Ex-Merry Prankster/Grateful Dead Promoter/high flying ad exec, Jerry Mander's odyssey encompassed all loftiest moments of the sixties In the course of his extensive pro bono ad campaigns, he discovered TV did not work nearly as well for the good guys as it did for the black hats The year he took off to meditate on this koan gave the world Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, the greatest (and still unrebutted) indictment of the medium ever produced. He then co-founded the Public Media Center with radical prodigy Herb Chao Gunther as the counterculture's seditiously ethical answer to Madison Ave. Conducted a decade ago, this interview covers Jerry's early career and will be followed by an update on his current career as a Big Body scourge from his eminent vantages at the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the International Forum on Globalization, and an eloquent over-heated Smith Corona.
Jerry Mander: I don't think that the '60's generation has disappeared. You know, they're still visible. They look a little different. I mean there are a lot of examples of those who've gone on to become stock brokers and so on. But I think, for the most part, people who were active then still remain involved now. That's my impression. I don't go with the idea that they all disappeared into their corporate offices. I don't see that among the people that I knew then. They're still active in some way. I am.OK, but I mean as a bright and bent rebel of the time, how did you get into advertising in the first place?
JM: Well, I wasn't a rebel when I got into advertising. I became a rebel through advertising. It was by being in advertising and realizing what advertising does in the system. I mean I can't explain why I, unblike other advertising men, saw that as a big problem. But I became involved using those techniques to help, you know, environmental groups and anti-war groups and civil rights groups, using advertising as a technique to help them. Advertising and also public relations work. So using that medium is what awoke me in many ways to the power of the medium and the power to use it in the reverse, against the system as well. Although the main problem is that those who are in power have so much more power and more money than those who are trying to resist it. And so we're always up against a heavy ratio, and the fact the opposite side has more power than we do.So what is the Public Media Center?
JM: The Public Media Center is a non-profit advertising agency in San Fransico. It has 16 employees, almost all of whom are former advertising people who have left the commercial world to engage in service to organizations working in the public interest in our view. We're the only one of its kind in the world as far as we know. We work only for other non-profits such as Friends of the Earth, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action, anti-Contra funding, anti-U.S. investment in South Africa, Greenpeace - a lot of environmental organizations. Well, that's a summary.What's your relationship to them?
JM: I'm what's called a Senior Fellow. I was the founder of it and I am given a special relationship in the place in that I make my own tasks. Just because I'm the only one over 50, I get to do what I want pretty much. The Executive Director is a young Chinese man who was born in China actually, and still has quite a lot of Chinese tradition in him, and he says he's honoring his elders when he has me around. [laughs]You are perhaps best known in Japan as TV's ultimate critic. For those who have not yet read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television could you briefly summarize the original gospels?
JM: Well, one of the points of the book is that you really can't summarize complex information. And that television is a medium of summary or reductionism - it reduces everything to slogans. And that's one criticism of it, that it requires everything to be packaged and reduced and announced in a slogan-type form.If you were to write it over again at this moment, or update it, has anything changed in your mind in the intervening years?
But let me say this: the book is not really four arguments, it's really hundreds of arguments broken down into four categories. And the categories have to do with a variety of effects that are not normally discussed. Most criticisms of television have to do with the program content. People say if there is less violence on television or less sexism on television, or less this or less that, television would be better. If there were more programs about this or more programs about that, then we'd have "good television".
My own feeling is that that is true - that it's very important to improve the program content - but that television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature. It flattens perception so that information, which you need a fair amount of complexity to understand it as you would get from reading, this information is flattened down to a very reduced form on television. And the medium has inherent qualities which cause it to be that way.
And the book is really about television considered from a holistic point of view, from a biological point of view - perceptual, environmental, political, social, experiential, as well as the concrete problems of whether a program is silly or not. But other people deal with that very well. My job was to talk about television from many of these other dimensions which are not usually discussed.
JM: No, nothing has changed. I think, if anything I see television as more negative now than I did before. It's gained power in that time. It's done that not so much here in Japan or in the United States. The power that it has gained is that it applies itself all over the world in the same way. Satellite communications, for example, which came along and were celebrated as something which was going to democratize information elsewhere in the world, has turned out to homogenize knowledge and experience and culture.Any upside to this? I mean if it's bad and it's getting worse...
Television is being used as an instrument to destroy indigenous culture all over the world. Places in Indonesia and South America and the Arctic Circle and the jungles of South America where there aren't even any roads, there are people sitting around in front of their grass houses or next to their dog teams in the ice and they're watching Dallas! And they're turning into Americans. They're being hit with a thousand commercials. Their culture is not surviving that.
Television is really an instrument of cloning in the world. It's taking variety, diverse mentalities and diverse cultures and homogenizing them into the American, or at least the Western industrialized nations' format. So it's very dangerous. It's Orwellian in its implications when used in underdeveloped areas of the world. And its power has been magnified as a result. Almost 70% of the world now has television and, they are being made over into consumers...Their indigenous cultures are being sacrificed. They're being made into workers that will fit into the system and, hopefully, someday consumers. The World Bank is in there giving them the money to make it all work. The idea is to make people compatible with the dominant economic system. And that's what's taking place.
JM: Well, there are certain contexts where television has had a progressive result. Sometimes you take a tradition which is a negative tradition and you show another way of being and people learn the other way of being and they make some changes. Or you show a problem to another group of people and changes result from that. The civil rights movement in the United States was definitely helped by television. I could think of some other things - the anti-war movement was helped. Although it's got to be remembered that television basically caused the Vietnam War in many ways. It enabled President Johnson and the Pentagon to inform the public that something was going on which was not going on and they used it with great effect at the beginning. But then when television got tired of that war they turned against it and it got us back out of the war. So, television has had certain progressive results. I think there are certain situations among oprressed people where television's entry with images of another part of the world can be helpful.The Public Media Center concentrates most of its energy in print media. Is that an ideological or an economic decision?
Curiously even though my case is for the elimination of television, I don't make a completely negative case for television. There are plenty of things positive about television. The reason I speak for the elimination of it is that on balance when you consider all its effects, it's so much more negative than positive and it doesn't contribute anything that other media could not contribute.
Simultaneity is provided by radio. It's also a less expensive, easier medium for people to use, easier for people to receive. If something is happening in Borneo that you must know right now, radio is much more likely to get it than television. Print media is much better for complexity and detail and depth and historical context. And movies are better for a visual medium and have far more impact. So, other media do what television does except better. The only thing that television does that other media do not do is that it goes into the homes of an entire nation night after night after night . It puts images into everyone's heads at the same time and it's controlled by a very small number of people. So it's an improvement for the controllers of the medium. It's not an improvement in information flow. So, it can do good things but it's unlikely to do good things and on balance it's going to do more harm than good.
JM: Only in my case is it ideological. Among all the other people it's practical because most of the clients we deal with don't have the resources. And it's not a rule. In other words, we do do some television. I don't do it, but other people in the organization do it. And for the most part the reason we don't do it is very, very practical. We are usually dealing with very small budget advertisers who have collected a bunch of money and have one shot to make their story. And we speak of always going for the 'hole in one', you know, the golf expression. And if you're going to be on television you need an enormous amount of money for production as well as the constant repetition television requires.Looking around the world right now, what do you think are the best strategies for bringing change in the next decade?
And also the kind of messages you can use in advertising on television are very, very reduced. You know, thirty seconds. What can you say, for example, about the history of the United States' involvement in South Africa in that time. I mean, how can you really explain that? All you could say is, "U.S. out of South Africa!" That is basically all you could say. Or you could show them images of violence. But you do something in such a reduced form that you don't gain real understanding. And what most of our clients want is commitment and real engagement in the issue. And therefore it takes a lot more detail and explanation. Most of them have not been in the news. On some of these environmental battles, for example, often they're about things the public knows nothing about at all. So you have to explain the whole issue. And you have to create arguments that counter the arguments of the people that want to "develop" some forest or something. You have to explain why that's bad economically, environmentally, socially, and so on. You can't do it in that reduced format. And anyway you don't have the money to repeat your message a thousand times which you'd have to to reach the public.
JM: Well, unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with the media, because the world has become so mediated. But I do not believe that's the main way people ought to organize, in terms of the media. Because if they do that then you don't need an organization at all. And the main thing is to have an organization. By that I mean if you organize your activities solely in terms of what will help get you into the media, then pretty soon you are "unrooted". And if you're unrooted, all you are is another media gladiator with no movement behind you. The most important thing is to have solid understanding and engagement on the part of a large number of people, people who are then engaged, and ready to fight a battle.
As to a strategy, you're asking a question too big for me. I don't know how to create a worldwide strategy that will change world politics. I think there are some movements now that can only really be understood as fundamental consciousness movements. I mean you have movements like the Greens in Germany. I don't know if you have that kind of activity here in Japan. ( Not really. )
There's a movement in the United States called "Bio-regionalism" and there's also a Green Movement in the United States. And I think the movement among Native Peoples is also very unifying in many ways, in that they are all speaking about the fundamental nature of the problem. And that problem is the assumptions of industrial society as to how life ought to be engaged in and how the whole world ought to turn out. And it basically looks something like San Jose, California. And that this has terrible implications for native people who are living in the places where the resources still are, and who get killed and moved in order to get at those resources.
It has incredible implications for environmentalists who realize the pollution and destruction caused by too much economic growth on the planet. It has implications for economic justice fighters in various forms because it means that the people who cream off the best are the corporate powers who control the process, and the bankers, and so on. It has implications for anti-war people because usually these activities are taking place in the face of quite a bit of resistance and causing conflicts. The whole world is constantly on the edge of war over just the oil question. So I think it's important to take the phrase that we use in the United States "To think globally and act locally." And I think that is a very good way of perceiving it. You have to keep the big picture in your mind, but take on the struggle that you can affect in some way.
- End -
Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak
"The Case Against the Global Economy
And for a Turn Toward the Local"
(Amazon.com reviews & order info)
OR A COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW
OF HIS CLASSIC