11 December 2004

The creation of new desires

By Ian Sinclair

The late American comedian Bill Hicks often used to pause during his stand-up routines, to urge those who worked in advertising or marketing to kill themselves, arguing "there's no rationalisation for what you do… you are Satan's little helpers… filling the world with bile and garbage." Now, of course, I am not advocating that those people who work in advertising and marketing kill themselves (this is, after all, a column that tries to promote peace!), but I do think it is important to look critically at the position of advertising in society.

Modern advertising emerged in tandem with the violent birth of capitalism. For working people, the movement from pre-industrial, agricultural life to an urban-based, factory system was a huge social and psychological shock, met with resistance and protest. It was quickly understood by the political and industrial masters of the time that they could only make people work long, regular hours if they were trapped into wanting commodities.

Advertising is the engine of capitalist, consumer society, envisaging a world in which happiness is equated with the accumulation of products. The author V.L Leymore argues this is done "first by posing essential dilemmas of the human condition and second, by offering a solution to them." Leymore notes "advertising simultaneously provokes anxiety and resolves it." In a consumer society individuals need to be constantly dissatisfied with what they have. Advertising then, doesn't help to fulfill desires, but attempts to create a permanent state of unhappiness.

However, the effects of advertising are far larger than simply encouraging a consumer orientated society. Advertising is generally an overwhelming conservative social force, powerful in preserving the status quo.

Take the relationship between advertising and the media. The national and regional press in this country are almost totally dependent on advertising for their survival - with approximately 70% of their revenue coming from this source. This reliance tends to create a politically conservative media who are afraid to offend the very corporations that fund them. However, it also results in a preference for entertainment over controversy, documentaries and political debate. What advertiser in their right mind would want to advertise their product during a John Pilger documentary that exposes UK involvement in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children? Hardly the ideal environment to promote a "buying mood".

The problem lies in the way adverts are beamed into every home irrespective of the occupant's ability to access what is on offer. This excess of expectations over opportunities, is often the underlying cause of many crimes. Contrary to the media's sensational portrayal of the issue, the majority of crime is non-violent property crime.

Take the following recent news stories: The obesity epidemic sweeping the western world. The calls for a complete ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. The recent revelation that 90% of Bliss readers are unsatisfied with their bodies. In each case, the interests of advertisers and the corporations they front, are in direct conflict with the public good.

Of course the advertising industry doesn't take this kind of criticism lying down. They would argue they do no more than provide necessary information for rational individuals. However, this defence (directed at the general public) is irreconcilable with the boasts advertisers make to their clients about their ability to secure a greater market share than competitors through the creation of new desires and by manipulating consumers. For example, a detailed submission by the advertising agency Leo Burnett to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising for an "effectiveness award" in 2002, explains how its campaign for Kellogg's Real Fruit Winders "entered the world of kids in a way never done before" and managed to "not let Mum in on the act."

So what is to be done? As with many areas of social policy, Sweden seems to be pointed in the right direction. Since 1991 Stockholm has prohibited all TV advertising aimed at children under the age of 12. So far, the British Government has bowed to pressure from industry and simply asked for voluntary compliance to regulations. Self regulation is obviously favoured by the advertising industry - and for that reason alone we should be suspicious of it. Also, we should move towards a ban on advertising in all public spaces.

However, ultimately the solution lies within each of us. The economist Clive Hamilton believes the greatest danger to consumer capitalism - and therefore advertising - "is the possibility that people in wealthy countries will decide that they have everything they need. For each individual this is a small realisation but it has momentous social implications."