Here is a story about the power of media and how it changed the course of history in the Grand Canyon. Jerry Mander understands media and corporate influence and he shares his thoughts about how media sways society. As a longtime advertising professional and media expert, Mander was the first to use his intimate knowledge of the media to affect nonprofit campaigns for environmental and social changes. He tells us how his creative ad campaign had an unprecedented outcome and successfully halted several dams in the Grand Canyon.
You will not find a more trusted authority on the effects of television media on human psychology than Jerry Mander. A long time advertising executive and author, Mander understands how media is used to influence our society. He has authored and contributed to several books describing how television media is manipulated by the powerful to expand their autocratic control of the masses. Mander is a pioneer in using media for the public good and is responsible for using it effectively to help environmental and social causes. He is famous for his sensational ad campaign for the Sierra Club designed to stop dams in the Grand Canyon, and came up with the slogan “ Should we also flood the Cistine Chapel so that tourists can get nearer to the ceiling?”
Jerry Mander was born and raised in New York and was educated as an economist. He received a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a M.S. in International Economics from Columbia University Business School. After graduating he went into advertising where he evolved into a radical, using his knowledge about media to support causes that he believed in. He has used media to help establish Redwood National Park and to stop the U.S Supersonic Transport (SST) project. In 1971 he founded the first non-profit advertising agency in the United States, Public Interest Communications.
Huey: My first relationship with you was in your work with Dave Brower in the ads.
Jerry Mander: Uh huh.
Huey: And your fame as an ad man.
Jerry Mander: Yeah.
Huey: And you know it has been such an issue in political campaigns, the amount of capital now that’s going into those, you know what hope has truth to survive the onslaught of the billions of dollars or whatever’s been spent?
Jerry Mander: Well, truth is a manufactured product pretty much these days, if you’re living in the real world, if you’re living in the world as it actually behaves, you know. It’s like people spend you know 4 ½ hours a day on the average watching television. They get hit with an average of 20 to 30,000 commercials per month.
Jerry Mander: The commercials are telling them to see the world in a particular kind of way that’s useful to corporate enterprise and to live a certain kind of way and to be convinced that behaving in a certain kind of way, which to say buying more and more stuff and behaving in a commodity oriented fashion is the root to happiness and contentment. And that becomes, that becomes the kind of background environment for the way people see the world from that point forward. I think that’s a really under appreciated fact of modern, of modern life and why public opinion moves the way it does and why people see the world the way they do and why commodities are such an important part of life. And it produces a much more alien, greater alienation from nature and a greater distance from what you might call original reality.
Huey: For you to say that is very important because you have, I think it’s safe to say, a degree of fame in the advertising business and particularly in the work you did, these full page ads working with Dave. I think the most famous one was the Grand Canyon ad, the Sistine Chapel.
Jerry Mander: Should we flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get near the ceiling? That’s the most famous one. They were very, very important at the time and there was a new way of using the media at that point because of – you know I don’t know, you’ve probably read the story about how when Brower came into, came into – why he came in to see us and why he wanted us to do the ads. He really only wanted our agency to do the ads. See, we didn’t know him at all. We were just running a commercial ad agency and he wandered in the door and he said he wanted to hire us to – that the Grand Canyon had already been voted on.
Jerry Mander: It was – they were going to put dams in the Grand Canyon, that it was a done deal. Stewart Udahl, the Secretary of the Interior was in favor of them, the congress had voted for them and we were going to have lakes in Grand Canyon. And he said he didn’t know what to do and he thinks advertising might – so it was his idea to do advertising. The Bureau of Reclamation was arguing in favor of the dams because when the dams would be flooded, you’d be up close to the historical walls and the great beauty, you could get closer up on the walls, higher up on the walls. So then we said “Well, should we flood the Sistine Chapel and then you could get near the ceiling.” That ad caused a sensation and it also lost Sierra Club its tax exempt status.
Huey: That’s right, that’s a great achievement.
Jerry Mander: Which was a great achievement it turned out because they put it on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Its one of those unforeseen consequences, if you throw – if you do a dynamic thing, all kinds of things will happen that you never expect.
Jerry Mander: People in a whole around the country didn’t know what they thought about the Grand Canyon, whether they loved it or not. They knew they hated the Internal Revenue Service. When the Revenue Service threatened this poor little Sierra Club, which is trying to do good for the country as a whole, the country rose to the Sierra Club’s defense. Front page stories, editorials and rest across the country and there was an immediate surge in membership from – just from that action.
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Jerry Mander: Brower basically changed its character from a kind of companions on the trail organization to a really activist aggressive fighting organization. But it also showed that you really could, if the word got out, if people had a way of hearing what was really true about a situation, you could change it. And then we had a good run for a couple of years with a lot of these ads because Brower got really, really excited about that medium and then we started to take up other issues as you mentioned.
Huey: Let me as you a question about the environmental movement. You’ve definitely had a role in directing it with your work back then. As you said, Brower was able to use the results in effect of those ads and reshape the Sierra Club into this…-
Jerry Mander: Well we helped make it a far more aggressive movement and far more sort of far reaching, although we were able to move the messages faster and bigger than we – than it had been able to do up til then and also put them in terms of in campaign terms because until then it was more, the rhetoric was much less, I don’t know what to say, effective before that. And actually, Dave Brower changed my life, that’s very, very important. Because he came into a commercial advertising agency and he turned us all into avid environmentalists and I didn’t want to do advertising anymore. So then I formed the first, the country’s first and it may have been the world’s first for all I know, nonprofit advertising company which was at that time called Public Interest Communications and then it became Public Media Center a few years later. But at the time it was Public Interest Communications, we continued to do this work with Brower after he left the Sierra Club and moved onto other organizations. So we continued to work with him and a lot of other organizations, then we would only work for nonprofits, we wouldn’t any longer work for commercial advertising. And we continued to do that on that basis showing the NGO [non governmental organizations] world that they could use some of these same tools if they put it in the right hands, there were other people doing it too and carry a message that would be, that would get equal attention with the message of the corporations that they were fighting.
Huey: The changes within the environmental movement and even its relevance is a question being asked by some.
Jerry Mander: I was just thinking the other day that all the kind of monstrous things that have happened right now that we’re worrying about, climate change for example, is never going to be – is never going to be slowed until we manage to get the corporations that control the politics on climate, the largest oil companies in the world, largest coal companies, the largest energy companies in the world, as long as they are in charge of the political process, as long as they can continue to control it through their wealth and through their political control, we’re not going to reverse climate change.