10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Evils of Advertising


In celebration of the release of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture

, we talked to editors Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky, best known for their contributions to Stay Free!, the magazine and blog that pour haterade on America’s love affair with advertising. We came away with ten salient nuggets, including the duo’s current picks for dumbest ads, and why they just aren’t that into Mad Men.

1. Stay Free! started in McLaren’s college days at UNC as an indie music zine, and yes, it’s named after the maxi pads. McLaren decided to refocus on critiques of consumer culture when she heard about a particularly egregious use of advertising: Girl Scouts were selling space on their sashes (previously reserved for wholesome, ad-free merit badges!) for ad money.

2. McLaren and Torchinsky think using Volkswagens as a standard of measurement is a sign of the apocalypse. Have you not heard of this particular metric? Trust us, it’s out there: one of the essays McLaren and Torchinsky included in Ad Nauseam enumerates dozens of examples of everyone from scientists — trained in the scientific method and significant figures and all that! — to layfolk describing objects as “about the size of a VW bug.” A few such objects include: a 720 pig, debris from the Mir space station, and a computer disc drive circa 1979.

3. Their current pick for dumbest ad campaign goes to Geico:

Actually, it’s not so much one particular ad as it is the whole insurance industry. Torchinsky points out that because of state insurance requirements, often the only way insurance companies can one-up each other is through pricing, which has given way to an endless series of ads touting how “cheap” one brand or another of insurance is.

4. Oh, and for good measure, they don’t like this ad either:

5. They don’t object to cleverness or good design; it’s disingenuous ads that get them. Pepsi’s appropriation of the Obama effect in its new logo? Not cool. Similarly, McLaren has bemoaned the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty in the past for its false corporate sanctimoniousness; Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that produces Axe, the go-to body spray for sleaze balls and delinquents the world over.

6. They think Mad Men is overrated. Maybe critiquing so many ads has made them cynical, because McLaren and Torchinsky just aren’t into the stylish drama. Whenever she’s watching it, McLaren finds herself wondering, well, why. Torchinsky concedes the appeal of a stylish, well-lit where characters drink all day, but also thinks Mad Men is ultimately another soap opera.

7. McLaren is fascinated by subliminal advertising. She traces the phenomenon partly back to the craze ignited by Subliminal Seduction, a 1973 book by Canadian professor Wilson Bryan Key. Among Key’s claims was that the word “sex” and other unseemly words and pictures were hidden in almost all everyday commercials. And here we thought it was just that one scene in The Lion King.

8. A few years ago, the Stay Free!-ers put on an exhibition called “Illegal Art.” The featured works came from artists who were being sued (or threatened with legal action) by companies like Starbucks for copyright infringement.

9. Stay Free! also runs a monthly lecture series in Brooklyn called Adult Education. The July 7 lecture-cum-book-party will feature a series of discussions by McLaren, Torchinsky and others on several ad-centric topics from Ad Nauseam.

10. Their book struck us as what lecture notes for an introductory communication class taught by Jon Stewart might look like. It’s sort of like a textbook, but one with contributions from David Cross, Rob Walker, Leslie Savan, among others. There are also pictures, including a very useful chart on page 32 called “The Sea Monkey Effect,” which you’ll have to check out for yourself.