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Why don't books have advertising?
A letter from a student

All content Copyright © 2006, P. Lutus

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A letter from a student
Paul, In a new blog site created for students here at [ ... ], one of the professors poses the question, "should we allow advertisers into college texts in order to subsidize the cost of these books for students?"

My newswriting professor plays devil's advocate and argues that we should, simply because it will make the books cheaper. She believes that it is only a matter of time anyway, and that if we at least barter the terms, so to speak, we will produce a "win, win" situation.

I was particularly bothered by this because it seems we are selling out to the pressures of marketers and advertisers. Also, this phenomenon ties into your original idea that we are a society that increasingly confuses symbols with ideas. Further, the fact that adervising tells, as you put it, a "Big lie" and several other little lies that cheapen the human experience and reduce it to a dependance on material goods to reach personal satisfaction.

There must be other ways to curtail the costs of textbooks, but instead of a professor that comes up with better propositions, she simply decides to acquiesce.

Please weigh in!

Well, I think you know I share your views on this topic. In fact, it happens I have been thinking about this exact topic over the past week — from a slightly different perspective than yours. I have been thinking how pleasant it is to pick up a book and not be bombarded by advertising, and how rare that is in modern times. It isn't true in magazines, newspapers, online, or anywhere else. It is only true for bound books. And I think it won't remain true for long.

One reason books haven't succumbed is because not many people actually read books any more, and that number is declining per capita at a rather good clip. Further, those who do read books (excluding those in academia) tend to be old, therefore less likely to change their consumer preferences. This group is less likely to respond to an advertising campaign, and is therefore less attractive to advertisers.

But in schools, both at the university level and public schools, it's a different story entirely. These are young people, making what may turn out to be lifelong choices, people who are consequently very attractive to advertisers. This is why companies are willing to wire an entire public school with cable service and television sets in order to have a chance to show a few short advertisements after the system is in place.

This is why Apple Computer has traditionally offered steep discounts to students and to schools willing to host Macintosh labs, even though the systems don't represent the real world outside the school and tend to make students less immediately employable than if PCs were purchased.

The professor you mention above might be deliberately provoking you to think hard about this, but without any real attachment to her viewpoint. In fact I think that is likely, or perhaps she has become cynical or hyper-realistic over a period of years in academia, where there is always more thought than money (the opposite of the business world).

I have to say this issue won't be decided based on some Platonic ideal, but very simply by what people will tolerate. It isn't as though we have a constitutional right to books free of advertising, in fact one might argue that the First Amendment gives publishers the right to put anything they care to between the covers of books.

The only reason it hasn't happened yet is because of ... well, frankly, because of resistance by people who are largely out of the mainstream, the sort of people who actually buy and read books. People like me.

You have probably heard the adage that "science progresses one funeral at a time." This is true in advertising also — what the public will tolerate progresses one funeral at a time. In the future, books will contain advertising simply because those who might object, who might fondly remember when they didn't, will have passed on.

Thanks for writing.


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