Future Media Short Story Review: Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953)

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.

Up Next: Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” in Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time, ed. Michael Bishop (1984). You can read it online here.

3.75/5 (Good)

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!

Final Thoughts

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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21 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953)

  1. 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.

    …handily pre-explaining That Fuck Zuck’s intense desire to create Meta. I shudder to my core when I think about it.

    • Haha. Speaking of Meta, I have a virtual reality story review in the works as well — planned on including it in this post but I thought Griffith’s story deserved its own article.

      Tempted by this one? I wish she wrote more (two published SF stories). It’s definitely not as well told as an Aldiss tale (thinking of my earlier review of “Panel Game”) but the ideas are fantastic.

            • Yeah, I definitely rely on my site — it’s very helpful having a good 3/4rds of the science fiction I’ve read since 2010 reviewed. Especially when it comes to short fiction which passes, more often than not, much more quickly from my mind.

    • Sure. But then it would be a completely different story…. I think I demonstrate in this review with my inclusion of historical context how tied it is to its era and the immediate post-Korean War world.

      Tempted to give it a read? Or did you already?

  2. I read Griffith’s ‘Captive Audience’ a few years back and found it unremittingly grim. Not only for its prescience, but even more for the claustrophobic atmosphere it conjures. Perhaps it would have seemed, back in the 1950s, as if the commodities being flogged in the mass market were speaking to us, incessantly. These proliferating advertisements were not only saying “buy me”, but more insistently they were selling an image of an apparently desirable life—what is referred to in a relatively prosaic fashion as the “American way of life”. Griffith’s genius lay in making this monologue explicit: giving voice to the mute things that increasingly called to us from supermarket shelves.

    “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).”

    Surely this is us! As a kid I felt that the shopping malls were more desirable than the suburban wastelands in which they stood. I even ran away from home to a shopping mall once when I was around 7 or 8! It recalls to me Guy Debord’s mordant comments that by the late 1980s a whole generation had been raised and moulded to the laws of the new forms of “spectacular” capitalism; a generation that knew nothing else but the endless monologue of mass consumerism and its avatars. When I first read Debord’s words in the early 1990s I knew he was speaking to my generation and all those that have come after. We who have never known anything but full spectrum, 24/7, mass market capitalism.

    • Thank you for your great comment. I agree that the genius of the story lies in literally giving voice to the consumer landscape. I’m currently reading Elaine Tyler May’s wonderful Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988, revised ed. 2017) and I see Griffiths’ story as directly attacking common 50s rhetoric arguing that the suburban home was perceived as engendering peace and security in the face of the specter of nuclear war and the fears of Communism. Here the commercialization of the family enslaves it to the whims of the powers that be. There is no peace in this home. There’s only further occupation of the mind.

      Most early 50s criticism of the suburban life focused on the travails of the man — i.e. the organizational man Whyte describes (discussed in the review) — in the face of the growth of mass companies at the expense of local stores. Many at the time saw the housewife as liberated from need (having to work in factories in WWII, freedom from necessity due to the post-WWII boom) and “freed” by the suburban experience. Griffth’s story complicates this narrative as the housewife is caught in the same trap as her husband.

      In a disturbing way, this story is about wanting to believe the rhetoric that the suburban home is a locus of freedom… Both husband and wife believe it all.

  3. This brings to mind another aspect of consumerism which impacted a lot of people. Home shopping networks have been around for 40 years now and have used a sense of family and belong into people’s homes to soften them up for the sales pitch. I have personally known people who i felt were addicted to these channels and purchased much more stuff than they actually needed and often more than they could afford. I don’t remember any specific SF story that may have extrapolated on this form of sales technique but maybe someone else does.

  4. Sounds a lot like now, where often the commercials are more entertaining than the shows they appear in. Look at the commercials starring “Flo” and her gang. It’s like a free floating thirty-second, long-running, sit-com. And how many people tune in to the superbowl just to watch the ads?

    • Hello Mark, I hope you’re doing well — haven’t heard from you in a bit. You are right that there’s something as uncanny about watching Flo for years as watching a soap opera through the decades…

      Wasn’t this cycle of Super Bowl ads mostly about sports betting? hah. I haven’t watched it in a decade….

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