What is commercial advertising for?

Image: George Becker
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By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL*

A lot of creative and smart people have to earn their living in advertising agencies. It's a shame to see so much talent wasted, used to deceive and make people's lives worse.

Throughout the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, there was a shift in the meaning of “advertising”. From a demand for transparency in the public sphere – publicity as the procedure for making State acts public – it gained the meaning of propaganda and, therefore, of control.

At the same time, commercial advertising began to break the link between form and content: between what is talked about and what is talked about. As David Harvey said, “advertising no longer starts from the idea of ​​informing or promoting in the common sense, turning more and more to the manipulation of desires and tastes through images that may or may not be related to the product being sold”.

The instigation of ostentatious consumption, the fetish of technological innovation (with the programmed obsolescence of supposedly durable consumer goods), the exaltation of certain standards of youth and beauty: around these nuclei, the advertising discourse builds its “myths”. And it builds them in a scientific way, integrating contributions from psychology, sociology and semiotics, in addition to the most advanced techniques of opinion research, focus groups and big data.

Advertising bombardment ceaselessly generates “superfluous needs” and induces conspicuous consumption as the only path to human fulfillment. It thus plays a fundamental role in the reproduction of capitalism.

Compensatory consumption (my life sucks, my job sucks, but I'm going to buy a new car), which advertising incessantly encourages, keeps the dominated accommodated in the system.

The advertising discourse, although it is aimed at promoting specific brands, always affirms the effectiveness and usefulness of its entire class of products – an advertisement for an airline is, for example, the reaffirmation of the reliability of aviation as a means of transport; the advertisement of a drug endorses the idea of ​​a pharmaceutical cure, and so on. More generally, advertising promotes the idea that consumption solves our problems.

For the public, it is an evasion from which it is sometimes difficult to wake up. PT Barnum, the famous XNUMXth century mystifier, owner of a freak show, pioneer of modern commercial advertising, already said that the secret is to understand that the public wants to be deceived and actively collaborates so that the illusion does not disappear.

As the art critic John Berger wrote: “Advertising is always aimed at the prospective buyer. It offers her an image of himself that is made fascinating by the product or opportunity she is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself, of what he could be. But what makes it allegedly enviable? The envy of others”.

In order to achieve maximum effectiveness, advertising tends to always act in accordance with the expectations of its audience – “surprises” are always meticulously thought out so as not to cause surprise. Therefore, it tends to reproduce stereotypes and prejudices.

In the 1980s, a survey of gender role representation in advertising, commissioned by the Danish Consumer Ombudsman, concluded that the only way to curb the reproduction of stereotypes was to ban any and all depictions of human beings in advertisements.

And advertising still presents itself as the tool that gives us so many things “for free”. We don't pay to watch TV or surf the web because advertising funds us.

But actually we paid. The cost of advertising is built into the price of the products. Depending on the case, it can mean an increase of 20%, 30% or even more.

A lot of creative and smart people have to earn their living in advertising agencies. It's a shame to see so much talent wasted, used to deceive and make people's lives worse.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of Democracy in the capitalist periphery: impasses in Brazil (authentic).

Originally published on GGN newspaper.


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