In mirroring the collective aspirations of consumer society, advertising depicts the world as a thriving place, a place inhabited by people who are healthy, happy, and beautiful – or who, when they are not the beholders of such qualities, have redeeming ones, like a good sense of humor, to compensate for the lack. Materially speaking, people portrayed in ads have their fair share and access to goods, so that when we take a survey of the world as depicted in advertising, what we get is a capitalist utopia, a kingdom come or paradise for the inhabitants of twenty-first-century global consumer society.
In his essay, “Advertising as the Magic System,” Raymond Williams argued that advertising acquired a prominent role in capitalist societies by becoming a system designed to create unreal worlds that would provide the needed context for certain desired meanings to be associated with products. The alchemy or “magic” worked by advertising was that of transmuting products into signifiers of meaning or, in other words, into brands. In this way, advertising became a practice and system focused on transforming products like cars, cigarettes, and shoes into markers of, for example, freedom, masculinity, and self-empowerment.
We have seen meaning-based, brand-building advertising reach a peak in late twentieth-century ad campaigns, such as Apple’s Think Different and Nike’s Just Do It. In the Think Different campaign, Apple sought to connect the brand with a broader sense of the creative potential in humanity. The campaign’s messages featured a number of notable men and women (“rebels,” as the campaign referred to them) like Gandhi, John Lennon, Amelia Earhart, and Albert Einstein who dared to “think different” beyond the limitations of what others thought, and the status quo determined, was possible. Likewise, Nike’s Just Do It treaded on self-transformational themes through messages that sought to motivate and inspire individuals to get moving and achieve more than just physical fitness. Just Do It commanded people to dare to achieve their life goals and dreams.
From Apple to Nike and beyond, we encounter companies conveying through their advertising that the world they stand for is one of abundance; is harmonious, beautiful, and free of waste and pollution; and is a world in which people live to thrive. What would happen if we were to take such messages not as allegory done in the service of brand building, but as a kind of yardstick used to assess the extent to which advertisers help bring about the kind of world depicted in their ads?
There is evidence to suggest that the meanings and idealized world promoted through advertising are not in a real sense being advanced by most advertisers. There are, for example, the notorious revelations of exploitative labor conditions involving factories producing Nike and Apple products, conditions that contradict the very core of the identities put forth by these brands as forces aiming to help humanity achieve more enriched lives. Other, and no less problematic, evidence relates to the so-called unintended effects of advertising. In a review of the major criticisms leveled against advertising, historian Richard Pollay organized these effects into several categories linked to, among other factors, the idealization of the “good life” on which much advertising relies.
Advertising in contemporary consumer society raises moral objections on the grounds that it often, rather than promoting the utopia it portrays, contributes to making a world that moves us away from achieving that very utopic state. It does this by conditioning us – through a process of attempting to breathe meaning into products – to buy and consume rather than to conserve and/or reuse goods. We are conditioned to keep searching for new and improved ways of being, ways that continuously elude us since they cannot really be fully achieved or concretized given that the nature of branding is an ever-morphing one transmuted into new trends, fashions, technologies, and cultural occurrences. As Susan Sontag, writing on consumer society’s incessant production of, and seemingly insatiable appetite for, new images pointed out: “to consume means to burn, to use up, and therefore to need to be replenished. As we make images and consume them we need still more images and still more.”
Another troubling tendency is the presence of alarming contradictions between the harmful effects related to the production and consumption of certain products and the idealized contexts, set-up, props, narratives, and other message cues found in the ads that promote these products. What we encounter are ads like carbon dioxide-spewing cars that ride through pristine nature landscapes; oil companies, trading some of the least sustainable sources of energy on the planet, that deck their brands in all kinds of shades of green; and animal products, whose production processes contribute significantly to climate change and other environmental problems, that are promoted in the context of beautiful, harmonious countryside scenery.
Even in acknowledging these contradictions, a valid counterpoint might be raised that criticizing advertising on the grounds that it fails to bring reality closer to something like our society’s collective dreams is actually to miss the point. The idea here is that advertising is not about getting us closer to concretizing a dream reality, but rather about supplying us continuously, endlessly if we will let it, with new dreams to dream about. In a passage of Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, the main character, Sumire, conjectures that dreams might be the most effective means of bringing about in us a state of evasion from reality:
What must people do in order to avoid a collision (bam!), to continue in the fields, enjoying watching the clouds go by, listening to the grass grow – in other words, not thinking? Seems difficult? Absolutely not. Logically speaking, it is simple. C’est simple. The answer is dreams. To dream nonstop. To enter the world of dreams and never leave from it. To live in dreams for the rest of their lives.
In dreams, we don’t need to make distinctions between things. Absolutely not. Frontiers don’t exist there. That’s why collisions rarely happen in dreams. Even when they do, they don’t hurt. Reality is different. Reality bites.1
Reality bites in pointing us toward dreams and luring us to move toward achieving them as if towards a mirage; advertising serves as an anesthetic. It provides us with the soothing overarching message that our consumption-driven lifestyles conform to the thriving, abundant world depicted in ads. Hence, sadly, most ads keep inviting us to participate unabashedly in the whirlpool of consumer culture even in spite of mounting evidence that there is something wrong with our way of life in twenty-first-century consumer society. It is one based on interrelated systems of production, consumption, and waste that are linked to serious environmental and social problems like climate change, unemployment in rural areas, and the swelling of cities and rise in the ranks of the urban underemployed.
In considering advertising’s trajectory, from content-driven communication to brand-building vehicle, and the contradictions between the idealized world of ads and the problematic real world, one conclusion we might draw about advertising’s role in contemporary consumer culture is this: as it tinges the experience of living in consumer society with meanings greater than the functions served by the goods it promotes, advertising shows us that what we most value are the very intangible meanings and idealized images that, in spite of being so often alluded to in ads, we are least likely to acquire through branded goods. The trick, then, is not to get awestruck by the shining lights of advertising, but to move toward achieving such vision of paradise for all, in this life – in real life.