Caution! Television Watching May Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health [Chapter 4]

Caution! Television Watching May Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health [Chapter 4].

[Note: Please see the 1996 Preface for an explanation of the unusual pagination.]

Copyright Notice: Copyright © 1972 by Bantam Books, Inc.; Copyright © 1996 by Nicholas Johnson.  All rights reserved.  This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any medium known now or in the future.  Provided, however, that permission is hereby granted to distribute this book under the following conditions:  (1) that it is distributed in its entirety, including this copyright notice and 1996 Preface, (2) that no charge is exacted, or revenue received, directly or indirectly, by anyone in connection with the transfer, and (3) as a matter of courtesy and information, that the author be informed, simultaneously with the distribution, of any distribution to more than one person or posting for availability on the Internet, Web, or publicly available directory.  Any other use requires the prior permission of the author:  Nicholas Johnson,, postal:  Box 1876, Iowa City IA 52244-1876, U.S.A.



# p. 40 #

The king and the queen in their castle of billboards 
Sleepwalk down the hallways dragging behind 
All their possessions and transient treasures 
As they go to worship the electronic shrine 
On which is playing the late late commercial 
In that hollowest house of the opulent blind 
And I wave goodbye to Mammon 
And smile hello to a stream

-T. Buckley

ANNOUNCER: Listen to Mr. and Mrs. Ken Davis tell why

their 1970 Buick LeSabre is something to believe in . . ..

MRS. DAVIS: We’re a young family and we’re driving a 
    Buick, and people think, well, gee, maybe, maybe 
    you’re really coming up in the world.

MR. DAVIS: This car, I think it’s going to be the best I have owned.

ANNOUNCER: The 1970 Buick is something to believe in. 
    Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?

-a television commercial

Most advertisers were selling magic. Their commercials posed the same problems that Chayefsky drama dealt with: people who feared failure in love and in business. But in the commercials there was always a solution as clear-cut as the snap of a finger: the problem could be solved by a new pill, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, shaving lotion, hair tonic, car, girdle, coffee, muffin recipe, or floor wax. The solution always had finality.

Chayefsky and other anthology writers took these same problems and made them complicated. They were forever suggesting that a problem might stem from childhood and be involved with feelings toward a mother or father. All this was often convincing — that was the trouble. It made the commercial seem fraudulent.

-Erik Barnouw



# p. 41 #

Caution! Television WatchingMay Be Hazardousto Your Mental Health [Chapter 4]

Television not only distributes programs and sells products, it also preaches a general philosophy of life. Television tells us, hour after gruesome hour, that the primary measure of an individual’s worth is his consumption of products, his measuring up to ideals that are found in packages mass produced and distributed by corporate America. Many products (and even programs), but especially the drug commercials, sell the gospel that there are instant solutions to life’s most pressing personal problems. You don’t need to think about your own emotional maturity and development of individuality; about discipline, training, and education; about your perception of the world; about your willingness to cooperate and compromise and work with other people; or about developing deep and meaningful human relationships and trying to keep them in repair. “Better living through chemistry” is not just DuPont’s slogan. It’s one of the commandments of consumerism.

Television — which Professor Galbraith has characterized as one of the “prime instruments for the manipulation of consumer demand” — educates us away from life and away from our individuality. It drives us to line up at the counters of drugstores and supermarkets, shaping our needs and wants, and ultimately ourselves, into the molds that are the products. Not only do the programs and commercials explicitly preach materialism, conspicuous consumption, status consciousness, sexploitation, and fantasy worlds of quick shallow solutions, but even the settings and subliminal messages are commercials for the consumption style of life.



# p. 42 #

MAN:  Man, it’s a bug the way that guy got on my back today,


MAN: Wrong figures, bring the other file. Come on with that report.

WOMAN: Sam, I’ve never seen you like this.

MAN: Oh, he’s driving me nuts with that big deal.  We got any aspirin?

WOMAN: You got a headache?

MAN: Who said anything about a headache. I’m just tense, nervous. I —

WOMAN: Aspirin’s for minor pain or headache.

MAN:  What do I want, Compoz?

WOMAN: That’ just what you want. Compoz, that little gentle blue pill Compoz.

-a television commercial



WOMAN 1:  Here you are, dear.

WOMAN 2: Oh thanks, but I can’t look at another dress. 
     All this shopping has given me such a headache.

WOMAN 1: I’ll get you something.

WOMAN 2: Wait a minute, it better be something strong.

WOMAN 1: I’ve got what you need, Laura.

WOMAN 2: What’s that?

WOMAN 1: Anacin.

-a television commercial


ANNOUNCER:  Leave your feeling of tension behind and step into a quiet world. You’ll feel calmer, more relaxed with Quiet World.

-a television commercial

Even though we know we are being taken, we are being taken.

-William F. Fore



# p. 43 #

The headache remedy commercials are among the most revealing. A headache is often our body’s way of telling us something’s wrong. What is wrong may have to do with the bad vibes one picks up working in big corporations’ office buildings, or shopping in their stores. The best answer may be to stay out of such places. Obviously, such a solution would be as bad for the corporate state generally as for the headache remedy business in particular. So the message is clear: Corporate jobs and shopping trips are as American as chemical additives in apple pie. You just keep driving yourself through both. And when those mysterious headache devils appear for no reason at all, you swallow the magic chemicals.

But what’s true of the magic chemical ads is true of commercials and programs generally. Look at the settings. Auto ads push clothes, fashion, and vacations. Furniture-wax ads push wall-to-wall carpeting and draperies. Breakfast-cereal ads push new stoves and refrigerators. Not surprisingly, the programs do the same — after all, they’re paid for by the same guys who pay for the commercials. Dean Martin probably sold as many cigarettes just by smoking them on camera as the Marlboro Man did by riding his horse. How many blacks have commented on the misleading black life style depicted by television shows like Julia? Erik Barnouw’s three-volume history of broadcasting reveals that the disappearance of the early l950’s dramatists from television was due to advertisers’ revulsion at the dramatists’ message that happiness could be found by ordinary people in lower-class settings.

You may be saying about this point, “Look, I really do like nightclubs, fast cars, cigarettes, motel



# p. 44 #

It is the general policy of advertisers to glamorize their products, the people who buy them, and the whole American social and economic scene . . ..  The American consuming public as presented by the advertising industry today is middle class, not lower class; happy in general, not miserable and frustrated . . ..

-a letter from an advertising

agency explaining rejection of

Pulitzer Prize-winning play

The tendency [of the mass media] to blunt reason has a more sinister effect than merely selling things to people that they don t want to buy. It also obscures the individual’s recognition that the whole system tends to repress his freedom by limiting his real choices and by invading the inner space where he maintains his own sense of personal identity and integrity.

-William F. Fore

On teevee

see the looters run

With whiskey

and cartons

of cigarettes,

With wigs

and sofas

and teevee sets —



the merchandise

All the



on teevee

on teevee

on teevee

-Eve Merriam



# p. 45 #

decor, and hairspray. If you don’t that’s your problem. Go live in the woods. But don’t hassle me.”

I would be the first to acknowledge that we are, of course, talking about matters of personal taste. But two facts remain: (1) The wholly disproportionate — if not exclusive — emphasis of television is pushing only one point of view. The choice you’ll never know is the choice you’ll never make. Many Americans are not sufficiently informed of the alternatives to make an intelligent choice of the life they most want. (2) Independent students of our society — quite aside from their personal values — believe there is a correlation between the philosophy preached by television and many of our worst social problems.

One of the most vicious of television’s predatory habits is its stalking of the poor. The affluent have nothing to lose but their money and control over their own lives and personalities. The poor are not so lucky. They must sit there, without even the liberating knowledge that money can’t buy happiness, and constantly be told that their lack of material possessions is a badge of social ostracism in a nation that puts higher stress on monetary values than moral values. Occasionally this frustration breaks out in violence on the streets. Then, for an evening or two, we get a distorted picture of what the problem is, as television brings us the news — followed by another evening of series shows and commercial messages urging conspicuous consumption as the mark of success in life.

Television is really providing no better service, no more responsible programming, for middle-class, adult white males than for anyone else in our society — retired people, minority group members, blue-collar



# p. 46 #

As a father of four, I have seen the effect of television in the home and in the supermarket. Its impact is felt equally in the nation’s public life. And the only thing that surprises me is that there are still some who greet this obvious fact with surprise.

-Robert H. Finch

It takes time, yes, but if you expect to be in business for any length of time, think of what it can mean to your firm in profits if you can condition a million or ten million children who will grow up into adults trained to buy your product as soldiers are trained to advance when they hear the trigger words “forward march.”

-CIyde Miller


A study was made of the use of deception in TV comedy . . ..  Approximately 25 percent of the situations . . . involved deception as a major or minor part of the plot. Since most of these situation comedies pitch their shows toward children, we might reasonably ask what effect such a large amount of deception has on their values . . ..  The correlation between not getting caught on TV and not getting caught cheating in an exam or on an expense account is only open to conjecture.

-William F. Fore

It [TV] leads not toward human interaction, but rather toward withdrawal into private communication with the picture tube and the private life of fantasy. It is aimed less often at solving the problems of life than escaping from them. It is essentially a passive behavior — something a child surrenders himself to, something that is done to and for him, something that he doesn’t have to work for or think about or pay for.

-Wilbur Schramm



# p. 47 #

workers, and so forth. But there are two groups of Americans who are entitled to special mention: children and women.

I begin with children because we can fairly assume, I think, that if television shows little respect for our children it will show even less for the rest of us.

It is shocking enough that we should have to wait until 1969 to get the equivalent of a Sesame Street, and that it should then have to come from the impoverished Public Broadcasting System rather than the commercial networks. But even worse than that is the networks’ commercial view of our youngsters: They are perceived principally as little consumers, both in their own right and as an additional way of reaching Mom and Dad. Advertisers are quite open about the commercial desirability of hooking consumers young, and they do just that. The networks cooperate — through their National Association of Broadcasters Code of Good Practice — by permitting themselves to show almost twice as many commercials per hour during the Saturday morning children’s programs as during the Saturday evening entertainment shows.

Television could be a challenging experience for the young people of our nation during those early formative years. It could help them to learn to grow as human beings, to better understand themselves and the world they are entering. Instead, it encourages our children to continue an infantile withdrawal from the world and a dependence on fantasy. Above all, it encourages them to adopt the hedonistic, conspicuous consumption attitudes and values of their corporate elders.

Women have been telling very well the story of



# p. 48 #

You use our bodies to sell products. You blackmail us with the fear of being unloved if we do not buy.

-Marian Delgado

ANNOUNCER:  Cigarettes are like women. The best ones are thin and rich. Silva Thins are thin and rich. Thin so they taste light, lighter than other 100s, lighter than most kings. Rich, well because rich is better. Cigarettes are like women, the best ones are thin and rich. Silva Thins are thin and rich.

-a television commercial


Many of us break our backs trying to realize the dream, the synthesis of housewife-sexmate. Many of us fall along the way, victims of nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia and sheer exhaustion. But few realize the oppression of the system which propels them unrelentingly towards rotten goals.

-Donna Keck



# p. 49 #

their portrayal on television. There’s really very little I can add. Just as the more sophisticated black commentators describe the role of blacks in America as “the white problem,” I believe that the woman’s role portrayed on television is creating at least as many problems for men as for women.

If men and women are going to relate to each other as people, neither can perceive the other as an object to be manipulated for purposes of self-gratification. Men and women can help each other to self-realization. Men are robbed of this opportunity equally with women when they are sold an image of women as something less than human and an image of themselves that constantly imposes the need to role-play their masculinity (while simultaneously purchasing seven hundred million dollars worth of cosmetics every year).

Psychiatrists, and others far more knowledgeable than I, believe there may well be some correlation between the television image of women and the problems of many of suburbia’s unhappy housewives: divorce, exhaustion, alcoholism, promiscuity, frustration, anxiety, and mental illness. At the very least, we are not helping our children to develop satisfying attitudes about their sexuality by what we are teaching them in the television commercials.



# p. 50 #

The image of women in the . . . [television series] is dreadful. At one pole there’s the I Love Lucy stereotype, the brainless featherhead, and the sweet, dumb lovable blond of Petticoat Junction and Green Acres who’s helpless without men.  In between, there’s the maternal nurturing housewife, like Donna Reed or Julia — passive women who are defined in terms of their relationship to men — as wives or mothers or widows. At the other pole there’s the male fantasy of the “liberated” woman — the chic, hard, cold, sexy swinger with no ties, who obviously sleeps around and is not an economic drag on the man. And there’s nothing else. It has almost no relationship with reality at all.

-Robin Morgan

One can search television for a long time before finding a mature sexual relationship.

-Norman Mark

What aspects of being a man or woman in today’s world could be useful In advertising a product, other than the erotic? Strength of character? Shouldering responsibility? Compassion? Service? Practicing a profession?

-Mary S. Calderone

There is such a thing as psychological suicide in which one does not take his own life by a given act, but dies because he has chosen — perhaps without being entirely aware of it — not to live.

-Rollo May



# p. 51 #


                                          Big business has even prostituted


By using it to sell

In greed


Making it more difficult

For the rest of us

To use properly

For giving

In love


It could be otherwise. I, for one, do not believe the economy would suffer one bit if television were to portray men and women in healthy relationships as mature people. However, even if such honesty would hurt the sales of some products, such a reform would seem to me to be worth almost any price we might pay.

Finally, if it is true that passivity and a sense of powerlessness are among the most dangerous epidemics in our society today, the television set is suspect at the outset regardless of what’s programmed on it. It is so busy getting us to turn it on that it educates us away from life. It makes an affirmative effort to deaden our senses. It encourages us to depend on it like a drug — with comparable effects reported by doctors. It comforts us and says it’s all right for us to return to the womb of its warm glow. It is a communication medium that discourages, and makes more difficult, communication and a sense of community among Americans. It gives us a fantasy world, presented as reality, that is almost diabolically constructed to increase, rather than decrease, mental illness, frustration, anxiety, and despair when, on those rare occasions, we leave our tele-



# p. 52 #

Owen Jennison [had died from starvation] . . ..  A small black cylinder protruded from the top of his head . . ..

It was a standard surgical job . . ..  I touched the ecstasy plug with my . . . fingertips, then ran them down the hair-fine wire going deep into Owen’s brain, down into the pleasure center.

No, the extra current hadn’t killed him. What had killed Owen was his lack of will power. He had been unwilling to get up.

-Larry Niven, a science fiction short story

When I’m drivin’ in my car, 
And that man comes on the radio; 
And he’s tellin’ me more and more 
About some useless information, 
Supposed to fire my imagination? 
I can’t get no satisfaction.

When I’m watchin’ my T. V., 
And that man comes on to tell me 
How white my shirts can be, 
I can’t get no satisfaction.

-Mick Jagger and Keith Richard



# p. 53 #

vision sets and venture out into that other world.

The only exceptions would be programs like Jack LaLanne’s exercises, or Public Broadcasting’s offerings of Laura Weber’s guitar lessons and Julia Child’s cooking programs. Television could urge us to get up, turn off the set, and go live a little. lt might even say, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special announcement. The sun is now setting. It’s a much more beautiful sight than anything we can offer. We urge you to get up and go outdoors and watch it. We will temporarily suspend broadcasting until dark.” Television could help us to lead more interesting, more informed, more fulfilling lives. With rare exceptions, it does not.


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