American advertising nation of liesMy wife noticed a short article in Scientific American magazine about how the American Medical Association is now officially advocating a ban on direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs. My first thought was, “It’s about damn time!

At the risk of sounding like my parents did when they were my age, I can remember when there weren’t any ads for prescription drugs, nor were there ads for lawyers getting rich by filing lawsuits against the very same prescription drugs.

According to the Scientific American article, “The U.S. is one of only two countries that allow direct-to-consumer ads from pharmaceutical companies.” A clear demonstration of the fact that the ads themselves are basically a glittering tissue of lies is that the required “fine print” on each ad is never displayed large enough or long enough to read. I have long believed that a very simple fix would be to force advertisers to display these required disclaimers so that we can actually read them.

Advertisers have learned that being obnoxious doesn’t stop ads from being successful. A breakthrough technique was pioneered by a patent drug pusher. Remember this ad from 2006?

“HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.
HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.
HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.”

The drumming repetition, sometimes a dozen times in an hour, made you feel like the CIA was trying to break your will. The company deliberately decided not to include any claim that the drug did anything, because it didn’t. The product is primarily wax, and James Randi called it a “major medical swindle.” Today, lots of advertisers repeat the same ad back to back. It’s obnoxious, but it works to make money.

It’s worth mentioning that a commercial break was only a minute long back in the good old days, and television was free. Today, I’ve counted as many as a dozen individual ads in a commercial break that goes on for about five minutes. And television costs you at least 50 bucks a month. This is progress?

Public television and radio used to be an ad-free oasis in a desert of the hot wind of advertising. That was before politicians, elected by huge clots of campaign money that mainly goes into the pockets of the media, decided that public support of ad-free media was a bad idea. Now, public media limps along with frequent beg-a-thons and mini-ads of their own. At least they don’t go on for five minutes. It might be my imagination, but the ads on public media are displayed in a way that makes me think the stations are a little bit embarrassed to be forced to be shills for corporate money.

Ads are everywhere. My view while driving is assaulted by billboards. Not content with just one insult per billboard, they now swap half a dozen electronically in places where I’m an audience held captive by a stoplight. And if medical care didn’t cost enough already, the hospital in St. George has an electronic billboard that we paid for with our medical bills, and the city of St. George has another at the intersection of St. George Boulevard and Bluff.

American advertising nation of lies
1874 Salt Lake Tribune

I’m continually impressed by ingenuity of advertisers in finding new ways to put ads in front of us. The last time I went to Wal-Mart, the store had ads wrapped around the guard poles in front of the doors. There are ads adorning the shopping carts. Your cash register receipt has ads on it. In some stores, you get as many as three separate slips of paper so that they can push more ads at you.

Ads have always been with us. You can browse issues of the Salt Lake Tribune from the 1800s and see lots of them, but today it seems like the roles have been reversed. In 1874, the content at the Salt Lake Tribune was the focus. Today, the ads are.

The age of modern advertising began when cynical and greedy tobacco sellers decided to make tobacco addiction their path to wealth. The “Father of Spin,” Edward Bernays created ad campaigns that trapped generations of Americans in tobacco addiction. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels relied heavily on the work of Bernays in turning Hitler into a national god. A revealing fact about Bernays is that he refused to allow tobacco in his own home.

American advertising nation of lies
Image: Silberio77 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Bernays and his successors didn’t just create generations of tobacco addicts. Bernays himself was enlisted by the United Fruit Company and the U.S. government to facilitate the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala. (It has always been a small pleasure to me to know that the CEO of United Fruit committed suicide by jumping out of the window of his forty-fourth floor office in the Pan Am Building in Manhattan when his $2.5 million bribe of the president of Honduras was about to be revealed.)

The U.S. is undoubtedly where the science of mass indoctrination is most deeply embedded, and it has ripened into the rotten fruit of the multi-year presidential campaigns we must now endure. Trump has graduated from lying to us to actually bragging about how he can lead his followers around by their noses. In a campaign event in Iowa on Jan. 23, he told the whole audience that, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” So far, he seems to be right. (About that.) In response, Ted Cruz said, “I can say I have no intention of shooting anybody in this campaign.” Is he lying about that? Does it matter anymore?

It’s somehow appropriate that the most insightful quote I can think of is a fictional quote from a cartoon character talking about another subject. In 1971, Walt Kelly had his cartoon character Pogo say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Amen, Pogo!



  1. A very sound article Mr. Mabbutt.
    Let me inject the fact that a typical lawyer is Taught How to make a bundle by simply analyzing that fine print at the bottom of a ad that we can’t read for omissions ( such as ‘may’, etc.). Then they advertise for class action lawsuits for the good of the people. Their cut? $$$$$$$ of course.
    The system is rigged for snake oil selling lawyers and politicians alike.
    Advertisers play a big role as you point out. i,e., ‘If you like your current healthcare,
    You ‘MAY’ keep it’ (pay no attention to the small print).

  2. Thanks for the thanks.
    Advertising is a pernicious cancer that has metastasized into our civilization in so many destructive ways. And like a cancer, don’t expect any easy or quick answers.
    For example …
    Facebook just announced earnings on Wednesday. They were WAY up and all of the television anchors were just bubbling with excitement about it. From the New York Times …
    “The company said sales in the fourth quarter rose 52 percent from a year ago, to $5.84 billion, while profit increased to $1.56 billion, more than doubling from $701 million a year ago. For the full year, the company reported $3.69 billion in profit on $17.93 billion in revenue, an increase of 44 percent from 2014.”
    Where did that $1.56 billion come from? it didn’t materialize out of thin air. It came from you and me. And we really don’t have any choice about whether to pay it or not. Companies selling everything from beer to toothpaste collected it from us and gave it to Facebook. It’s the perfect tax … collected smoothly and efficiently from all of us a penny here and a penny there.
    And where does the money go? It repairs no bridges? It does not feed the hungry or succor the sick. It buys yahcts and estates in Switzerland and political influence.
    You might be thinking, “But Zuckergberg just published a letter saying he would give away 99% of his fortune!!”
    More advertising lies.
    The couple is not donating their money to charity, but in fact shuffling it into their own limited liability company (LLC)—the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
    While this venture will allow the couple to donate to charity, they will not be required to do so, and they can also invest in private companies. What’s more, they can use cash from the fund to pay lobbyists and donate to politicians. Under this framework, Zuckerberg and Chan will have the power to transfer ownership of their massive stock in Facebook without paying a penny in capital gains taxes.
    “This generosity is also incredibly tax efficient,” Forbes contributor Robert Wood noted on Tuesday. “Why donate stock? With stock, the donor gets a charitable contribution deduction based on the fair market value of the shares. Value and basis are different things, which can mean enormous tax advantages.”
    It this was something the government was doing, there would be revolution in the streets about it. But the advertisers have done the lie hat trick. They lie to get us to buy things. They lie about the lies. And the lie about what is happening to us.

    • Mad Butt, Of course you would be against anything that sounds of free enterprise…I suppose in your ideal communist country you would ban all advertising.

      As you say ” A clear demonstration of the fact that the ads themselves are basically a glittering tissue of lies is that the required “fine print” on each ad is never displayed large enough or long enough to read. I have long believed that a very simple fix would be to force advertisers to display these required disclaimers so that we can actually read them.”

      The fact is, that if you actually paid attention you would hear those disclaimers stated in the content of the article (the ad). but of course you are too busy making comments that are nor only irrelevant, but often ludicrous. like this one!

      Perhaps your ill advised arguments are based on the gray matter you have damaged from all those years smoking dope?

      • Jack … So good to have my favorite dartboard back again. I note that the claims in your message are completely unsupported by any documentation — as usual. Anybody who reads the first few words of a TV ad that can be seen in the one or two seconds that the fine print is on the screen can see that your claim is completely false. But just to nail the point home, here’s an example from the website:
        In this example, a loan company tells only part of the story. You can view the TV ad at As truthinadvertising points out:
        “CashCall tells us that we can “borrow $1,000 or $5,000 in as fast as a day.” True, but the loan comes with a ginormous annual interest rate. The fine print that flashes up on the screen explains that the company will give you an instant loan of $2,600, but that the loan comes with a whopping 99.25% APR!”
        Do they teach this kind of careful research at your Juris Doctor school, Bernaden University?

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