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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Overcommercialism

Years ago, the word “overcommercialized” used to apply to highway billboards marring the landscape. Look what rampaging commercialism is now like.

Item: Governor Branstad of Iowa is opening the state tax instruction booklet to advertisements by accounting firms, banks and other companies eager to reach 1.3 million individual taxpayers He wants to solicit ads for placement in tax refund envelopes. The price for a full page in the instruction manual is $38,000. He expects to raise $500,000 for the state’s treasury. A Des Moines advertising executive says that advertisers will benefit from association with official state publications.

Item: State and federal court decisions are disappearing from published records. If the parties to a lawsuit settle after a court decision — say a business lawsuit or a product defect lawsuit — they can ask the trial judge or the appeals court to vacate the decision. It is no longer in the published court reports nor can it be used as a precedent.

Soon the Supreme Court will rule on this issue, but for some years, the situation has been what Arthur Bryant, director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, described as “court decisions [that] can be purchased and destroyed by those with the money to do so.”

Item: Capital Centre, the 20 year old arena that is home to the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Washington Bullets basketball team, has lost its name. The place is now called “USAir Arena ” For this logo, USAir is paying the owners $1 million a year for ten years.

Most, but not all, people would react to these stories with some uneasiness or displeasure. They would feel that a boundary between good taste and commercialism has been crossed. But just what intangibles have been lost in this mercantile mania?

Well, take the Iowa Governor’s bazaar. A state tax instruction manual is not an advertising manual. It is supposed to have a certain integrity of purpose — to give taxpayers clear information about the law. Selling ads amounts to a political action contribution to state officials. Will these agencies be evenhanded in their treatment of companies that do not advertise? Will this become a worse shakedown in the future? Suspicions and doubts are raised where they have no business being raised in what should be commercial free zones.

How can the Governor Branstad — ten years in office — be taught that public service should not be so commercialized? I have an idea. The Governor can turn himself into a human billboard whenever he walks around in public. Hanging on his chest and on his back would be considerable space for two corporate ads.

He would raise his $500,000 a year easily, being seen at state fairs, social functions at the mansion, shaking hands in numerous Iowan communities and, above all, conducting press conferences. Think how avidly interested companies, such as John Deer, Inc., the tractor manufacturer, or DuPont, the pesticide producer, would be in being plastered all over the Governor’s torso,

Seeing their Governor so displayed would spark critical or patronizing reactions from the citizens. They would tell him in so many diverse ways why exhibiting himself in this manner is wrong and compromising of his integrity. The Governor would learn about boundaries to commercialism.

When commerce can expunge judges’ decisions, the record of the courts can be distorted. Companies can brag about how many court decisions they have won, not noting the ones that money has caused to disappear. Taxpayers pay judges and courts to produce these decisions; merchants agreeing between themselves can nullify these taxpayer assets from public use and judicial precedent and history.

Instead of USAir using that million dollars a year to hire more telephone operators so that possible customers don’t have to wait on the line and be compelled to listen to canned advertisements, the money for an airline that says it will lose money this year goes to cover a sports arena. Image instead of customer service is one of the costs of mindless commercialism.

People need to demand that such costly frolics and detours be rebuked and that taste, decorum and integrity be reasserted to put commerce back in its place.