A penny for your thoughts? Well how about 1610000000000 pence (or, £16.1 billion)? That's how much the UK's advertising industry pays each year for our thoughts. It works out as just under £250 per person. You might think “they're wasting their money”. Most of us like to believe that adverts don’t affect us. But what are the admen doing to justify these sums?
Advertising at its most basic is about explaining why one particular product is faster, stronger or cheaper than its rivals. But these kind of adverts are a rare breed nowadays, mostly to be found stalking the barren wastelands of daytime television or local newspapers, selling things like adjustable mops and leather sofas. This kind of marketing are to the modern advertisement what a primitive flint spear is to a stealth bomber.
More than informing us about a product, the advertiser seeks to shape our understanding of what it means to be happy, beautiful, and successful: What it means to fit in and be accepted, what it means to stand out from the crowd and be our own person, and what it means to have fun. Edward Bernays is the man usually acknowledged as the father of modern advertising. His uncle was Sigmund Freud. During the early 20th century, Bernays transplanted Freud’s ideas about the subliminal drives which motivated human behaviour and applied them to the task of selling people things: selling people films, cigarettes, and even selling people the case for going off to die in battle overseas.
As well as a peddler of goods, Bernays served the American governments propaganda efforts during the First World War. Deeply suspicious of mass democracy, he felt the public mind had to be guided for its own good. Mass consumption was the tonic, providing not only a safe outlet for the dangerous emotional energies of the populace, but a vital boost to industry. Economic growth is the fundamental aim to which our societies have been engineered, and for the economy to produce more, we need to consume more.
Paul Mazur, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers during the great economic slump of the 1930s, is cited as declaring "We must shift America from a needs to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs."
Advertising is not about catering to existing needs, but creating new desires. Not only desires, but insecurities as well, because we cannot desire without feeling like we lack something. The production process for these desires is never achieved within a single advert, it is the accumulation of countless small, subtle messages fed to us every day. Even if you can ignore them, you can’t avoid them. The average Londoner sees 3,500 marketing messages a day. While one might only pause to scrutinise a few of them, the assertions about what it means to be good looking, sophisticated or respectable are rammed home one after the other through a barrage of images.
In doing so, advertising creates new kinds of people. Rather than the advert describing a product, we are the product the advertiser is making. What kind of people does advertising make? Advertising makes people who come to detest their appearance. Faced every day with a prescribed image of beauty to live up to, we stock up on mountains of fibres and lakes of chemicals to try and turn our individual appearance into something approaching the ideal.
The ideal is of course unattainable, its reality airbrushed out. Some of those who can’t attain the ideal go further than just blowing cash on, and starve themselves in an attempt to attain the kind of body shape the billboards and magazines present. The literay critic Northrop Frye once called advertising “a judicious mixture of flattery and threats”. For while advertising tells us to treat ourselves because we’re worth it, it also implies that without the right mix of possessions, we’re simply not worth it. If owning the right clothes, shoes and gadgets means gaining the opportunity to find friends and lovers, success, popularity and status, the flip side is that those who lack them will face loneliness and marginality.
Advertising makes people who feel insecure and unfulfilled when unable to access the products we’re told to desire. The riots which shook the UK’s cities in the summer of 2011 saw kids from poor backgrounds smash their way to the products which they are unable to buy: sportswear, phones and designer fashion which covers the advertising hoardings of the estates, but is priced out of reach. If politicians and media commentators saw this as a sign of ‘greed’ out of control or mass consumerisms’ ugly flipside, they were neglecting to acknowledge that the most destructive manifestation of out of control desire for wealth and possessions lies elsewhere.
The banking crisis revealed greed on a level which most ordinary people find hard to comprehend – greed which led people to take risks which ultimately tanked the economies of the western world into the deepest recession since the 1930s. How can people with so much money already be desperate to get so much more? Advertising makes people who always feel poor, who never quite have enough. If it’s not trainers and smartphones, it’s sports-cars and yachts. The insecurities of the rich are targeted just as are the poor’s.
The middle-classes collectively maxed out their credit-cards in the attempt to have the perfect houses, holidays and wardrobes, and since the credit bubble burst countless thousands are facing a life running endlessly on the treadmill of debt repayment, working not even to live, but just to keep the bank off their back. During the debt-fuelled consumption boom of the pre-crisis years, we began to become aware of the ecological impact of mass consumption. Resources running out and the climate heating up.
Now, ‘restoring growth’, growth depends on getting people back to the shops, and back on the credit cards. Consumer confidence surveys and retail sales figures make headline news. The column inches on the environment have been shrinking as fast as the ice caps. Advertising is part of a system which destroys our future to fulfil the demands of the present, a ceaseless expansion of production and consumption. It is a psychological assault on the public carried out through an invasion of the spaces in which they work, rest and think.
The fight against advertising is not a fight against desiring. We should want more from life not less, and we should demand it. The question is more of what?
This exhibition is about trying to open up questions about the ills created by advertising, the false needs and destructive desires it attempts to instill in us, and it is about trying to reclaim some of the spaces taken from us.