Bill Hicks once said, “If you are in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” I disagree. Kind of.
If you had told me back in the day that I would be working for an ad agency in the not-too-distant future, I might have laughed. Advertising was antithetical to everything I identified with, and still is. Though, now that I’m here and take delight in the fact that I can pay my bills and put food on the table, advertising has provided me with a fluency in the psychology of targeting and pinpointing what people are perceived to be on a very basic level. Scary? I’m not here to say that advertising in inherently evil, because it’s not. It’s a way of looking at things through the eyes of wanting, a fantastical presentation that is about stimulating the reptilian impulses in our brains. Knowing this and having fluency in it is a crucial step into being able to understand these images better, as well as understanding that they are very purposefully attempting to make us feel a certain way. While running the administrative details in such a place may not give me, say, the expertise of someone who has been entrenched in the field for more than 20 years, the position I have held has led me to several realizations that give truth to what advertising means and how much it actually affects us.
1. There are incredible amounts of money and analysis going into catering to you, as well as making you feel a certain way.
“The average American is exposed to about 3,000 advertising messages a day, and globally, corporations spend over $620 billion each year to make their products seem desirable and get us to buy them.” (Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D., Union of Concerned Scientists)
Advertising exists so people will spend money on products. There are tables filled with folks who have been up three nights in a row to figure out what your favorite color is, if you use Twitter or Tumblr more, and can easily do so by mining your data from places like Apple, Facebook, and Google. You are a demographic, a representation of wants, dislikes, and marketable actions. You are dollar signs waiting to be spent. You are going to buy something.
2. Media literacy is a crucial survivor skill. Advertising is free education.
With media literacy, we can understand the immediate world around us, as well as our place in it. Without understanding what is being aimed at you, it will define the world and all visual geography for you. Think about how many times a day you come across an ad – whether it’s a billboard, a radio ad, a commercial, in magazines, on buses, on subways, etc. Each time we look at that ad, we are in some way absorbing the information fed to us, whether we subconsciously realize it or not. Think of any time you might have picked up a magazine and then afterwards felt the need to do something to change your appearance or to feel the same sense of liveliness that these ads inherently promise. Here’s an example of one of the most successful image rehabilitation campaigns in the U.S.
The Industrial Revolution brought about a large-scale overhaul in how products were made and accessed. This, as well as the idea of “self-consumerism,” flourished in post-WWII, after the efforts of American propaganda campaigns. Advertising, much like the manufacturing industry, had made leaps and bounds in America, leading to an industry that held more sway over where consumer dollars, now growing due to the economic boom that WWII had initiated, could be spent. Advertising was the job-recreation program of the late ’40s and ’50s, as soldiers who had been overseas during the war returned home to find that women had all but taken over their positions. Ad agencies and the U.S. government worked together on forming “morality campaigns” to publicly embed the image of “good, proper women,” leading to the rise in housewife imagery we find so prevalent in ‘5os advertising, as a way to get women to leave the workforce, replacing their vacancies with men.
The question is, what would the outcome of this campaign have been if the tools that are present now had been present back then? With advertising in every open space in our near vicinity now, think of it less as a five-second blip on your radar (because that’s all it takes to absorb it) and more a chance to build your ability to deconstruct them.
3. Sexism is indeed alive and well. It sells.
The recent Got Milk campaign? The double whammy sexist and racist Summer’s Eve ads? Yoplait (hell, any yogurt commercials)? The 2011 Pepsi Superbowl commercial (not to forget Groupon’s Tibet ads, but that’s another conversation)? The thousands of other examples that exist and play upon dead stereotypes?
Or how about any of this?
But let’s be honest: saying that it’s just sexism that sells is only covering one part of the larger problem. “Ism”s are big business, because they play on the familiar and don’t expect you to do any critical thinking about the ways in which things are being presented. Advertising that “works” doesn’t engage or challenge you; it reinforces what views you inherently hold about the world, keeping you comfortable, yet always “wanting.” The idea of using “sex” to sell is always appealing to whom corporations feel control the consumer dollar (men), even though women typically have more consumer purchasing power. Of course, this presentation of “sex” isn’t just targeted at men for fantasy purposes. Its also targeted at women to persist in the myth of the unattainable (ultimate beauty and hotness) and the saintly (motherhood and domesticity). If you aim to be like Gisele, there’s a product for that. If you aim to be like Martha, there’s a product for that. The gender conformity is strict, and one can see the consequences from the Got Milk campaign if ever crossing the limitations of sex queen or domestic goddess.
4. “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” (Mark Twain)
The misuse and misconstruing of statistics is a popular tactic to help the sale of something without looking at the actual whole. Rarely are statistics questioned, especially if backed by names like Beiersdorf, Inc. Questionable statistics can include loaded-question surveys, over-generalizations, discarding unfavorable data, data manipulation and dredging, and my all-time most-hated, biased samples (please refer to Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa’s racist Psychology Today piece). It’s hard to take data seriously if companies with special interests are paying for the research, which many do, as evidenced by skin cream companies and their claims at rejuvenation, lightening, and age-defying magic. Nivea skin creme has been in hot water due to its “scientific claims” of the use of its product as an easy body size reducer. The research came from a company called Beiersdorf, Inc., who claimed positive weight loss results from those who had used the product. This is also a stark reality of advertising – there is money in being able to hire an “expert” to gather the evidence needed.
5. Advertising reflects back the world that advertisers think most people desire.
One can deduce that if advertising is about playing on our desires and perceptions of the world, it’s also about what we render invisible. Representation is categorical and hierarchical, often worshiping at the idealization of hetero-normative, thin, white bodies. The advertising industry is still predominantly white, able-bodied, and male, factors that, like anything in our lives, control the decisions of what is decided as public-worthy. So not only does this create an exclusion here in our own visual culture, the same “white is right” aesthetics become a factor in globalized imagery and product catering across the world. The majority of our visual culture, what we believe we should buy or aspire to or look like, is in the hands of a few people, limiting who gets represented and how.
There are giants swaths of people trying to convince you day after day that you’ll be better in their eyes if you just buy this. If you just wear this. Like these people in this ad, you too can be young and beautiful and all the things you can never, ever be. That is the beauty and genius of the advertising industry. It has built a way of making money off hopes and desires that can be projected onto any sort of item, gaining your trust and loyalty that this brand or product will indeed fill those dreams. Disney CEO Michael Eisner once famously said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.” I believe every word of it.