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My mailbox at home is stuffed with baby magazines these days: Baby, American Baby, Parenting. Plus there are the catalogs from ToysRUs and One Step Ahead and Peg Perego and more. Not to mention the letters from life insurance companies that basically say, "Congratulations on your new baby ... Ever wonder where he/she would be if you happened to drop dead right now?"
Our daughter Sarah was born in March, but my wife and I have been getting these mailings pretty much since the end of her first trimester. We believe we can trace the start of it to our first trip to a maternity clothing store -- the company was running a contest; flush with the thrill of identifying ourselves as parents-to-be (and, for Carole, the end of morning sickness) we blithely filled out name and address and due date -- but we have no way of really knowing how we were targeted. However it happened, an elaborate apparatus was set in motion, dedicated to anticipating any need we might have, informing us of it, and meeting it, meeting it, meeting it.
While this level of efficiency can be useful if you're in the market, say, for a carriage/stroller with smart Italian styling that is also lightweight and folds like an umbrella for hallway storage, the experience of being marked as a consumer category has been a bit unnerving. The question comes: What else do they know? The answer, of course, is: Plenty.
What happened to us is a minor and relatively benign instance of a phenomenon examined in a book by Joseph Turow, C'72, ASC'73, Gr'76, professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, excerpted in this issue. Thanks to advancing database technology and new "customizable" delivery methods like the Internet, advertisers are ever more effective in their efforts to reach members of selected groups and no others. Turow's provocative thesis is that, rather than simply reflecting an increasingly fragmented reality, this actually creates and reinforces divisions in society, breaking down America into sharply-defined, mutually exclusive "primary media communities," or more evocatively, "image tribes," with little knowledge of, interest in, or sympathy for non-members -- which is good for advertisers, but bad for the rest of us.
While it may be shredding the fabric of society, advertising has its positive qualities, too. For one thing, if it weren't for TV commercials, the Penn alumni profiled in Howard Gensler's "Show Me The Funny!" who write situation comedies would have to find some other way to make a living and the millions of fans of shows like Murphy Brown, Friends and many others would have to find some other way of spending their evenings. (To find out if you're spending too many evenings in front of the tube, take our Penn TV trivia quiz on page 32).
The story of Jon Sarkin, C'75, may be coming soon to a TV or movie screen near you, but you can read about him here first. Sarkin was a successful chiropractor and an occasional, though gifted, doodler until a stroke transformed him into an artist seemingly wild to create. Sarkin's art has enormous energy and a kind of fevered exuberance, and his personal story -- the stroke also left him with a host of physical impairments -- is a powerful example of someone triumphing over tragedy.
Finally, we offer a report on a conference on medical ethics co-sponsored by Penn's Center for Bioethics and held on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the American Medical Association's Code of Ethics. Topics covered at this gathering included some perennial ethical issues, like the recurrent hostility and rapprochement between scientific medicine and alternative therapies, as well as some decidedly new ones (cloning, anyone?).
John Prendergast, C'80

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/2/97