Capitalism: You Look Marvelous!

Economics professor Bryan Caplan explains the beauty of advertising to Adbusters magazine:

Less than a decade ago, I drove from former West Germany to former East Germany, and was struck by how much more beautiful the West was. Houses in the West had flower boxes. Houses in the East did not. I reflected that the aesthetic gap between West and East used to be vastly greater. And I recalled how people I knew who toured the Soviet bloc were more likely to sadly describe the “greyness” of communist life than the machine guns at the border.

The upshot is that the private pursuit of beauty in the West had a striking externality. Every time a West German put a flower box in his window, he was making capitalism look prettier than socialism. And while intellectuals may say they couldn’t care less about such things, I suspect that sheer aesthetics changed a lot of minds about East versus West.

What does this have to do with advertising, and commercialism generally? Corporations do not advertise to create support for capitalism, any more than West Germans planted flowers to fight communism. But advertising does more than just sell one firm’s products; it also contributes to the beautiful image of the whole system.

Flip through a popular magazine, or wander through your local mall. Even if you don’t remember a single product, you get an overall impression of a world that is colorful, fun, glitzy, and sexy. And that probably leads more people around the world to admire capitalism than Milton Friedman ever did.

In other words, Adbusters is right to insist that advertising persuades people to like capitalism more. It does. But contrary to Adbusters, the corporations don’t intend to do it. It just so happens that in their quest to make a buck, corporations make the whole capitalist system look marvelous.


And it does! (Just ask anyone forced to live in Pyongyang.)


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