truth itself becomes puzzling. It is easier, and perhaps necessary, for the advertising industry to dethrone truth as a value, much as it is often necessary to distort the truth in advertising.

Tony Schwartz has written:

Truth, as a social value, is a product of print. In preliterate tribal cultures, the truth or falsity of a statement is not as important as whether it conforms to the religious and social beliefs of the society. Similarly, during the greater part of the Middle Ages, an imprimatur by the Church superseded any question of truth or validity regarding printed material. As print became a mass medium, literacy emerged as a social value. In order to communicate about the world and communicate this knowledge to others, a person had to be literate. But men soon realized that print information, unlike other sensory data, could be true or false, fiction or nonfiction. Philosophers and men of letters spent a great deal of time and energy on this question, and truth emerged as an important social value.18

Schwartz is talking about correctness, not about truth. What one society or age regards as correct may not be so regarded by others. But in every society and every age, we need, much of the time, to believe that our fellow human beings mean what they say, and it is this need for sincerity that constitutes the essential requirement of truth. It was science that became a social value during the Renaissance. Truth has always been a social value, and it is undermined by the advertisements around us. Society can survive almost any amount of error, but it would collapse if we all thought of one another in the way most of us think of advertising.

This Issue

June 26, 1986