“From studying brands like Nike and Starbucks, I was well acquainted with the basic tenet of brand management: Find your message, trademark and protect it, and repeat ad [pun intended?] nauseam through as many synergized platforms as possible.”
– Naomi Klein
“No Logo Update”
The Baffler, Vol. 2 No. 1
Advertising is seen as essential to the business success of any brand/company looking to be a significant player in the global marketplace. And so, advertising has, itself, become a gigantic business.
Advertising expenditures in the U.S. have more than doubled from end of the last century to the beginning of this one, with annual expenditures now collectively topping a quarter of a trillion dollars.
The epitome of branded advertising is, of course, the Super Bowl. Despite the global recession, CBS was still able to charge upwards of $2.6 million per 30-second slot this past winter (down from the all-time high of $3 million/30 seconds that NBC charged for 2009’s Super Bowl ads).
Simply put, $2.6 million is a lot of money, a lot of power, and a lot of societal impact. What, other than a 30-second Super Bowl commercial, can that kind of cash get you? Anything from 473,588 Grand Slam breakfasts to 5,210 iPads to the ability to pay the average salary for 6,500 of Haitians.
Money is power. And big money is big time power.
But is advertising money well spent?
Apparently, it’s not really money spent at all, because businesses can deduct all of their advertising expenses. Yes, I understand it is an essential part of doing business. “It takes money to make money,” as they say. But, it is also an essential part of doing business. If businesses are in the business of making money, than why does the money they spend convincing other people to spend money (on whatever the business is selling to make money) not count as money spent to make money?
The advertising write-off rule is an intentional choice being made to benefit a specific group of people (businesses, especially big businesses with their cagillion-dollar advertising budgets) at the expense of other people (anyone who uses a library, interstate highway, police department, public park, garbage removal or any other tax-funded daily public service we commonly take for granted).
Here’s another recent intentional decision: ending the tax-exempt status for non-profit organizations.
According to a New York Times report, “an estimated one-fifth to one-quarter of some 1.6 million charities, trade associations and membership groups will lose their tax exemptions, thanks to a provision buried in a 2006 federal bill aimed at pension reform.”
This is not good news for the multitude of non-profit organizations, let alone the causes they fight for.
But it is an interesting dichotomy. Because businesses (especially brand-managing big businesses) and non-profits are both, essentially, trying to achieve the same goal: to enact change, whether that change involves addressing an underfunded societal ill or the spending habits and/or brand self-identifications of consumers. Both ventures want to be perceived as integral parts of people’s lives, and so must persuade as many people as possible to listen to their message (and then hopefully give them money) in order to most effectively achieve that intimate status.
As anyone who has ever worked at a non-profit can tell you, the search for funds, be it through foundation grants or individual donors, is an all-encompassing, never-ending task. The fact that these chronically underfunded, overworked organizations were allowed to keep, tax-free, the funds they worked so hard to acquire always struck me as a nice gesture in a societal marketplace that is still all-too-powerfully unbalanced.
But now, with the removal of tax-exempt non-profit status, that societal unbalance is increasing. On one side are the brand-managing, meme-infesting businesses with their gigantic (essentially free) advertising budgets, and on the other side, the already-struggling-to-exist-let-alone-actually-do-any-good (and now) tax-paying charitable organizations.
Both want to enact change in our society. Non-profits and the causes they serve will now struggle even more. Brand businesses, on the other hand, will continue to assault the blank slates of society with their advertising images. For free.