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‘I’m all out of bubble gum!’ — how advertising is ruining your life

MILES ELLINGHAM examines the ‘malignant ghost’ of commercial advertisement, and why it should be banned

I AM about to make a broad plea, purely for reactionary purposes. Its prerogative would, if sanctioned, change not only the aesthetic landscape of the world around us, but the very operation of our subconscious minds. Please — let’s ban advertising.

On its surface, a commercial advertisement must accomplish two things. First, convey to the viewer that life isn’t good enough, and could be better. Second, furthermore convince said viewer that it’s their new marketed reality that will bring about positive change.

My favourite example of advertising baring its soul is L’Oréal’s all-too-familiar campaign slogan, “because you’re worth it.” This is the ne plus ultra of commercial PR; both a quiet admission that you won’t be truly “worth it” until you commit capital to a particular product, and an utterance of total individualism; the only way you can become “worth it” is by yourself, not as part of a collective body.

The practice of quietly compelling the viewer to doubt the adequacy of their lives is a deeply cynical one, and it’s no surprise to me that levels of anxiety and addictive disorders among global populations have grown alongside the increasing hegemony of advertising in the neoliberal age.

Another demon, unleased upon the viewer via the advert, is choice. In today’s society, we are taught that choice is an absolute good. That choice not only brings about social change, but is held up as the yardstick by which the efficacy of many commercial entities are measured.

However, Slovene philosopher Renata Salecl understands the notion of choice differently; not as a mechanism of freedom, but as a malign, petrifying societal force. In one of her lectures, Salecl asserts, “people are often frozen in some state of indecisiveness when there are too many choices.”

“What is happening on the level of society, where an ideology that dominates the idea of choice at every level of our lives? The idea of choice becomes a domineering idea on which capitalism today is based, not only in regard to consumption, but in regard to perception of life as such…”

Salecl is not, as I am, centring her ideas concerning choice around the hegemony of advertising, but rather the prevalence of choice in our “perception of life” — What kind of partner do I want? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to look like?

However, I would argue that the commercial advert leads with a choice, as any sales pitch does, a choice between continuing life as it was, or attempting to improve it on the merit of the product. In every choice there is a loss, in fulfilling the advert, we lose a possibility of another life.

Besides asserting that your life is not good enough, and you’re the only one that can change it, L’Oreal’s “because your worth it” conveys yet another terror, it forces you to recognise that you — not society — are guilty and complicit in the failures of your life. This is as evil as it is ingenious. It’s enough to make a man mad, and promotes a perception that no one political cause can alleviate life’s catastrophe. And all on a subconscious plane.

But advertising wasn’t always concerned with the subconscious as it is today; one hundred years ago, advertisements were primarily delivered on the basis of necessity, not desire. The change came at the hands of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and the father of modern PR.

Upon reading his uncle’s work, pioneer capitalist Edward Bernays quickly realised that psychoanalysis could be used to sell products. That the consumer could be tricked, by their unconscious desires, into buying something.

Bernays’s first success came in the 1920s, with the cigarette companies. In 1928, George Washington Hill, president of The American Tobacco Company, voiced concerns to Bernays that, due to the masculine perception of cigarettes, companies were losing out on half the market.

As egregious as it sounds, Bernays then looked to the birth of first wave feminism to expand Hill’s market. Having consulted AA Brill, a prominent American psychoanalyst, Bernays was told that he could essentially dupe the feminist cause into selling smoking, on the grounds that cigarettes could subconsciously endow them with the “member” they so lacked, the absence of which led to their oppression in the first place.

Bernays then came up with the phrase, “Torches of Freedom,” the proxy-penis of liberty, and paid various feminist protesters to smoke their “torches” during the Easter Day Parade in New York. Through subconscious advertising, based on desire, the cigaretted modern woman became a symbol of female empowerment, and feminist Ruth Hale called on women to join the march, shouting, “Women! Light another torch of freedom!”

Now, almost a century later, advertising functions solely on the understanding that desire sells better than necessity. Sex, for instance, is used to sell shampoo, food and cars. The image of the nuclear family is constantly thrown towards our children in an effort to influence the household.

And they haven’t stopped using political movements to sell products. In 2018, Gillette ran the “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” campaign which attempted, on behalf of Gillette’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, to tackle questions concerning toxic masculinity.

The response was widespread, on one side of the divide you had chauvinists and Men’s Rights Activists throwing their razors down the toilet in protest, on the other, click-bait columnists fawning over how “woke” the ad was.

No one, however, questioned why a corporation was cynically using discussions of gender normalities to peddle razor blades and shaving cream. Or whether, were the socio-cultural tide running in a different direction, Gillette would’ve put out an opposing view.

In a capitalist society, we trick ourselves into thinking we have autonomy over what we consume, but this is wrong. On the London Tube, for instance, we are constantly exposed to advertising that we cannot avoid. On many flights an advertisement will sit on the back of the seat in front, commanding our eye-line for the duration of the journey.

In his The Consumer Society, Jean Baudrillard asserts that “advertising as a whole has no meaning, it applies only meanings.” This is true, advertising is a malignant ghost, the meaning we see in it is a mirage, utilised to sell products.

And the spectre of advertising is only getting spookier with the digitalisation of society, a plane of reality where advertising can exist unchecked. With “sponsored content” adverts, dressed as news, contort our fundamental perceptions of reality.

The commercial advert attempts to convince us of a reality that doesn’t exist, depress us with the anxiety of our past failures, and atomises us from the political, collective sphere.

In a world in which everything is selling something, where bus stops, internet pop-ups, news stories, roadside billboards, train stations, tray tables, bathroom stalls, taxi cabs, elevators and escalators all scream for your attention and, somewhere along the line, your wallet — we must fight tooth and nail for self-reflection, for bit of peace and quiet.


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