Edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. Faber & Faber, 336 pp, $22.50, paperback
The jacket copy for Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture positions it as a sort of bastard child of irreverent alt-culture rag Vice and eggheaded antiglobalization bible No Logo. Any reader purchasing the book based on this claim will likely feel bamboozled: there’s nary a trace of Vice’s self-indulgent snark in this collection of essays compiled from the now-defunct Stay Free! magazine (“the American Adbusters”), while claims to match No Logo’s ability to synthesize academic research with the Zeitgeist are wishful thinking.
But once past the marketing spin (perhaps an early introduction to the idea that advertising is deceptive), you can appreciate the book for what it is: an intelligent little volume likely to elicit quiet chuckles and the occasional incredulously cocked eyebrow from the second-year university students who may find it on the reading list for their media-studies or consumer-psychology classes.
Ad Nauseam begins with a history of advertising that wends its way to the present, to examine how marketers now shape our day-to-day lives. Nestled among treatises on Coca-Cola’s nefarious plot to wipe out free water in restaurants and on how advertisers have harnessed the irony of the “savvy” modern consumer through winking self-mockery, there are less intellectually rigorous, more entertaining features, such as David Cross’s tale of visiting the Nike store, as well as Onion contributor Joe Garden’s account of how he tried to sell his own DNA on eBay.
For anyone who’s read much about consumerism, there’s not a lot of new ground covered here—unsurprising, perhaps, since many of the book’s articles date back to the mid ’90s. The theme throughout is this: what makes advertising so powerful is its slippery method of using suggestive imagery instead of intellectual argument to associate products with positive emotions. Whether the ad is for cars, cologne, or hamburgers, what’s really being sold is happiness, popularity, or sex.
And that may be Ad Nauseam’s biggest weakness in its struggle to sell anticonsumerism: where Adbusters subverts advertising’s tactics, using ominous or conflicting images to make consumption feel bad, Ad Nauseam tries to make us think.