[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on August 27, 2009, and is reposted here by kind permission]

Ad Nauseam, a collection of essays and other bits and pieces culled from the zine and blog “Stay Free!” over the years, calls itself “A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture”. And in a way it is. Authors/Editors Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky have clearly survived without resorting to a remote and heavily-armed compound in Idaho, and they are here to tell the tale. Or more precisely, they are here to explain to the masses just how consumer culture works and why everyone should be concerned.

On the one hand one might wonder, in a society where until last fall 70% of the economy depended upon consumer spending, if there was anyone left in this country who didn’t know how consumer culture worked. On the other hand, that might just be my advertising hat talking; fish are often unaware of the water they swim about in.

At its best, Ad Nauseam is tremendous and should be required reading for any one in or out of the consumer culture. At it’s worst, it’s uneven (as anthologies invariably are) and at times a bit dated. One wishes, for example, that the essays and articles that reach back into the last decade were accompanied by a paragraph or two that updated the insights in the context of all that has happened since the essay was first written.

Because this “surviving consumer culture” business is a large and daunting task, Ms. McLaren charts out an admirably comprehensive attack plan that the book is organized around. Ad Nauseam begins by explaining how advertising works on humans. It then advances to how consumerism affects humans, followed by two section on how consumerism affects society as a whole. Section Five is a brief history of advertising (because advertising occupies the unusual position of both manufacturing and mirroring consumer culture), and then finishes with what could be called “what some of us are doing to express our general displeasure with consumerism”.

McLaren and her band of writers have a great style – for example, the analysis of a Viceroy print ad from the 60s is spot on and is one of the few times a book on advertising actually had me laughing out loud on purpose. The writing is generally smart, sharp, and fast. Think of it as a sort of The Daily Show if  The Daily Show were fixated only on consumer culture. And if it didn’t have any commercials. And was a book.

For example, the fifth section of Ad Nauseam includes a section on the history of advertising (or more precisely, on the history of how advertisers viewed consumers), that is one of the most concise, readable and clear-eyed reviews of this industry I’ve ever encountered. Few punches are pulled, and as such, one emerges with an honest – though at times embarrassing – understanding of how we ended up where we are. You may never look at Mad Men quite the same way again. Or Bewitched, for that matter. This section alone is worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, the book ends with perhaps the least satisfying section of the collection. If consumerism is as important and dangerous as the authors believe it is, their snarky take on a whisky-tasting at the Playboy mansion, or their celebration of the harassment of poor telemarketers seems juvenile at best, and disingenuous to their aims at worst. Indeed, having set the bar so high by delivering so many insights and cogent analyses of what ails us, one is disappointed when the folks at Ad Nauseam/Stay Free! seem content merely to poke a finger in the eye of culture, instead of offering thoughts on how to fix it.

That said, McLaren makes it clear in the Postscript that her role is not to have the answers. But neither is it, she admits, to just sit around while Rome burns. And if this book does nothing more than educate and enlighten about the true nature of the culture we’re swimming in, then it will have been worthwhile. It does that, and to its credit, it does a great deal more as well.

Ad Nauseam, edited by Carrie McLaren & Jason Torchinsky, was published by Faber & Faber on 06/23/2009– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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