Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

On Advertising and Lima Beans

Over at Vile File there's a pointed new entry called Death by Lima Bean. And while I think some very valid points are made, I fear that there's some huge issues being overlooked.

In essence Vile File is ranting about the recent tendency to blame advertising on things like childhood obesity. Why not blame the parent who allows the kid to eat McDonalds cheeseburgers whenever they want? Surely it's the responsibility of the parent to watch their child's diet... not the Advertising Standards Authority! And the piece concludes by asking, "if someone were to expire after eating 2kgs of lima beans," (an apparently toxic dose), "do we then blame the lima beans, the person advertising the lima beans, or the Damn Fool who ate insane amounts of them?"

These are good points. And I agree completely with Vile File that people need to take charge of their lives and throw off the yokes of consumer capitalism. To wake up to the fact that our over-consumption of everything from cheeseburgers to fossil fuels is killing us. Where I think Vile File's piece falls down is by failing to acknowledge just how much advertising is in fact tied into this. She says: "As every right-minded individual knows, it is of course, not advertising, but over-consumption of these products that is to blame."

Well yes. In a strictly literal sense. But isn't it just begging the question? Yes, we do know that the over-consumption of cheeseburgers is going to give little Timmy a heart-attack when he's a 41-year old big Timmy. But that's just stating the obvious. Doesn't the question then become, "Well, why the hell is little Timmy eating so many burgers?" It's exactly the same as knowing that by continuing to over-consume fossil fuels at our current rate we face an inevitable future of escalating, suicidal warfare. "So why the hell are you still driving your car?"

You don't think, Vile File, that perhaps escaping the culture of "over-consumption" isn't quite as easy as you seem to imply? And that perhaps poor little Timmy (whose health is screwed up for good now, thanks to his cheeseburger habit) is simply one obvious symptom of a much wider malaise? People are weird like that... they'll manifest their own little neurotic symptoms of over-consumption.

Yes, Timmy's parents should be taking more responsibility. I agree completely. But are we really going to abandon a generation of children to the ravages of over-consumption simply because their parents are too weak to resist? Is that a sensible solution to the problem? Turning our backs on it and calling it "somebody else's"? Because there is a problem. And it is a serious one... and one that could do incredible damage to our society in a fairly short space of time. So if the people we all agree should be sorting it out, are in fact unable or unwilling to do so, then I can't see the merit in ignoring it.

If you ask me, the very first step towards sorting out this problem (and it is only a first step) is to completely ban all forms of corporate advertising. Whah-hey! Think what that'd do to the economy! Think how popular I'd be in advertising agencies throughout the land! But all the same; that's got to be the first step. Perhaps at some later date we could reintroduce some form of strictly designed and controlled "opt-in" advertising schemes. But for now it makes sense to just ban it completely.

Proponents of advertising paint it as some kind of public information service. How will people know which product to buy unless the manufacturer can talk about them? And what about the freedom of the manufacturers to promote their products? Advertising is there "to inform us" they say. And to oppose that is clearly to be opposed to "choice", and hence, to freedom.

Here's a tip should you ever find yourself discussing advertising with someone who takes the above claims seriously... tell them to leave you alone until they've straightened up.

But should it turn out that they're not, in fact, on a powerful cocktail of cocaine and ketamine, and actually do believe them to be true, then i recommend backing away slowly. Who knows what other delusions they may be labouring under!

Advertising is not about imparting information. It is about emotional and psychological control. It is about stimulating specific responses within targeted sections of the public, often via the use of powerful psychosexual and emotionally manipulative images, sounds and phrases. This isn't even a controversial point. It's what they teach undergrads on business and marketing degrees in universities across the globe.

And even assuming that "choice" is a Universally Good Thing, no advertising campaign has the aim of "increasing choice". Every single one has the aim of restricting choice. If that's not what they're aiming to do, then they're not doing their job right. Every advert is an attempt to narrow your choice to that product alone. That's the essential role of the billboard or TV spot or internet banner.

So to the "Provides Choice" mob, I just wonder why it is you believe that the best way to enhance choice is to set up a system where lots of talented, competing groups try to work out and implement the best ways of restricting it? It's a pretty perverse strategy, you have to admit.

The following does not attempt to be a complete description of modern advertising. But it is an accurate one:
Intelligent, well-paid people with massive financial resources are working very hard to subvert my, and your, own decision-making capacity. They are using ever more potent images and ever more extreme psychological techniques to manufacture and implant subconscious desires. What's more, there's a whole bunch of them at it... all at the same time... sometimes powerfully reinforcing each other; more often creating inner conflict and discord as they each attempt to use different manipulative emotions to achieve their aim of product awareness.
- Johann Rissle
(p239: Art, Value and the Avant-Garde)
Permit me the self-indulgence of a personal example (which I wrote down a few months back)...
I was on a bus to Stoke Newington recently and heavy traffic around Stamford Hill left me staring out the window for a couple of minutes as two billboards slowly passed by. One of them was for a children's charity and showed a battered child, clearly in some distress, and a tagline about how frighteningly common an occurrence this is.

Right next to that massive poster was an equally massive advertisement for a travel company. The poster was dominated by a near naked woman lying on a tropical beach and an invitation to rub sunscreen on my back (unusually for posters of the ouevre, the woman wasn't some generic conveyor-belt airbrushed model but was genuinely good looking).

Everyone passing those posters, leastways everyone who fancies women, can't help but be slightly turned on by the extremely fanciable near naked woman. Yet you are forced to juxtapose that involuntary reaction with an image of a beaten 7 year old girl. And you have to do that - unconsciously - several times a day. I find that extremely troubling, and I believe it's at the root of much of the neurosis that has gripped our society.

And if you're one of those people who fails to perceive that cultural neurosis. Someone who says "So what?" to the sheer psychological pollution of advertising. Someone who says "What's the big deal? It doesn't have any effect of me!" then I humbly suggest you at least examine the possibility that you are simply unaware of the effects. Which almost certainly amplifies them.

But perhaps you don't get turned on by erotic images of the opposite sex (or the same sex if that's your bag, baby) and don't feel depressed when shown images of beaten children, or don't feel uncomfortable when asked to feel both simultaneously. I do though. And I think most others do. And despite the ludicrous claims by some, to oppose that is not the same as opposing "freedom".
Corporations would not be spending billions attempting to manipulate us psychologically without our consent, unless they had some evidence it worked. In fact, there's about a gazillion case-studies which demonstrates that it does. As I already mentioned, this is mainstream stuff on marketing degrees. It was a bunch of followers of Freud who kicked off the modern marketing industry.

Hell, back as far as the 1940s none less than Albert Einstein was desperately warning against this very thing...
... under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions...
- Albert Einstein
(Why Socialism?)
And we've come a long way since the "existing conditions" of the 1940s.

I'm not suggesting that little Timmy is eating too many burgers because he saw one too many McD's advert. I don't believe the correlation is anything like that direct. But I do believe that the advertising industry is responsible in a large part for our culture of over-consumption; that through media-saturation this over-consumption has been firmly instilled into the psyche of countless millions as being "normal". And that - in my view - is where the problem needs to be tackled.


Blogger tincanman said...

You could draw it even further back and say that advertising is a by-product of enterprise.

After all, advertising would have no purpose if the companies weren't trying to make massive profits, would they?

30gb iPod, as an example. Why do we need it? [Just look at all the bloggers who are signing up for their 'free' iPods] The battery will probably run out before you've listened to all the music.

15/2/05 21:04  
Blogger L said...

I've chucked my television, which helped alleviate the pain somewhat. Somehow though, I think there is truly no escape, unless I move to Guam or something....

17/2/05 01:20  
Blogger merrick said...

Hey wack job,

a further club with which to beat the 'public information' idea over the head is this; products are advertised more or less in direct proportion to how little use they are.

For instance, I have spoons in my house. You have spoons in your house. Everyone I know has spoons. Yet none of us have ever seen a spon ad. We don't need to. The spoon is self-evidently useful (and nobody has the patent) so it doesn't need advertising.

On the other hand, ads for cosmetics, unhealthy food and fizzy drinks abound.

We intelligent media literate types love to think we're above it. Oh yeah? Try going the pub and see how your mates pick different brands of lager. Then do a blindfold test. Where people can differentiate at all, they (almost) never pick the one they usually buy.

If advertising didn't work, they wouldn't do it. Given the onslaught of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of messages a day insisting you consume, every day, in so many media and settings, as if anyone could resist.

18/2/05 00:05  
Blogger Ryan said...

Two points, wack job! :)

Firstly, it wouldn't work, would it? The corporations would not obey.

"Guerilla" advertising is already a fact of life. I've seen grafitti sprayed by corporations - adverts for Eminem's latest album sprayed in yellow on the pavement or street furniture. Flyposting, which generally makes our streets more colourful and lets us know about up and coming events, is also used illegally by big corporations. And then there's those people who are paid to go to busy bars and lean over to whoever's buying a drink and go "Can you get me a bottle of Brand X please?", promting the response "Oh! i've never heard of Brand X" and before long everyone in the bar is buying Brand X (an example I stole from the book "The corporation".

So ban advertising and you'll drive it underground .. perhaps giving it an opportunity to seem more "urban" and "hip".

Secondly, the streets, where much advertising takes place, are public places. They reflect our society. Corporations dominate our society, and that's the root of the problem.

You're surely not against any images being displayed on the streets? Your exapmple of the two images you are forced to juxtapose - surely we are forced to juxtapose images all the time? Whenever we see a tramp sleeping outside a department store, for example. What if the two posters you mention were replaced with one public information poster about child abuse, non-corporate and thus allowed under the new Bliss Regine, and, for example, a grafitti'd image of a near-naked woman, done really well and guarunteed to arouse you?! That near-naked woman would be sprayed for the sake of art, rather than commerce.

Advertising is powerful and frightening, granted, I agree with that. But the root of the problem is the profit-driven society. Better then, to ban corporations! Why the hell should the owners of a business have limitted liabilty? Why shouldn't businesses be owned by people who actually have a stake in them, and care about them, by people who are liable and can be prosecuted if the organisation does wrong? Lets get rid of this whole shareholder situation, which obliges the management of corporations to seek profit and growth at the expense of anything else, to maximise shareholder value.

As long as we're forming idealistic pipedreams, I mean...

18/2/05 09:28  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Hey Ryan,

first let me point out that this posting was more 'rant' than 'coherent theory'. In other words, it encapsulates my feelings on the issue, but not the entirety nor the details of my complete solution.

You're right, of course, when you say up front "the corporations would not obey". But under a society run in accordance with the Bliss Manifesto, corporations would be very different entities to the hypertrophic behemoths of today. For a start, the profit-motive would be relegated to a very low priority (if it still existed at all).

Corporations would still exist, but their first, and over-riding priority, would be the fulfillment of an agreed-upon social function in an ecologically sustainable way.

I've yet to decide (the Manifesto still being a work in progress) whether the profit motive would survive as a subservient aim of the corporate entity. I suspect that actually, it would do. Once you have the agreed primary role being fulfilled, then it is possible that a subservient profit-motive would lead to greater efficiency in the long-run.

Though in truth, I've not given that detail enough thought as yet to state a firm belief.

Another point you raise is the homeless guy sleeping in the doorway of a department store. But I'm afraid I reject your analogy completely.

The sight of a homeless person sleeping rough in a wealthy city should make us feel uncomfortable. I'm not talking about trying to screen out life here, Ryan. My objection isn't that modern life is making me feel a bit crap (give me a tad more credit); my objection is to an industry that systematically manipulates such emotions - often deliberately subconsciously, which is particularly sinister - in the name of increasing profit.

I should feel uncomfortable as I walk out of the supermarket laden with produce and see a homeless person asking for a few coins.

But you're claiming that makes it inconsistent to object to a large cosmetics conglomerate buying 100 square feet of my environment, just opposite my bedroom window, in order to make me feel uncomfortable in the name of their animal-tested bottom-line. Hmmm... your point is a tenuous one at best.

Are you saying that if I object to being psychologically manipulated without my consent in order to make a few rich shareholders a bit richer, that it equates to trying to escape or deny the justifiable pangs of social conscience?

I think not. Just as objecting to torture doesn't mean I must object to all contact sports.

The person I was responding to blamed the over-consumption of burgers on childhood obesity; not burger advertising. I believe that society's culture of over-consumption is suicidal, and is due to a corporate culture which "normalises" it. I believe that advertising is a huge factor in that process of normalisation. I believe it is the primary tool by which this process takes place in fact.

The real enemy is the system which wields the tools of oppression. You're right to point that out. But the claustrophobic pervasiveness of advertising, and the fact that so few people seem aware of the real dangers it poses, makes it my own personal "petty tyrant" (to steal a phrase from Castaneda).

The upshot of which is that I tend to use "the marketing industry" as the stick with which to beat capitalism. I see within it a microcosm of all that is rotten with market economics.

18/2/05 13:51  

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