The Dilemma of Advertising—When a Time’s Preeminent Art Form Undermines Truth

Since releasing my comprehensive work on Creative Systems Theory several months back, I have received several requests to write short pieces on topics that I touched on in the book. One topic that I’ve written about off and on over my life touches on a dynamic that most people would not think of as a concern. It has to do with what today is our time’s dominant art form. Hands down, that is advertising. 

I’m sure part of the reason that I find this observation concerning has to do with my background. Before I became a psychiatrist, I was a sculptor. And I’ve played music through much of my life. In addition, the body of original conceptual work that defines much of my life’s contribution, Creative Systems Theory, has its roots in how human cognition is organized to drive and support our toolmaking, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—natures. 

But my level of concern also comes from an appreciation for how art historically has functioned as an indicator of where we reside in culture’s story and just what is being asked of us. Think of how the art of the Renaissance presaged the later advances of the Modern Age. Creative Systems Theory proposes that the purpose of art is to highlight new ways of seeing the world. Put in Creative Systems Theory terms, art gives voice to just emerging capacities in the “psyche of culture.” Artistic expression tells us about what is becoming true and what being aligned with the kind of truth that can produce the experience of meaning going forward will require of us. 

Just what do I mean when I claim that advertising represents our times’s dominant  art form? If by art we mean activities that draw on aspects of intelligence that underly creative expression—the imaginal, the emotional, body sensibilities—certainly advertising predominates. And advertising, without question, is the art form on which we spend the most money. It is also that which is most pervasive around us. When businesses speak of their “creative departments,“ they are referring to their marketing departments. 

Is this a problem? Arguably, it is wholly consistent with what I’ve described as art’s purpose. Over the course of culture’s Modern Age, we have come to rely increasingly on material truths. Today we define wealth and progress almost exclusively in terms of economic advancement. Being that advertising’s purpose is to drive economic profits, it is wholly aligned with this way of thinking about significance. 

But there are very much reasons for concern. A first is simply the fact that  Modern Age ways of thinking about significance are serving us less and less well. I’ve written extensively about how our times confront with what I call a Crisis of Purpose—something we see with increasing rates of suicide and depression and with growing social and political  polarization. More and more often, the Modern Age individualist, materialist narrative is failing us. An art form that serves to foster it thus also necessarily fails us. A major theme in my work is how our times are requiring an important further chapter in how we think and act, the “growing up” as a species that Creative Systems Theory calls Cultural Maturity. 

A second concern is more concrete. While there are clear ways that advertising has benefitted us, at the same time its purpose is often almost the opposite of art as I have spoken of it. Rather than a voice for possibility and emergent truth, modern advertising tends to be based on deception and manipulation. In advertising classes, one is counseled to never speak rationally about a product—for the simple reason that reasoned consideration might encourage one not to buy the product. Rather advertising associates fulfillment with things we don’t really need, and often with things that are simply not true. Advertising becomes, in effect, a form of lying. 

A recent study on the proliferation of ads on how much you can save by changing car insurance provides example. It showed that the higher a company’s advertising budgets, the more you were in fact likely to pay. And often the lie is directly harmful. Remember some years back the assertion that “Salems are Springtime fresh” when in fact it was well-known that cigarettes were a major health risk. And we heard the cheery mantra “Coke is It” at the same time rates of diabetes and obesity skyrocketed. As a physician I’m deeply concerned about the growing proliferation of misleading pharmaceutical ads that make the health care provider’s already difficult job much more so and is a major contributor to escalating health care costs. 

Ultimately there is a deeper—and more fundamentally worrying—aspect of advertising’s damaging effect. It has to do with how ads draw on those non-rational, more germinally creative aspects of intelligence, aspects of intelligence that in our times we have often lost touch with. Advertising tends to draw directly on the imagination at a time when deep connection with the imaginal in most people’s life is a faint remnant from childhood. And it implies levels of emotional and bodily fulfillment rarely present in most people’s lives—available to us if we only buy the right product.   

Because ads draw so directly on those more creative parts of ourselves, often we find delight in them. I think of how many people find Super Bowl ads more interesting than the game. But precisely because they tap forgotten aspects of understanding, we should find their influence worrying.—and particularly now as ads drive not just television programing, but also digital media. 

This concern comes into finer focus with an appreciation for the dynamics that give us Cultural Maturity and its new ways of understanding. I’ve written in detail about how the cognitive changes that produce culturally mature perspective involve a new ability to at once more fully step back from and more deeply engage the whole of our cognitive complexity. With regard to intelligence, we find the ability to more directly engage the multiple aspects of intelligence and apply them creatively in our lives. It is this that makes possible the more nuanced kind of understanding—we could say the wisdom—on which our future depends. 

The implications of our letting the aspects of our cognitive mechanisms most needed for a deep sense of meaning in our time be so directly co-opted are huge. We undermine our ability to take the steps forward in understanding on which our future depends. Creative Systems Theory includes the defining role of advertising in modern life as a prime example of what it calls Transitional Absurdity. 

So what do we do? First, we just need to recognize the manipulation and the depth of potential harm. We can then learn to ignore ads, and even choose to not buy products where the lie is pronounced. And there are contexts where legal actions need to be considered—with markedly deceptive and harmful advertising, and particularly with exploitative advertising aimed at children. But most of all we need to learn to more deeply engage and cherish the sensibilities in ourselves that generate creative experience. When we do, advertising ceases to have an effect on us because it so obviously violates the purpose those sensibilities were designed to serve.