A hypothesis implied by Galbraith

pp. 171-172 of Competition and Entrepreneurship has J.K. Galbraith asserting, “that independently determined consumer desires [do not] dictate the pattern of production. The ‘institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship…cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires–to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.'”

Beyond the obvious first step (recognizing that consumers’ desires could not possibly be determined independently of the market process), this raises an interesting hypothesis: Advertisers should a) recognize that they’re selling snake oil and consume significantly less than similar people, or b) be particularly excited about the prospects of new and exciting products generally. In either case advertising should affect them differently than regular consumers and they should consume a different amount than consumers generally. At the very least, their consumption patterns should be different from regular consumers in the particular goods that they are advertising.

The criticism of advertising as socially wasteful (i.e. using up resources without actually making consumers better off) may hold up if evidence is found in support of the above hypothesis. In the case of pattern ‘a)’ it may be clear that advertising is manipulative and anti-social. But in the case of pattern ‘b)’ or the null (advertisers buy the same junk as the rest of us) we either have to abandon the criticism of advertising or come up with some ad hoc story about how everyone is stupid and their preferences shouldn’t matter.