Today I’ve reviewed the eleventh story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future! Ann Warren Griffith spins a nightmarish dystopia where advertisements are illegal to block out.
Previously: Tomorrow’s TV, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles Waugh (1982). Includes media-themed stories by Isaac Asimov, Jack C. Haldeman II, Ray Bradbury, and Ray Nelson.
Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953) first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (August 1953). You can read it online here.
In the 1950s, Americans depicted Communism as denying inherent human freedoms of choice and enslaving the mind. Over the course of the decade, the terror of Communist brainwashing collided with fears of the detrimental effects of consumer culture and advertising. Perhaps the evil Communist was so successful due to a new softness within the American family (Dunne, 123). Anne Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” imagines a dystopic future in which the American mind is turned into malleable putty by an entropic (and sonic) inundation of advertisements. According to the story’s relentless logic, the last bastions of independent thought will cease to exist in a capitalist world where the right of every product to receive “its share of the consumer dollar” is the only right that matters (57).
The Supermarket, or Where Children Consumers Learn to March
Mavis and Fred and their kids live a suburban life with all the new gadgets and cake mixes and jars and jars and jars of pills. Mavis spends her day cooking and cleaning and compulsively listening to the advertising incantations of the objects that fill her house. In this world every commercial good contains a “tiny disc” that receives a signal from the “Master Ventriloquism Corporation of America” (MV) (53). And every product spews outs advertising jingles and reminders to buy. When Mavis feels uneasy and attempts to analyze her feelings, the products guide her back to the preprogrammed path–“You know, Mother, no other soap gives you a beauty treatment while you wash your dishes […] So let’s begin, shall we?” (56).
Fred, Assistant Vice-President in Charge of Sales at MV, works relentlessly to find new avenues for MV’s sinister tentacles. He too imagines the world in which he lives as a step towards utopian bliss. Like his wife, his actions are dictated by the commercials that provide the sonic and visual texture of life. His cigarette box chirps “Yessir, time to like up a Chesterfield! Time to enjoy that first mild, satisfying smoke of the day” and automatically Fred lit a cigarette (52).
Their children Billy and Kitty, products of the new era, feel at home in the relentless sonic deluge. While the older generation might describe the supermarket as “hell on earth” (57), for the children it’s the most desired source of entertainment (57). Billy and Kitty’s “faces shone with excitement as they picked up one box after another” in order to hear the commercials more clearly (58). Even Mavis feels overwhelmed by the “sounds of gunfire; all kinds of snapping, crackling, and popping,” louds shouts of “CRISPIER! NUTTIER! YUMMIER,” voices of celebrities and athletes, animal noises, and “cowboy songs” and rhymes that fill each and every aisle (58).
But the reverie of the modern age becomes a bit more complex with the arrival of Grandmother. Fred worries her arrival will spell the end of his upward movement at MV. Mavis worries neighbors will judge her. Grandmother is one of the last radicals. She bought earplugs to block out the commercials. But product rights are the only rights that matter and into jail she went. And into jail she wishes to return. But Fred has a brilliant idea!
According to Matthew W. Dunne in A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (2013), after the Korean War an out-pouring of academic and non-academic works depicted growing conformity in the United States “that echoed the more severe interpretations of Communist psychological warfare and likened the methods and culture of American corporate and social institutions” to propaganda and indoctrination (Dunne, 183). It is hard not to read Griffith’s “Captive Audience,” in which the forces of capitalism increasingly script human experience, as engaging in a similar critique as William Whyte’s influential The Organizational Man (1956) from a few years later. In his study, he argues American suburbanites increasingly “lose their identity” due to the “conscious desire to keep up with the Joneses” and community standards of clothing and home décor (Dunne, 188).
Griffith’s capitalist dystopia spells out the paranoid suspicion of psychotherapy used for manipulative purposes that generate suburban conformity (Dunne, 188). As with Whyte’s critique of “The Organization,” Griffith’s character of the Grandmother, the only one who resists the pull of conformity, is branded by her own family as the victim of a “psychic disorder” (Dunne, 189).
Griffith’s searing critique suggests that advertisement will become entertainment, advertisement will become the texture and neurons of existence, advertisement will replace independent thought, advertisement–with all their implicit gender roles and implied virtues–will create the simulacrum of life.
It is a shame that Griffith only published two science fiction stories. Recommended for fans of lesser known 50s science fiction.
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