Commercial speech - advertising - makes up most of what we share as a culture. No one is happy about this, not even the people who make it. They call it clutter; the rest of us call the current glut of advertising by worse names. But, call it what you will, language about products and services has pretty much replaced language about all other subjects.
As the language of commercialism has become louder, the language of high culture has become quieter; it seems to be ending not with a bang but with a whim-per. We all know the funeral refrain: The canon of recognized literary works, the shared vocabulary of known lines, our cultural literacy, the allusions to hundreds of years of 'the best that has been thought and said' has all but disappeared thanks to "a few words from the sponsor".
Ask anyone under the age of fifty to fill in the blank in what was the most famous line in the nineteen-century poetry, Wordsworth's "My heart leaps up when I behold a …..in the sky." Few can do it (it's 'rainbow" in case you are wondering). But ask the same group what's in a Big Mac and you'll hear, "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame-seed bun." It's sad to say that more of us know Morris the cat than William Morris.
Generation X is the first generation to know the world almost entirely through advertising. A famous New Yorker cartoon has a father saying to his son while looking up at a rainbow: 'It isn't advertising anything, dammit!"
In 1915 it was perfectly possible to goes-tire weeks without observing an ad. When your grandparents were growing up in the 1950s, just as television was entering the bloodstream, ads were confined to distinct "pods" and everyone knew where they were. No longer. The average young adult today sees some 5,000 ads each day, in al-most every minute, in almost every place. The only ad-free refuge is sleep and prayer.
As awful as it may seem, when young people around the world are asked what freedom means, most of them say the freedom to buy what you want, when you ant it, and louse it how you want.
On Madison Avenue it is often said that we consume the advertising not the product, that we drink the commercial not the beer, drive the nameplate not the car, smoke the jingle not the cigarette. There is no doubt that such a system is wasteful; de-void of otherworldly concerns, it lives for today and celebrates the body. It certainly encourages recklessness, living beyond one's means, gambling. Consumer culture is always new and improved, always bigger and better, always loud, always without a past and with a perpetually rosy future.
But the idea that advertising creates artificial desires rests on a wistful ignorance of history and human nature, on the hazy, romantic feeling that there existed some halcyon era of noble savages with purely natural needs. Once we are fed and sheltered, our needs are and have always been cultural, not natural. Until there is some other system to codify and satisfy those needs and yearnings, commercialism - and the culture it carries with it - will continue not just to thrive but to triumph.