Photo illustration by Oliver Johnson

Then and Now: Taco Bell and the Spiral of Silence

Professor Emeritus (Communication) Michael Bartanen returns to his 1998 piece on Taco Bell advertising.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (French novelist and editor Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890), translated: “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”)

Alphonse Karr’s expression of pessimism, now a part of our common vernacular, pretty much sums up my “then and now” reaction to the short essay, “Taco Bell and the Spiral of Silence.” The thesis of that essay was:

Simply, media is powerful because it is an unchecked force in building and reinforcing the views of the majority and driving out alternative views. In a world where a few concentrated media companies control access to ideas, the chance that people will disagree with, or even be aware of, the inevitable cultural stereotyping of media is growing increasingly small.

“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing” seems counterintuitive in our contemporary world where the internet has completely turned traditional media on it’s head and irrevocably altered how the average person conducts her daily life. If a person has limitless choices for accessing information, how can they not be free to disagree with those messages which stereotype culture, ethnicity and gender? Just go find another web page or information source which matches your views and all will be good.

Were it so simple. The reality is much different, and, I fear, more dystopian. The corrosive effects of advertising in rendering so many people and groups “invisible” is contributing to what many critics believe is the unravelling of American society in recent years.

Let me deconstruct some of the reasons why things have not improved in 20 years. First, advertising is even more prevalent in the contemporary media landscape than it was in the 1990’s when the internet was in its nascence. One study suggested the number of advertisements an average person is exposed to could range between 3,000 and 20,000 per day. This number is not decreasing and is at least 5–10 times the estimated average number of pitches present at the end of World War II. The “new media” depends upon advertising. The economic model of platforms like Google, Twitter, etc. are based on exposing users to advertisements and the more targeted the ad to the consumer, the better, and media is becoming much more sophisticated in zeroing in on the individual preferences of consumers, particularly on social media.

Second, advertising reinforces homogeneity of thought and belief. The point of advertising is the emotional appeal to linking a consumer’s happiness to the acquisition of particular products. Creating as much homogeneity as possible among audiences is key to maximizing advertising expenditures. Psychologist David Carter observes:

Experts in the field call it “referencing”. We reference, either intentionally or otherwise, to lifestyles represented to us (in the media or in real life) that we find attractive. We create a vision of ourselves living this idealized lifestyle, and then behave in ways that help us to realize the vision. The problem with this process is that the lifestyles most often portrayed, and ultimately referenced, are well beyond the means of all but a very small percentage of Americans. We aspire to something that the vast majority of us cannot possibly achieve. And, in this attempt to realize our aspirations, we borrow heavily, feel poorly about ourselves because we just can’t seem to get there, and become addicted to a way of living that gradually and inexorably separates us from the things in life that bring us the most joy

Third, advertising continues to celebrate white, heterosexual, thin and beautiful, middle to upper class American images and values and sublimate everything else. To be sure, there are occasional examples to the contrary. But pick up a magazine, watch a television show, reference an add on Facebook and you are much more likely to see the models used in the ad and the content to be very celebratory of a world view of what used to be described politically as “middle America’ or “small town values.”

Fourth, Noelle-Newman’s “Spiral of Silence” theory has not be overcome by social media usage. A number of studies confirm the fear that even on-line, people are much more likely to express their opinion when they perceive their views match those of others in the conversation. So hoping that the almost innumerable opportunities for creating conversation and genuine dialogue on the web is simply not happening. There continues to be as much discouragement of disagreement about issues and the inevitable reinforcement of the “right” point of view in the digital age as there was in the television and print age.

The discerning reader may already have their hackles up that I described this as part of a “dystopian” world. Let me end by justifying that claim (whether or not it is over-the-top).

Advertising is corrosive to the environmental and social fabric. A wag once observed, “Advertising gets us to buy things we don’t need with money we ain’t got.” Some of the blame for climate change has to be laid at our feet as consumers. We pretend like we aren’t affected by advertising when the evidence is clearly to the contrary. It is easy to blame fossil fuel usage for climate change, less comfortable to look ourselves in the eye when we are buying goods not essential to our well-being because we are influenced by the ubiquity of advertising.

A gossamer world where happiness is measured only through the lens of white, middle-class, thin and beautiful, American people will ultimately blow up (literally and figuratively) in our faces.

A gossamer world where happiness is measured only through the lens of white, middle-class, thin and beautiful, American people will ultimately blow up (literally and figuratively) in our faces. Our inability to diversify in our understanding and appreciation of the “other” in all its forms further threatens our ability, in the United States, to fulfill the hopes of the nation’s founders (who themselves were flawed human beings). Racial tension, push back against LBGTQ people, Islamophobia, gated communities, and growing risk of war in many parts of the world can only be addressed when we are able to look ourselves in the mirror and take ownership of our role in perpetuating society — one which is so wrapped up in believing that advertising is the fuel of the economic machine that we miss the more fundamental question of what kind of world we will leave to future generations.

When a person is invisible in the media, they are rendered invisible in the minds of the homogenous majority. When they are invisible to the homogeneous majority, their needs, values, hopes and fears are scorned and rejected. All the acts of defiance, like kneeling at football games and attending protest events and retweeting smarmy political observations, will not wash away that terrible reality and its disturbing implications for our future and the future of future generations.

Oh, and if you’re interested, the original Taco Bell ads can still be found on Youtube.