“I Think That Ad is Lying”
from Back To Godhead Magazine #14-02/03, 1979
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Recently a national news magazine ran a full-page ad entitled “I Think That Ad Is Lying.” The text announced, “Most advertisers work very hard to make sure their advertising is completely honest and truthful. But if you ever see an advertisement or commercial that you think takes liberties with the truth or makes questionable claims, there is something you can do about it. Write to the National Advertising Review Board.”
On receiving a complaint, the NARB (which is made up of leading advertisers and business organizations) will go after the advertiser and ask for some substantiation of the claims made. Believe it? We don’t. Anyone who thinks that he is going to stop advertising lies by writing to the NARB is in illusion. Newspaper, magazine, and TV advertising thrives on a lie—the lie that we can attain happiness only by buying more and more material things—and no advertising board has any intention of recanting.
The NARB ad assures us, “Most advertisers work very hard.” That is probably a fact, but it is dubious whether they are working hard “to make sure their advertising is completely honest and truthful.” Rather, they seem to be working hard to create a mirage. For example, on the flip side of the NARB ad we find a full-page ad for Virginia Slims. Here we learn that although seventy years ago a woman smoking a cigarette would have been considered scandalous, now an up-to-date fashion model can hold a Virginia Slim with impunity—implying that by inhaling smoke and nicotine, “You, too, can become a happy, liberated woman.” Women’s liberation aside, the linking of the Slim cigarette with freedom and well-being is a deliberately created illusion. Far from being a symptom of progress, cigarettes are so unwholesome that the government requires that each ad display the statement, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.” And yet the billboards show virile men (including cowboys from imaginary Marlboro country) and photogenic women, all bravely overlooking the government’s warning—and asking us, “Why don’t you overlook it, too?”
Shouldn’t we report this to the NARB? And shouldn’t we also complain that too many liquor firms want us to believe that regularly drinking their product will produce wonderful happiness rather than intoxicated states that may cause our premature death? The same illusion is repeated, with variations, in every ad: “You, too, can be young, beautiful, wealthy, strong, happy—simply by buying our product.” In his 1978 Harvard commencement address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made an acute comment: “Your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?”
And yet, how can we complain to the NARB about this total lie? Their ad actually warns us that they’re not serious about their pledge to go after the cheaters. “If truth,” their ad states, “or accuracy in a national ad or commercial is your concern (not matters of taste or matters of editorial or program content), the advertiser will be asked for substantiation of the claims made.” If the NARB doesn’t want to hear our concern with an ad’s “taste” or “content,” then where is the question of its honesty or truthfulness? What is the point of distinguishing whether a lie is “accurate” or “inaccurate”? Does an “accurate” lie become true? The NARB’s quasi-public-service approach is really more like an attempt to kick us in the face, to insult our intelligence. Perhaps they think our intelligence has already been vanquished by decades of mass exposure to their billboards and commercials.
Advertising has such a stranglehold on the truth that practically speaking, newspapers and magazines exist as vehicles for paid ads or commercials. And that’s why journalists and editors have to keep coming up with those sensational “stories”—just to sell the ads. (For instance, a photo of Hare Krishna devotees is often included in an article about dangerous cults, simply because shaven-headed Krishna monks are easily identifiable as “cultists.” So what if it’s an untruth? It helps get those papers and magazines sold, and that’s what the media are all about.) So our very news media have become simply accomplices in lying.
As many people realize, the happiness of the men and women in the advertisements is an illusion. But as with most other illusions, this does not mean that the real thing doesn’t exist somewhere else. In a mirage on the desert, the animal thinks he sees water, and he runs after the illusion until he dies. Water exists—but not in the mirage. Similarly, there is real happiness, undoubtedly, and real well-being, but we cannot attain it by running after some advertiser’s dreamland where we’re told we’ll be happy by buying Brand X, Y, or Z. In Bhagavad-gita, the ancient guidebook to spiritual well-being, real happiness is described as something not dependent on extravagant material consumption:
The stage of perfection … is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses…. Upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain.
In his commentary on this verse, Srila Prabhupada has written, “As long as the material body exists, one has to meet the demands of the body—namely eating, sleeping, defending, and mating. But a person who is in pure bhakti- yoga, or Krishna consciousness, does not arouse the senses while meeting the demands of the body. Rather, he accepts the necessities of life, making the best use of a bad bargain, and enjoys transcendental happiness in Krishna consciousness.”
Transcendental knowledge is rarely seen in public nowadays, and much of the blame lies with commercial interests that are covering over our most precious possession—spiritual life. But even a mass advertising or propaganda campaign for hedonistic living cannot extinguish man’s original God consciousness. Nor can anyone ever be satisfied simply by more and more material accumulation. So the devotees of Krishna are suggesting that the real path to happiness is the revival of our original God consciousness. And although the age may be sold out to commercial interests, it is never too late for an individual to reject the mass mind control of even the most powerful advertising machinery and turn his individual soul in the direction of the Supreme. There he will find his original state of eternity, bliss, and knowledge.