InReview – Issue 65

The Whole Truth by David Baldacci. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 406 pp.

David Baldacci is a fiction writer who has had 15 consecutive best-sellers on the New York Times bestseller list, including this one.

This novel tells the story of an aerospace company challenged by the end of the cold war. A significant decline in business had them longing for the “good old days” when their services were in greater demand. To address the dilemma, they hire a “perception management” company to create a conflict between Russia and China, using wellplanted emails on the Internet. As the conflict escalates, so do sales for the aerospace company. As the scheme grows to involve the highest levels of many governments, the hero figures it out.

Baldacci’s books are page turners. They fill the hours of a return airplane trip when you are too tired to work. They are fanciful, though not absurdly so, and very fun to read. This particular book focuses on the subject of “perception management,” a cross between advertising and public relations, where changing minds becomes more important than truth. The account clearly captures one of the downsides of advertising and promotion.

Those looking for fast-paced fiction will enjoy this book. Those looking for creative insight into ways that advertising and promotion can be abused will be made more aware of the downside possibilities of this very creative field.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin Barber. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc, 2007. x, 406 pp.

Benjamin Barber is a Distinguished Fellow at Demos in New York City, and a fellow at the Anneenberg School, University of Southern California. He is the author of Jihad vs. McWorld.

Benjamin Barber focuses his concerns about capitalism on branding and advertising gone awry. He contends that in today’s world, capitalism has failed the very poor while turning the wealthy into “children” with its strong appeal to those who already have all of their needs met. He says, “… in capitalism’s more creative period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people, creating a synergy between making money and helping others … Today, however, consumerist capitalism profits only when it can address those who have the means to assuage ‘new’ and invented needs …The global majority still has extensive and real natural needs … but capitalism is without the means to address them … This is true not just for the global Third World, but for the growing Third World within the First World.”

Barber begins with a historical foundation rooted in the Protestant work ethic. The result was a system that met real needs through hard work. Today, he argues, “the manufacture of goods to meet real needs is in decline, while the manufacture of needs to address and absorb the commodity of service surpluses of overproduction is growing.” This has led to a growing “infantilizing” of adults, whose behavior and tastes are becoming more like children with shorter attention spans and the “dumbing down” of culture. In turn, this leads to an increasingly uninformed citizenry which undermines democracies. This weakens, even threatens, society.

Barber looks for solutions to this challenging problem, asking how those with means can resist the urge of consumerism and play a broader role in service to the globe. His solution is that “capitalism will have to moderate its triumph and citizens renew their calling, globally as well as nationally,” p. 338. This calls for an increasingly global governance system, he concludes.

There indeed has been a growing concern about consumerism, though this has been in decline with the global recession, a solution he did not anticipate. The problem I have with Barber is his single mindedness about issues that have multiple shades of gray. He sees branding and advertising as fundamentally negative, for example, not recognizing some of the nuances that Daryl Travis discusses in the Conversation in this issue. He assumes that through marketing, people can be manipulated almost at will, a conclusion Travis disputes. And I believe his major world-government solution is problematic at best, with no consideration of the “downside” issues.

Nevertheless, this is an important book. His analysis is challenging, very well written, and sobering. And if you don’t like his conclusions, look for others.

Reviewed Al Erisman