Review of Jerry Mander's
Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television

by Ron Kaufman


"Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely . . . Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen."

-- from 1984 by George Orwell


Television is advertising. It is a medium whose purpose is to sell, to promote capitalism. In 1977, Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive in San Francisco, published Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television. In the book, Mander reveals how the television networks and advertisers use this pervasive video medium for sales.

Four Arguments talks about a lot more than just advertising. Mander attacks not only the contents of the television images, but the effects television has on the human mind and body. His discussion includes: The induction of alpha waves, a hypnotizing effect that a motionless mind enters. How viewers often regard what they see on television as real even though the programs are filled with quick camera switches, rapid image movement, computer generated objects, computer generated morphing and other technical events. The placement of artificial images into our mind's eye. And the effects that large amounts of television viewing have on children and the onset of attention deficit disorder.

However, at the heart of Mander's arguments, lies advertising. In the words of writer Charles Bukowski: "[America is] not a free country -- everything is bought and sold and owned."

Sales, by definition, is the process of convincing someone to purchase what they don't need. Advertising tries to convince someone that the solution to a problem or the fulfillment of a desire can only be achieved through the purchase of a product.

"If we take the word need to mean something basic to human survival -- food, shelter, clothing; or basic to human contentment -- peace, love, safety, companionship, intimacy, a sense of fulfillment; these will be sought and found by people whether or not there is advertising," Mander writes.

"People do need to eat, but the food which is advertised is processed food: processed meat, sodas, sugary cereals, candies. A food in its natural state, unprocessed, does not need to be advertised," he says. "Hungry people will find the food if it is available."

Television commercials and television shows both promote the purchase of commodities. Advertisers and television networks don't want viewers to go out and search for the answers on their own. They want to provide the answers on television. If your head hurts: buy Advil (or some other pain relieving drug). Is your stomach growling? Drive your Pontiac to Taco Bell or Burger King. Are your dishes dirty? Get some lemon-fresh Joy. Every guy wants a fast Acura and every girl wants to look like the women on the NBC television show Friends. Watch the Dallas Cowboys' Deion Sanders score a touchdown, watch the replay (Sponsored by Coors Light), then watch Deion do an advertisement for Pizza Hut.

Television is promoting a lifestyle. It is a virtual reality that advertisers and networks seek to promote in order to gain additional revenue.

"Perhaps there is a need for cleanliness. But that is not what advertisers sell," Mander explains. "Cleanliness can be obtained with water and a little bit of natural fiber, or solidified natural fat. Major world civilizations kept clean that way for millennia. What is advertised is whiteness, a value beyond cleanliness; sterility, the avoidance of all germs; sudsiness, a cosmetic factor; and brand, a surrogate community loyalty."

While watching television, the viewer is not seeing the world as it is. He or she is looking at a world created by advertising. Television programs are put together with the conscious attitude of promoting a consumer society.

"If forty million people see a commercial for a car, then forty million people have a car commercial in their heads, all at the same time," Mander says. "This is bound to have more beneficial effect on the commodity system than if, at that moment, all those people were thinking separate thoughts which, in some cases, might not be about commodities at all."

But what makes television different from other forms of advertising, is that the viewer has absolutely no control over the images. Sure you can change the channel, but you're really only watching more of the same. The images come at you at the pace of the advertiser; the viewer just watches passively. While reading the newspaper, you don't have to look at the ads, you can turn the page. In that same newspaper, if you want to find a coupon for Ranch Style Black Beans, you will look and seek it out. You can read the first few lines of a billboard sign, then turn away.

However, when you watch television, the only way to escape the images is to turn the machine off. The medium of television is controlled by the sender, not the viewer. Images just flow, one after the next.

"If you decide to watch television, then there's no choice but to accept the stream of electronic images as it comes," Mander says. "Since there is no way to stop the images, one merely gives over to them. More than this, one has to clear all channels of reception to allow them in more cleanly. Thinking only gets in the way."

The multitude of technical events and special effects that saturate the viewer throughout an average dose of television occur with such rapid frequency that any response is essentially eliminated. "Since television images move more quickly than a viewer can react, one has to chase after them with the mind," Mander says in the book.

"Every advertiser, for example, knows that before you can convince anyone of anything, you shatter their existing mental set and then restructure an awareness along lines which are useful to you. You do this with a few very simple techniques like fast-moving images, jumping among attention focuses, and switching moods," he explains.

Television watching is not active, it is passive. Both the viewer's mind and body do not react, and cannot react. Mander calls television imagery a form of sleep teaching.

One researcher interviewed by Mander explains: "The horror of television, is that the information goes in, but we don't react to it. It goes right into our memory pool and perhaps we react to it later but we don't know what we're reacting to. When you watch television you are training yourself not to react and so later on, you're doing things without knowing why you're doing them or where they came from."

Mander published Four Arguments almost twenty years ago. I believe his main theme then (and the one I hope you are getting from this essay), is that advertisers and networks don't want the viewers to think. They want them to just be good consumers and spend money on their products.

On May 10, 1995 at the National Cable Television Association convention in Dallas, John Malone, president of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the nation's largest cable operator, was speaking about the future of television. "There's no question machines will be smarter than people," Malone said. "And we won't have to think so hard."

Critics of television have often noted that what is shown on the networks, the programs, are of a low quality. The entire television industry has never seemed able to shake off the words Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow spoke in 1961, that television is "a vast wasteland."

It is the quality of the shows that are often criticized. However, this is missing the point. Television shows are not supposed to be thought provoking. You are not supposed to question the images you see on TV, only believe in their prima facie existence.

Television programs, commercials, news reports and talk shows are all designed toward blind acceptance by the viewer. Because, after all, if you see it with your own eyes, it must be true. It must be real. Flashing images on the video screen. Reality inside a box.

"Television offers neither rest nor stimulation," Mander says. "Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that's as far as television goes.

"The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What's worse, it is filled with someone else's obsessive thoughts and images."

Why do you think they call it programming?

Mander goes into great detail discussing the physical effects television viewing has on the human body. His analysis is excellent.