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Updated on July 17, 2012

As I congratulate my mother-in-law on her birthday, I diligently try to hide the overwhelming guilt that is the result of my consumerist mindset. While the thrill of gift hunting has filled my browser's history pages, I have failed to buy her a gift. This year's birthday wish has been left hanging with no wrapped box to accompany it.

Gift giving is a social bonding medium and its value has been recognized by cultures throughout human history. Yet, the social value of gift giving does not justify the consumerism that surrounds gift buying and shopping in general. It is difficult to blame the consumer. After all a consumer fighting against consumerism is like a swimmer going against the current. If not deadly, it is certainly exhausting. Products are sold by creating images that appeal to public's emotional and psychological states. The desire to achieve the described states blindly walks people into the turmoil of consumption. It would, however, be unfair to blame the advertising agencies who create the ads. They are only the middle men in the transaction between the producer and the consumer.

The true guilty parties in this situation are the corporations and the government. Although the United States is a capitalistic country where companies are privately owned, their interests often cross paths creating a powerful force difficult to challenge. In today's presidential elections 7 figure numbers are often cited for the amount that a presidential candidate was able to raise in a given month. These figures alone demonstrate the strong connection between corporations and the government. At the crossroads of their interests sometimes lies a single solution. Revenue generation is the interest of corporations, satisfied citizenry is the interest of the government. However different these two goals may seem, they have been found to have the same solution. Advertising has successfully linked products and ideologies, such that use of an everyday product can come to have a greater ideological satisfaction for the user.

Lucky Strike Ad
Lucky Strike Ad | Source
MaxfactorAd1955 | Source

Edward Bernay introduced the idea of social control through psychology in the early 1920s after WWI. According to his uncle Sigmund Freud, people were inherently dangerous; therefore, society must suppress the animal within the human. In the era of democracy, it would have been impossible to control people directly through coercion. People strongly believed that they lived in a state of freedom, and that authorities did not have a right to suppress them. Therefore, Bernay came up with a way to control the masses by appealing to their desires and immediately satisfying those desires with material goods. Cigarettes suddenly came to represent equality for women. Lipstick ads featured empowerment of women over men. “Sure way to tie him up” (1955, MaxFactor Ad). Consumption of products promising equality, power, love, intimacy, etc themselves create an illusionary life for those who purchase the products in hopes of gaining the advertised emotions. Tangible products have come to fill voids left from the lack of emotional satisfaction.

Philip Cushman states, “---the current self is constructed as empty, and as a result the state controls its population not by restricting the impulses of its citizens, as in Victorian times, but by creating and manipulating their wish to be soothed, organized, and made cohesive by momentarily filling them up”. The empty self according to Cushman is a self without a culture and context. It is a self that is robbed of traditional values and morals and instead is being continuously filled up by irrelevant goods that are someway appealing to the consumer’s emotions. According to Cushman with the expansion of consumerist society, the tradition and a sense of a community began to disappear.

This is exactly what the government desires; a group of people all guided with their self-interests and having no grounds for formation of a community. Thus the shaping of an “empty self” could be viewed as governmental policy. It is desirable for a government to have an unorganized and incommunicable society, since then there is no real threat to its authority from single individuals.

Advertising agencies claim that though people do not like to be told what to do, they like to be directed. Advertisers do exactly this. They direct the potential buyer to a longed psychological state with a sole purpose of selling the product. Yet the problem I see is not in the fashion of advertising, but rather in the reasons that it has been so successful. Ads are successful, because people are unhappy. Whether they are unhappy with their personal lives or their rights as citizens, is another issue. The fact is that both cooperations and government benefits from the illusionary happiness and satisfaction products create.

What are your thoughts on the subject?


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