1990s >> 1993 >> no-1072-december-1993

Advertising: selling the system

Statistics show that 85 percent of women have skin blemishes in one from or another . . .  All treatments at competitive prices” (advert in London Midweek).

“The ads have raised shamelessly corporate brainwashing to an entertainment art form” (unusually frank admission on Calgary Channel 7 TV).

Advertising is a central and indispensable feature of capitalism. Very obviously advertising aims to sell goods and services both to workers who collectively produce them and to capitalists who don’t but who have the money. Less obviously advertising seeks also to sell the system of which it is an integral part. In other words to convince us that to buy and sell things is the only possible way to run a society and meet our needs. Since capitalist industry is geared to mass production, time out for workers’ mass consumption is as much a necessity as their time in for production. We must be encouraged, even implored, to buy back what we produce. Need doesn’t count only purchasing power and the desire to purchase. Advertising offers itself as a means of efficiently creating consumers and controlling and consumption of products.

The goal of advertising has been stated as the creation of desires and habits. Desires are often not real needs, not things that enhance the quality of life, but “fancied needs”, stupid but marketable items such as electric toothbrushes and expensive vacuum cleaners that get rid of invisible “bugs”.

Advertising copy aims to make readers or viewers uneasy, to bludgeon them with the “fact” that decent people don’t live the way they do. Adverts constantly hammer away at everything that pertains to us: our bodily functions, our appearance, our self-esteem, and offer us something of theirs as an allegedly socially more acceptable substitute.

Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones. Advertising helps to make and keep us dissatisfied with our tasteless mode of life, discontented with the ugly things around us. There is something wrong with you, but help is at hand, the marketplace can offer you a solution to your problem. Not, of course, a complete or permanent solution because that would spoil the market for the next enterprising advertiser to minister to your other created wants.

S. Ewen, a pungent critic of advertising, writes:

   “Advertising offers a commodity self; an appropriate popular, successful conglomeration of mass-produced breath, hair, teeth, skin and feet. Each portion of the body is to be viewed critically, as a potential bauble in a successful assemblage. You don’t make friends, your commoditised smile ’wins’ them; your embellished hair, and not you. is beautiful.”

In a society based on production for profit, not the meeting of need, advertising attempts to divert attention from what we can create and experience in co-operation with others anti towards what the market can supply us with at a price. We are invited to reject the possibility of an authentic life and to believe that we must accept a commoditised existence in the “real” world.

So there will be no advertising in socialist society, no market system to tell us what we want and sell things to us on its own terms. Production directly for use. for the satisfaction of self-determined but socially informed needs, will set the tone for the whole society. Advertising will be out. but information – fuller, fairer and without ulterior motive – will be in. We will want to know what society is capable of producing and we will want to know what people’s needs are in relation to what society is capable of producing.

There is no reason why men and women should not be enthusiastic about, and therefore want to tell others about, what they can make or the services they can offer. Since time and effort are finite in any society we shall on occasion need some democratic mechanism to decide priorities. But such a mechanism w ill be a far cry from today’s huckstering, class divided exploitative society. It really is time to see that capitalism has long passed its sell-by date.

Stan Parker