All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1989

Movie-Goers Can Think for Themselves

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. He recently edited Commerce and Morality for Rowman and Littlefield.

Bull Durham is a nice little movie, about minor league baseball and love and good times and friendship. But it recently came in for a strange criticism.

This and other movies, including television shows, are being charged with a kind of subliminal advertising. Some charge that these films are being used by Hollywood producers to peddle brand-name products. (In Bull Durham it was beer and other products, none of which I remembered after I saw the movie or even noticed as I watched it.)

Of course, films that deal with contemporary life would be entirely artificial if producers disguised brand products used in the course of the action. I have always felt cheated when someone in a movie picks up a pack of cigarettes or a can of beer and hides the label. Mind you, I never remember a visible label, but I do remember when it is artificially hidden from view.

What exactly are these critics complaining about? They are insulting movie-goers by implicitly accusing them of being robots who cannot keep from going out and buying what is shown on the screen. Imagine it. The viewer is conceived of, not as a person with a will of his own, nor as someone who knows what he wants, but as a mechanism that responds automatically to subtle stimulation. The movie makers, by implication, are accused of being manipulative and exploitative.

The evidence for both these charges is feeble. People aren’t robots available for easy exploitation: the advertising industry has learned that you cannot sell things that people don’t want. Of course, people may want silly and useless things, but they have to want them before they really pay attention to brand-name ads. If this weren’t so, advertising campaigns wouldn’t flop as often as they do. (Even ads we love to see don’t always manage to sell the products we are invited to buy—we like the jokes, the characters, the themes, the scenery—but not necessarily the product or service.)

Furthermore, why must these critics assume that movie makers have nothing else in mind when they include various brand-name products in their films? Why not assume that they simply wish to be realistic? Why not consider the possibility that they see the phoniness of pretending that while everything else in the film fits the picture, those disguised products do not?

Consider, also, that every movie “advertises” the actors who appear in it, the locales in which the movie takes place, the kind of clothing worn by the characters, and so on. No one, as yet, has complained about that.

I am confident that this special attack on the movies is yet another way in which the critics express their hatred for the market. These critics are power-seekers—admittedly for motives that seem sincere and virtuous to them.

But these motives are not virtuous, however sincere they may be. They are dangerous and should be exposed as such. They are subtle messages to the public that consumers are generally inept, and need the wise guidance of intellectuals who will occupy various seats of power and tell film makers and television producers what to do.

Let us respond to these folks forcefully, and tell them to take care of their own problems and leave us to cope with ours. We are able to handle anything offered us on the screen—we can even walk out if we find something offensively pushy.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.