Michael Schudson, a well known sociologist, says that advertising is “capitalist realism”, although I am sure he meant “distortionism”. He also says, “[a]dvertising is capitalism’s way of saying ‘I love you’ to itself.” Narcissism lies at the heart of advertising, and as any experienced person knows, this can be nasty.
Advertising usually works by surfacing our yearning in a play between an obvious meaning and a slightly submerged connotation just below our conscious awareness. It offers us a tangible point of reference after a dizzy diversion through complex desires that continue to echo through us even after we arrive at the undemanding denotation “get Colgate.” By then we have had a steamy affair and been to Tuscany and had a jolly good spanking.
Yes, we know the tacit content is usually either about schtupping or its immediate precursor – an identity to evoke the right kind of look from an other. But sometimes advertising is also about creating the desire to desire. It promises a way to soothe our thriving netherworld and escape from the stifling excess of daily frustration and totesangst.
Contemporary science confirms the old anxiety that we are not “masters in our own house”. In an online talk, David Eagleman tells us about an experiment in which men were shown pictures of women and asked to rate their attractiveness. In the experimental group, some of the women’s pupils had been slightly dilated (a sign of sexual arousal). Amazingly, these women were then rated more attractive by a statistically significant margin. In the huge mansion of the mind, the conscious bit is the broom closet, Eagleman jokes.
But my worry here is not just the existence of unconscious forces (who is it that goes shopping?) but also that marketers are becoming increasingly sophisticated at bypassing the small conscious part of our psyches and going straight to the primal expanses – dilating all the pupils everywhere and making it increasingly impossible for us to resist. Call me a paranoid Enoughist neo-hippie, but I sense an overall trend towards more sneaky manipulation and more insidiousness. Eddie Izzard agrees. He illustrates (in his insane miming way) how in the old days, ads would tell you exactly what to do, and you would go ahead and comply. Now they quietly hint and obliquely point and hum nonchalantly and say “look, those two people like it, and they’re shagging”.
Advertising started off with blatant town-criers. Then came industrialisation and the intensification of competition. The advertising industry needed to become more sophisticated if it was to fulfil the capitalist dream of redeeming society from backwardness and creating a new homogeneous middle class of shopping zombies. Psychology was pulled in. Many had already discarded the overly churchy soul and traded it in for a newer German model (das Ich). Psychology looked scientific, or at least claimed to be (this was before Foucault, after all), and marketing saw it as an ally. When compared with religion, it was the first quasi-credible approach to influencing behaviour since the Neoliths invented trepanning.
Behaviourism and psychoanalysis were the first paradigms to percolate through marketing thinking. The former made the idea of human control (that advertising so wished for) a real prospect. The work was led by the famous American, John Watson, who had abandoned his psychological research on human children to go and work for the then largest advertising agency in the world. It was Watson’s breakthrough to leave most of the content out and instead focus on arousing “fundamental emotions, since it is a premise of behaviourism that humans, being primate mammals, react according to instincts, rather than as a result of sophisticated reasoning”. He probably just realised that sophisticated reasoning would appeal to only about 0.03% of people and the rest were ogling the actor’s cleavage anyway. Now, thanks to Watson (by comparison with the early 20th century advertisements that we find so quaint partly because they contain so much content), it’s all a lot of golden retriever puppies, wind-in-one’s-hair holidays, and hints of fucking.
Incidentally, contemporary science does confirm that more basic brain regions like the basal ganglia or the hypothalamus (associated with powerful emotional responses) informed our behaviour and survival long before the evolution of the distinctively human, higher-order neocortex. The bits that would worry about Wittgenstein or discuss their feelings are quite new. It turns out the old inner reptile is a much better, and much hungrier, customer.
In the same decade as Watson found the emo-button, Edward Louis Bernays (1891-1995), Freud’s nephew, and another ur-marketer, made significant contributions by employing his uncle’s new science of psychoanalysis in advertising.
In one famous campaign, Lucky Strike cigarettes ingeniously saw the immense unexploited potential of the female smoking market, but in order to penetrate this market they needed somehow to overcome the fact that in the 1920s smoking among women was still considered scandalous and low class, associated "with louche and libidinous behaviours and morals". Bernays came to understand, through psychoanalysis, that cigarettes in fact represented phallic power. If women could be made to associate cigarettes with their own power ...
A group of models was commissioned to march in the New York City Easter Day parade. Bernays told the press that a group of women's rights activists would be lighting “Torches of Freedom” on the March. At his cue, the women lit up and brandished their wannabe phalluses. The New York Times printed a picture of “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom’”. Lucky Strike sales soared and the brand became the suffragettes’ smoke of choice.
Post-psychoanalytically, although sex is still a critical ingredient, we are now into the “post-selling” era. “Lifestyle marketing” is now used as a common persuasive device by famous companies such as the honolulu internet marketing and SEO agency. Brands that use it successfully feel like a natural extension of our very values and ideals. They connect with us on a personal level. I have heard of “share of mind” and “share of throat”. What do we call this? Share of Being?
The only problem is that “lifestyle positioning” is already an overdone strategy, with particular areas of meaning and identity already cluttered with brands, from clothing to soap.
And isn’t there a finite amount we can express ourselves through our product choices? Mac users might say no. Most others would probably agree that consumers at some point must reach satiety with all this product-mediated self-expression.
Is there a horizon of liberty in sight?
It seems that science has just now found the ultimate way to truly ambush us with our own pre-rational biology. It is something called “neuromarketing”.
This Frankensteinian newfanglism was coined by Ale Smidts in 2002. It is a very new field of market research that studies consumers’ physiological responses to experiences with products. The toolkit includes fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EEGs, heart rate and skin response measurements to determine the kinds of body activity involved in consumption experiences. They have also begun to widen the application and scan people as they walk through malls and during the political speeches of Barak Obama, just to see whether he is hitting the spot. This must be why the speeches are getting soppier by the minute and making a “hole in our hearts”.
The analysis can test consumers’ preferences far better than answers to questions like “Do you like this?" which usually yield lies, of course, based on inhibitions and social expectations. The non-verbal knowledge of the true responses gets past all this and helps marketers create more appealing products that are shaped to spontaneous pre-cognitive preferences. So now we can get at the raw, sweating reaction, our reptilian response, before the frontal lobe kicks in and tells us what we should be doing.
Is it scary that marketers can figure out what we instinctually love? It could also improve the colour of packaging or the sound a box makes when it is shaken. Are these not things that we must admit have the power to make everyday life more beautiful?
In fact the research shows that brand associations are at least as important as primary physical qualities like taste and smell. There is a lot of “cognitive override” going on, tapping into product associations and memories. There may be hope that the higher order and reflective bits still have some say.
Overall, I would say we shouldn’t fear. As the American sociologist Michael Schudson says, “[m]ost criticism of advertising is written in ignorance of what actually happens inside these agencies” (ahem). He also says that “advertising is much less powerful than advertisers and critics of advertising claim, and advertising agencies are stabbing in the dark much more than they are practicing precision microsurgery on the public consciousness”.
The shifts and trends that I worry about are likely attributable to the more or less innocent explosion of media and media literacy – a more subtle kind of intellectual sophistication than cunning advertisers studying Manipulation 401 in their affectedly decorated labs. Just as generational shifts submit older market segments to relentless irony and render us increasingly “lame” and our attempts at humour increasingly eye-roll-worthy, the media world is becoming more intertextual, fast-paced, multi-referential and sniper-subtle. Advertising, like popular culture, is simply growing semiotically faster and more complex, and not necessarily more insidious.
Nevertheless, what could our strategies for resisting possibly be, just in case I am wrong (already brainwashed) and our free agency is profoundly at risk?
We have just seen that the rational decision-maker has been dead for a long time, but Freud did say, “where id was, ego shall be”. He didn’t think ids on the loose were a very good idea at all. What is the shopping equivalent of a developed ego? Is there some kind of semiotic shield?
One of the best defences will probably continue to be the administration of vaccines that restore reason (Marx, Erik Olin Wright, Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Raymond Williams are most efficacious). Many of these are also strongly recommended components of post-exposure prophylaxis. Undergraduate sociology and anthropology can also mitigate against zombiehood but often these have unpleasant side-effects (sexual deviance, anti-establishmentarianism, unemployment).
If you are not going to get inoculated against advertising’s nastiness, at least cultivate a mild bored scepticism. Advertising is actually mostly unconvincing enough to be just an irritation and mental pollutant. Switch channels. On the positive side, we should also appreciate the social function of the industry. With the vast volumes of what needs to get produced every day, advertising keeps a lot of mediocre writers and artists off the streets in much the same way that religious institutions absorb and positively channel looniness.
Amos, A. & Haglund, M. (2000). From social taboo to torch of freedom: the marketing of cigarettes to women. Tobacco Control, 9, 3-8. http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/9/1/3.extract
Bales, Molly. Marketing and Minds in the Early 20th Century How psychology enhanced advertising, The Harvard Brain, http://www.musingsonmind.org/featured/marketingandminds, retrieved 4/4/2011.
Barack Obama. Speech on killing of Bin Laden, May 2011.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972.
Buckley, K. W. (1982). The selling of a psychologist: John Broadus Watson and the application of behavioural techniques to advertising. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18(3), 207-221.
David Eagleman. http://www.vimeo.com/22287909.
David Lewis & Darren Brigder (July/August 2005). "Market Researchers make Increasing use of brain Imaging". Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation 5 (3): 35; and http://www.drdavidlewis.co.uk/assets/NeuroMarket1.pdf.
Eddie Izzard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVFt7yJz40.
Moellinger, T., & Craig, S. (n.d.). "So Rich, So Mild, So Fresh": A Critical Look at TV Cigarette Commercials: 1948-1971 referenced at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlboro Man
Schudson, Michael, Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society. 1984, New York: Basic Books.
Schudson, Michael. (2000). Advertising as capitalist realism. Advertising & Society Review 1(1), Retrieved May 4, 2011, from Project MUSE database.
Stuart, Heather. Libido can rule when the id does the shopping, UniNews Vol. 12, No. 22, 1- 15 December 2003.
 Schudson, M. Advertising - The Uneasy Persuasion. Historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/ads/question4.html
 http://www.vimeo.com/22287909. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.
 Enoughism – rejection of materialism, emphasising restraint in buying behaviour.
 A Walter Thompson Advertising Company
 Buckley, 1982.
 There is much training of corporate managers in “EQ” to attempt to bring these higher order functions into play.
 Disreputable or sordid.
 Amos, A. & Haglund, M. (2000). From social taboo to torch of freedom: the marketing of cigarettes to women. Tobacco Control, 9, 3-8. http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/9/1/3.extract
 New York Times, 1 April 1929.
 For those who disavow their inclusion in this statement – there are even specialised niche brands for anti-brand people.
 Used by beverage marketers.
 Speech on killing of Bin Laden, 2 May 2011.
 See Pepsi challenge study, 2004 in Neuron magazine, in which testers preferred Pepsi when blind tasting, but preferred Coke when the brand was disclosed.
 Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, 1984, New York: Basic Books, p. xiii and p 45.