I can remember a time when no lawyer would advertise his services. It was considered unprofessional to do so. I think it may also have been forbidden by the American Bar Association’s Code of Conduct at the time. Now lawyers advertise. Some thrive on offering lawsuits related to automobile accidents and medical malpractice. They can win you a big, fat settlement for your personal injury, lost work time, and mental suffering.

I can remember a time when no doctor or hospital would advertise their services. It was considered unprofessional and unethical to do so. Theirs was a calling and a public trust, they thought. Now doctors and hospitals advertise. Some make extravagant claims about the cures they provide. You learn not to believe those claims.

I can remember a time when advertising was all about selling a product or service. Now many ads, maybe most, are about image building. They try to convince us that corporations or other organizations are public-serving and even moral. BP, Exxon, Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Bank of America . . . all want us to believe them and trust them and consider them our friends. They are people like ourselves and wonderful people at that. Many times the appearance and frequency of these ads coincides with news of their lawbreaking and other abuses. These ads are sometimes referred to as “damage control” or “reputation maintenance.”

Many ads are not about selling something in the marketplace, they’re about creating markets. They speak of threats to our security and thus our urgent need to build the next generation of advanced warfighting machines. Not that any one of us is in the market for a jet fighter, you see. The ads are seeking to build up public insecurity and readiness to approve when the politicians spend billions of our tax dollars feeding the military-industrial complex. Perhaps I hear more of these ads because of living in the Washington D.C. area where they are doubtless intended to influence spending authorizations. The ads are so successful that virtually anything a defense contractor claims we need to build gets favorable treatment.

I can remember a time when ads politely refrained from references to the competition, at least by name. Certainly, if you were Pepsi, you promoted your cola as the best in the business. But you did not accuse Coke of being unsafe, unhealthy, unprincipled, or any other negative. If you were Ford you promoted your products and described their wonders, but you didn’t speak of Chevrolet, much less attack it.

As all of us are aware, we now have a type of advertising whose only purpose is to paint someone or something in a bad light. We call it negative advertising. I’m not sure if the politicians started it, but they have certainly raised it to a new level. Actually, let me say lowered it to new levels. The majority of negative political ads depend on distortions and often outright lies and fabrications. The current presidential campaign may well see two billion dollars spent on political campaigns, with much of that spent on negative advertising.

This idea seems to have spread. Just the other day, I heard a type of negative ad I hadn’t heard before. A health insurer I never heard of was attacking my own health insurer. The ad said the are poorly run and they treat people lousy. It said their customer service is bad. Now since this was my own health insurer, I happen to agree that all these charges are true. I also believe that the same is true of all health insurers, as I have had the same experience with quite a number of them. So, as my mother would have put it, “the pot was calling the kettle black.”

I’ll resist the temptation to diverge into a discussion of our health care industry. Another time.

But I’m wondering where we are headed with the increase in negative advertising. Will we see hospitals attacking the safety and service of other hospitals? Will churches start running ads about the infidels in other faiths? Will divorcing wives and husbands run negative ads exposing the flaws of their former spouses? Will rival charities expose each other’s dirty laundry to public view? Will banks start spying on each other and running ads that expose the risks of investing with other banks?

Or might we, the watching/listening public, rise up and say that enough is enough. And might it be recognized that those who diminish others diminish themselves in the process.

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