Writing in 1914, Walter Lippmann lamented –
The Eastern sky was ablaze with chewing gum, the northern with tooth-brushes and underwear, the western with whiskey, the southern with petticoats, the whole heavens brilliant with monstrously beautiful women.
Back then, he was complaining about aggressive, intrusive advertising. Had he been alive he would have been baffled by the pictures and fonts literally ricocheting off of every conceivable interface, human or otherwise.
Last year, I was in the Wankhede Stadium (Mumbai) watching a cricket match between India and South Africa. India had played miserably in that match so I had the ‘added’ leisure to make a few observations. Around the stadium, walls and screens were pestered with advertisements. There wasn’t a nook that was left untouched. Even the Trophy had been named after a commercial brand. Television commentary of matches in most sports has been commercially infiltrated. Every aspect of a game has one sponsor or the other.
In my own college, during cultural festivals like Mood Indigo and TechFest etc. , the institute is pestered with billboards and signs meant to persuade students into buying a product. During election campaigns, the commercial ads are the country are replaced by political ones. Well placed, genuinely appealing articles appear in newspapers and cable news as native advertisement with no indication otherwise. Newspapers are littered with advertisements so much so that it appears to share a larger portion of the content than news.
This September, I was in Kota (an educational hub in India) to meet my cousins who are preparing for their exams. In the scorching heat, students were flowing out of the coaching centres wearing T-shirts depicting in sufficiently bold fonts the name of their institute. At every electricity pole, every corner, every billboard had the name of one or the other coaching institution.
Public services have also begun to become targets of corporate sponsorship. In Mumbai, I find the bodies and sometimes of our local trains and metro trains painted with ugly advertisements. The buses are equally well sheathed with corporate blueprints. Some ambulances have started to carry billboards. Even the police vans are not off limits.
Schools and colleges have allowed sponsored educational materials into academic curriculum. Even if these content are of impeccable quality, corporate advertisements are pernicious in classrooms because it encourages people to satisfy their desires while the purpose of education is to reflect critically on them.
The main reason behind such a marketing storm is not just an influx of capitalist market mentality into non-market activities. That would be too disingenuous a dismissal of our own complicity in this cultural shift of dramatic proportions. We have condoned stripping public services of cash, leaving them no choice but to let markets in who are too eager to fund them. Rather then raise the public funds to promote a civic activity, we choose instead to sell/rent our public resources to markets.
The fault lies with us – the citizens.