In the late 1970s US business was spending a billion dollars each year on propaganda of various sorts ‘aimed at persuading the American public that their interests were the same as business’s interests.’ The result of all this expenditure showed in the polls in 1980 when the percentage of people who thought that there was too much regulation soared to 60% (up from 22 per cent in 1975).
The anti-materialism of the hippie generation gave way in the late 1970s to a more consumerist orientation amongst the young, who happily sported advertisements on their T-shirts, often paying for the privilege. Corporate executives were welcomed onto campuses around the country to teach ‘sought after courses on the free-enterprise system’. By 1978 US business had ‘clearly regained the political initiative’ and defeated many of the regulatory measures hard won by public interest activists. They achieved the abolition of the consumer protection agency, reduction of automobile-emissions standards, the deregulation of energy prices and the lowering of corporate taxes.
By 1986 27 states required some form of economics education in primary and/or secondary schools on the assumption that ‘popular misconceptions lead to bad policies’. The Joint Council on Economic Education (JCEE) provided materials for school economic courses and acted as a professional body for those teaching in them. The Joint Council recommended that all school teachers be required to do a course on economic principles as part of their training; that all teachers involved in teaching subjects with economic content receive instruction in how to teach economics; and that all prospective teachers be tested to ensure they have the right understanding of economics.
Part of the aim of all this ‘education’ was to get people used to the idea that ‘it is an appropriate part of business’s role in democracy to judge what beliefs we must hold in order to be ‘economically educated’.’ Glenn K. Hirsch argued that the Ad Council served the corporate ruling class by:
Providing an inexpensive and effective means of mobilizing the populace and insuring the ideological hegemony of the ‘power elite’ over the people through the legitimation of the corporate order; by defining the parameters of public debate; and by acting to prevent the presentation of opposing ideologies.
The Ad Council also performed the function of think tank and forum for top corporations, generating ‘ideas to be used in the effort to articulate the ideology of capitalism’.
In his network analysis of the Council Hirsch found that the Council’s governing bodies and committees included hundreds of top executives from the Fortune 500 banks and corporations. Nearly one third of the Ad Council members were also members of one of the three major elite policy groups at the time: The Committee for Economic Development, The Council on Foreign Relations, and the Business Council. Other ‘interlocks’ included the International Chamber of Commerce, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The Ad Council’s Public Policy committee, which decided what campaigns to pursue, whilst supposedly representing people from all sectors of American society including labour, education and religion, nevertheless drew half of its membership from the corporate world. These people also tended to be members of the three think tanks listed above.
The campaign also sought to challenge and prevent the spread of opposing ideas and values. The Ad Council’s massive media campaigns left little room for those with opposing ideologies to present their messages. It utilised all the free community time that the media had to offer and drowned out all other voices. In this way capitalist hegemony was preserved: the overall political objective being neatly summed up by Hirsh: ‘Public knowledge of inequality and injustice isn’t so damaging as long as these perceptions are not drawn together into a coherent, opposing ideology’.