By E.F Nicholson
I obviously have an axe to grind with the advertising industry. I have written about it being a cultural malware, a cultural venereal disease, and today I am calling it a cultural pollution: all apt and accurate terms, I believe. When we look at the nature of a pollutant and the damage they do to our physical environment, we see advertising also causes similar types of harm to our mental environments. Yet, unlike the fossil-fuel industry, where there still is at least some pressure applied and some targets to make them accountable, advertising emissions get a free pass.
In the same way the earth is a physical system of interdependent parts, each impacting the others, so too is our culture. From education, class, religion, media, and gender to entire political and economic systems, our culture is shaped and built around the interaction of these various facets of our lives. Culture, in this respect, is a less tangible entity to be pinned down and defined in the sense of “here, this is what it is,” yet it doesn’t change the intimate relationship between people’s mental and emotional states and the culture they take from and give to. That being the case, in the same way we need to be weary of the damage of physical pollutants, so too should we beware of the pollution of our minds, both sub-conscious and collective unconscious. Advertising is an obvious perpetrator when it comes to these types of cultural defilements. It does so in three ways.
Message: At heart, what makes advertising such a cultural intoxicant is its core aim being to manipulate people into buying goods or services by pairing them falsely with the fulfilment of essential human needs. Seeing as the majority of what we buy we don’t actually need, advertising through various types of media aims to artificially create needs by indirectly promising that some deep human want will be fulfilled in the purchasing of a product or service. The millions of images and ads presenting alluring, sexual and stunning models embeds itself into women’s subconscious minds as the need to feel attractive and desired, and this is then linked to a particular perfume. This process is replicated over and over, covering all and every need with thousands of products and services. Although products and angles are different, the basic message is of creating a false lack of something and convincing people that having things is important to being happy. Advertising takes people away from their own inner knowing of what they need and sends them down dead ends with empty alternatives. It is a constant assault on our intelligence and relates us to nothing more than consumers built to consume. Like a child mirrors back the behaviour it’s surrounded by, so too in our culture we mirror back what is being advertised at us by our growing identification with consumption and materialism. At its heart, advertising needs to keep people in a permanent state of dis-contentment in order to create the right buying environment. Any aspect of our culture that has vested interest in keeping people discontent by poisoning them with inanities and distraction can only be seen as a pollutant, a culturally pernicious force that I think we have a right and reason to forcefully object to.
Reach: If the message itself wasn’t bad enough, what we now have is this homogenised message of mindless consumption being something we are cocooned and immersed in from cradle to grave. Living in a city, in particular, every where we go, bus stops, urinals, subways, stairs, etc., we are pelted with advertising visuals in our faces; it’s a kind of visual vandalism. On TV, online and on our smart phones, the same goes. We have passively accepted that advertising is just something we must endure if we want to watch a certain YouTube video or football on the TV. As it is so pervasive, we can easily slip into a false sense of feeling disconnected to its impact, and not being aware of the function of the message often is for us not to consciously take note, but rather to allow the images, sounds and visual and audio cues to embed their message into our subconscious minds. The claim that “advertising doesn’t affect me” doesn’t reconcile with the billions spent on advertising for the reasons it does, in fact, affect you. Maybe it works even more so on the people who think they are immune to it. Yet advertising isn’t just limited to Super Bowl ads and Times Square billboards. Corporate sponsorship, native advertising, and public relations are all forms of manipulative messages we are exposed to that aim to create the good will, brand awareness or corporate green-wash. The right of advertisers to drown us in such destructive and undermining messages should be as equally questioned as oil refineries pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, as the two exist in synergy for the mutual benefit of each other, and we can’t effectively protest CO2 emissions when our attention and focus is drawn into a cultural resonance created by advertising, in which the future habitability of the planet is somehow irrelevant.
Impact: There are a lot of variables that create unhappiness in people, yet whatever the primary cause, we know advertising will only make it worse. A world full content and happy people is not a world in which advertising can work. The modern phenomena of eating disorders is one obvious impact of advertising’s end result, yet its impact runs even deeper as it encourages us to move away from knowing how to truly fulfil our needs for security, connection and significance. Creating a culture that is consumption-focused, disconnected from the present, objectifies beauty, strips us of gratitude and instils an essentially shallow and materialist mindset. That would be just some of the mental and emotional costs. Then we look at how turbo consumption is accelerating us off the cliff of climate catastrophe. Advertising distract us form the dire striates, whilst simultaneously greasing the wheels to propel us even quicker into those dire straits.
Any change we expect from society comes from the value systems and priorities by which culture is shaped. Apathy and disconnection from how bad things have become reflect how badly our culture has been poisoned, of which advertising has become a major contributor. We need to start seeing mental shared space as critical to change and progression of physical shared space, as how we occupy what we share mentally and emotionally is what forms our attitudes toward our environment and the world at large. Seeing advertising as a noxious pollutant is a start in the road to creating shared space that is intelligent, creative and open, a shared space that is built to benefit everyone, rather than undermine and subvert.