Elevate Difference

Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture

Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture is an anthology of articles (plus some new material) from ‘90s ad-busting zine Stay Free!. Since I write a zine that deconstructs feminine hygiene advertising, I couldn’t have represented more of their target demographic if I’d tried. So when I saw that it was up for review, I immediately requested it.

I was a little miffed when only a cursory mention of the industry that lent its name to Stay Free! was covered in Ad Nauseam, but I was not disappointed in any other regard. This book is ace. And it’s funny.

In a series of short, sharp essays written over the past fifteen years or so (and the older articles are, revealingly, still very relevant to current marketing trends), the editors and other contributors cleverly debunk, deconstruct and delight in the many ways that advertisers try to put several over on us. There is something for you here whether you are completely new to the topic or have studied it before. Subjects include (but are not limited to) television’s influence on the U.S. legal system, the ins and outs of subliminal advertising, brand loyalty taken to almost unbelievable extremes, and the techniques magazines use to sell ad space by marketing, well, us.

Spoof multiple-choice quizzes at the end of each chapter reveal creepy tidbits you can use to impress your friends. (This worked well for me at the pub last week.) There’s also a brief history of the advertising industry that will catch up anyone new to it, and refreshingly refresh those who've already got the basics down.

The final section is my favorite part—a chronicle of the merry ad-busting japes undertaken by the editors and others, followed by an encouraging word—and a few resources—for any potential japesters out there. Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky acknowledge that although one small prank can’t combat the financial might of major corporations, it can still raise awareness and educate on a small scale, forging personal connections. McLaren continues this with a blog and Brooklyn-based alternative lecture series.

Does this book pass the feminist test? Yep. Historically, most of the advertisers were men, and most of the shoppers they targeted were women. Again and again, Ad Nauseam chronicles in detail and handily exemplifies that old traditions die hard. It’s an excellent tool kit for any feminist, male or female. At $18 in paperback, it's also an expensive toolkit, but its 335 pages are stuffed full of wittily presented stats and examples—all backed up with extensive references and notes, so it is actually very good value for money.

Ad Nauseam would make an accessible companion to a high school or undergraduate module on advertising or media studies, and I’d even go ahead and recommend some of the shorter segments that illustrate each chapter (easy to find on gray background pages throughout the book) for middle school students. Read it all in one sitting like I tried to at first, and your world may be so deconstructed that you can’t put it back together again. As a zine anthology, it’s made for dipping into, and I plan to keep mine on my bathroom bookshelf. (It’s the modern coffee table. You know it is.)

Props to Faber and Faber for allowing Torchinsky to design the cover, which sports a lovingly rendered airsickness bag emblazoned with the book's title on a fetching field of blue. Can a barf bag be beautiful? Scarily, yes. It’s great to know that Torchinsky and his co-editor understand the industry well enough to manipulate it to their advantage, and that they’ve chosen to use their powers for good.

Written by: Chella Quint, October 31st 2009

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