The power of advertising

Where would modern society be without advertising? Individual advertisers might think they are just trying to sell a particular product but advertising as a whole sells us an entire lifestyle. If it weren't for advertising the whole of society would be quite different. The economy, for instance, would be plunged into a crisis without the adverts and all the publicity that fuel our desire for limitless consumption.

As John Berger observed in his book "Ways of Seeing", all advertising conveys the same simple message: my life will be richer, more fulfilling once I make the next crucial purchase. Adverts persuade us with their images of others who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The purpose is to make me marginally dissatisfied with my life - not with the life of society, just with my individual life. I am supposed to imagine myself transformed after the purchase into an object of envy for others - an envy which will then give me back my love of myself.

The prevalence of this social envy is a necessary condition if advertising is to have any hold on us whatsoever. Only if we have got into the habit of comparing ourselves with others and finding ourselves lacking, will we fall prey to the power of advertising.

While fanning the flames of our envy advertising keeps us preoccupied with ourselves, our houses, our cars, our holidays and the endless line of new electronic gadgets that suddenly seem indispensable. Tensions in society and problems in the rest of the world, if attended to at all, quickly fade into the background. They are certainly nothing to get particularly worked up about. After all, there can't be any winners without losers. That's life.

Furthermore, together with the holy rituals of shopping (people get dressed up now to go shopping in the way that they only used to get dressed up when they went to church) advertising is one of the ways in which we are quietly persuaded that our society is the best of all possible worlds (or at least so good that it is not worth campaigning for any fundamental changes). Adverts implicitly tell us to get off our fat arses and do some shopping, and the idea that the shelves of the shops are full of the latest products is indeed one of the most effective ways in which contemporary society gets its legitimation.

People like John Berger are also not entirely over the moon about the impact that advertising and shopping have on the value of political freedom. Freedom is supposed to be the highest value in our societies, but in the age of the consumer that freedom is all too readily identified with the freedom to choose between Pepsi and Coke, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Toyota and Ford, and people lose interest in the various political freedoms and our ability to participate in the process of exercising democratic control. There are lots of criticisms that could be made of modern democracies, but no one is going to pay much attention to them if they are more interested in becoming happy shoppers.

In all these ways advertising helps to keep the whole socio-economic show on the road. We are rarely aware of this because we are too busy working to earn the money to pay for the objects of our dreams - dreams that play on the screen of our mind like the little clips of film we see in the commercial breaks.

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