Our Culture of Addiction


This article originally appeared in Issue# 54-55

Why This Issue on Drugs Doesn't Cover Crack

"No street-corner crack dealer ever had a better line
than the one Madison Avenue delivers at every commercial break: Buy now! Quick thrills!"

- Barbara Ehrenreich, Ms.

When the Media&Values editorial staff first started thinking and reading about an issue on media and drugs in the middle of 1990, there was no shortage of material. It seemed that every magazine in America had done a cover story on crack houses, "the Colombian connection," and, above all, "the drug war."

Yet as we read, we had a feeling of disquiet. The problem of illegal drugs, with their physical and mental wreckage and accompanying crime, was serious. But it seemed only the tip of the iceberg. While jumping gladly onto the drug war bandwagon, few members of the media seemed to have insights that could explain why drugs had become such a problem. Nor did any of them seem to see themselves as anything but neutral bystanders.

An article by well-known journalist Pete Hamill provided a clue. Why, he pondered, has drug addiction become a severe problem only in the last few decades? Is the problem cyclical, as some say? Or have there been other cultural changes that encourage addictive patterns in society at large?

The answer, to Hamill, is television. Obviously, television is an important cultural element that became prominent over the last 30 to 40 years. Like drugs, television provides what he calls "an unearned high," a rush of vicarious feeling. Its addictive qualities have been pointed out by many experts. And, again, like drug addicts, TV devotees tend to become alienated and isolated from the outside world.

I don't want to reproduce Hamill's whole argument here. You can turn the page and read it for yourself. But it caused us to wonder: Instead of being an innocent and noble reporter, is the media instead a co-participant in society's addiction?

What we see - not only in the media but all around us - is an expectation that life will be easy, simple and exciting, for everybody and at all times. The reality that life is a race, a challenge and at times a struggle has been replaced by demands for immediate fulfillment. Instead of pursuing happiness, we want it to fall in our laps.

Addiction feeds, and feeds on, this fantasy. But addictive behavior comes in many guises. Increasingly, it is obvious that the "problem" with drugs is not drugs, but addiction.

A Subtle Seduction

The way to get a handle on it is not by covering the criminality of crack cocaine but by uncovering the subtle ways tobacco and alcohol advertising entice us to addiction. Although legal (but frequently lethal) tobacco and alcohol provide a valuable case study of how mass media both reflect and shape our world and our worldview.

That's not to say people's desire to buy easy solutions to their problems is new. Nineteenth Century snake oil salesmen sometimes scored huge successes. But today's sellers of dreams aren't bound by the confines of a medicine wagon.

It's no surprise that advertising and the media grew up together. And now that the whiskey drummer beats a society-wide drum and the cigar store Indian has been replaced by the Marlboro man's myth, the advertisers of these products have a huge advantage. Not only can they reach us all, any time of day or night, but we bring an advertising-ready sensibility to their messages. Our familiarity with their images has bred, not contempt, but a dangerous lack of indignation. This is made abundantly clear by our blasé reactions to what is now known as "image marketing," the commonly accepted practice in which companies associate themselves with something culturally worthy, hoping the positive image will rub off.

ADBUSTERS Quarterly, the Canadian environmental and media magazine, helps put advertisers' duplicity into context: "Imagine crack suppliers sponsoring the local ballet or orchestra. The name brand Cocaine plastered over racing cars and the backs of famous athletes. Better yet: heroin suppliers running serious little magazine spots to suggest that the U.S. Bill of Rights really means that advertising of any product, even a lethal one, is legal."

The truth is, today's alcohol and cigarette advertising has direct links to the pioneering efforts of modern advertising's founders in the '20s and '30s. As recounted in Richard Pollay's article "Blowing Away the PR Smokescreen" on page 13, today's Virginia Slim's ads are the direct descendents of early ads that linked cigarette smoking with women's liberation. Examples aimed at other groups are many.

How do they do it? As Jean Kilbourne explains on p. 10, advertising - and alcohol advertising particularly - survives on the creation of myths. When the product has risks, the fairy tales advertisers tell can be a screen for real dangers. Part of our acceptance of these myths undoubtedly lies in the familiarity of the products themselves. Outside the Americas at least, alcohol has been part of human life and culture for thousands of years. The indigenous American herb, tobacco, with its 350,000 annual tobacco-related U.S. death rate (more than 2.7 million worldwide) may be the Native Americans' best revenge for conquest and oppression. But its use in Western culture still goes back centuries.

The risks of tobacco usage weren't well established in the '20s. The perils of alcoholism, on the other hand, were perceived as the kind of moral and physical threat that deserved a constitutional amendment. The poor success of the alcohol ban that it mandated still gives pause to would-be prohibitionists.

While the persistence of human foibles tends to remain the same, much else has changed. One major shift is the pervasiveness of media images in our lives. The media wave that washes over each of us every day tends to carry all before it. We're so accustomed to the culture of addiction surrounding us that we don't pause to take a second look at the misleading messages of alcohol and tobacco advertisers. Awakening to the problem is the first step. But society's remedies shouldn't stop there.

Banning or otherwise restricting advertising for alcohol and especially cigarettes has been recommended by many experts, while others (particularly alcoholic beverage and tobacco companies) question whether such limitations to commercial speech would be constitutional. On page 8, First Amendment expert Steven Shiffrin makes a persuasive case for the constitutionality of a ban or other possible restrictions on cigarette and alcohol advertising. After doing this issue, we think legislation enacting such measures deserves more discussion and action.

In the meantime, other groups are exploring other ways of discouraging "business-as-usual" for the multi-product conglomerates that tobacco companies have become. Marshalling techniques that became familiar in the fight against investment in South Africa, religious groups, pension fund administrators and individuals - including such major investors as Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the City University of New York - are using shareholder challenges, divestiture of tobacco stock and review of advertising practices to put pressure on companies that continue to profit from tobacco sales. The campaign recently expanded to challenge companies that do any business with tobacco conglomerates.

Boycotts are another avenue of protest being explored by some groups. The Media Foundation, publishers of ADBUSTERS Quarterly, called for a Philip Morris boycott, not just of tobacco products, but of selected items from the major food brands the company produces. ADBUSTERS also called for a "dirty dozen" boycott of the 12 largest U.S. magazines (including Time, Newsweek, People and TV Guide) that accept cigarette ads.

Such efforts require careful organization and maintenance, but have often proven effective over time. If nothing else, negative publicity may help speed the eventual demise of the tobacco-based profit center for these companies.

But boycotts, corporate challenges and advertising bans ultimately depend for their effectiveness on breaking the power of media images - the main goal of the media literacy movement. Even before advertising bans pass Congress or boycotts have time to work, everyone who picks up a magazine or turns on a television set can apply the process of what media literacy theorists call "deconstruction" to the alcohol and tobacco ads they see.

The Reflection/Action resource on pages 30-31, is a perfect tool for this purpose. The workshop process that goes along with this issue is another excellent way to recognize and confront the manipulative images that make tobacco and alcohol advertising so effective. Taking a second look at these ads can help them lose their effectiveness forever. An example lies in the ready acceptance of the advertising mindset that creates cartoon characters like Camel's Joe Cool and Bud Light's Spuds MacKenzie. Unless we stop to question their appeal to the children who are too young for the products they advertise, they seem innocuous.

Like most people, I'm hardly impervious to media images. My discovery of Bogart/Bacall and Bette Davis movies probably had a lot to do with my starting smoking as a '60s college student. I quit before my father's death from lung cancer in 1982, but even after that, until I began working on this issue I still took cigarette ads for granted.

I never will again.

Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.