I need that necklace! How advertisers make me feel lonely…

“Save Money. Live Better” (Walmart) “Open Happiness” (Coca Cola) “The Happiest Place on Earth” (DisneyLand)

         As a fish swims in water, we in the western cultures of the United States and Canada swim in water made up of advertising.

         In light of Black Friday recently passing and the Christmas countdown on full swing, buying gifts for friends and loved ones is at the forefront of our minds.

         Sut Jhally, founder and Executive Director of the Media Education Foundation once said, “To not be influenced by advertising would be to live outside of culture. No human being lives outside of culture.[1]

         Now, advertising in and of itself is not bad. For example, advertising is an important way to disseminate information. However, one problems lies with the fact that the cultural advertising climate that we live in has been deduced to a scientific art in order to make us feel lonely and empty. In the 1962 Time article about David Ogivly, “the most sought after wizard into today’s advertising industry,” stated,

Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” [2]

         Keeping in mind that Christmas is coming I thought discussing this topic may resonate not only with myself but hopefully others as well. After reflecting on the Ogivly quote, you may feel content that advertisers are working hard to determine exactly what you want. As for me, I feel unsettled. After doing more reading, I realized there was a deeper issue and it struck a chord with me.

         The western culture that I and hundreds of millions live in, is a culture that values consumerism and individualism. Why is valuing consumerism and individualism a problem, one may ask?

         The answer lies in the fact that people need meaningful social interactions with other people; this fact is greatly supported by anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists.

         As social media expert Jean Kilbourne points out, a consumerist culture becomes problematic because we can create relationships with products or activities. First, relationships with products or activities are not fulfilling in the same way as having an engaging friend whom you can confide in. Kilbourne continues by saying that feeling loyal to or passionate about a product is dangerous when the product is potentially addictive, because an addict does feel as though they have a relationship with their product. An individualistic culture can be problematic because autonomy and whatever a person wants to do (recall the popular expressions “to each person their own” or “what I do is my business”) is often valued over social responsibility to each other.

         What can occur, and is occurring in our culture, is a feeling of emptiness when consumerism and individualism are regarded as highly prized values.[3] For the consumer to feel empty is the best scenario for the advertiser. The emptier or more incomplete I feel, the quicker I am to search for something to fill my void - whether that is food when I’m hungry, cute work-out gear when I want to look sexy and athletic, a glass of wine when I need to de-stress etc. Buying the latest product or consuming more should fill the void of whatever I am feeling, and living in an individualistic culture encourages me to “do what I need to do” to feel better.

         Furthermore as Kilbourne states,

“Advertising creates longings for products, and exploits real human desires”[4]

         All people are hard-wired to yearn for intimate relationships (romantic or platonic) that will last. What advertising does is create a climate in which we are promised lasting relationships with products; when a friend fails, product x will be around to never disappoint. It is important to note that what is being played on is our deep emotions. Do you feel sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, hurt or jealousy? Don’t worry this shampoo will last forever and never leave you feeling let down again. Do you feel happy, joyful or revitalized? By purchasing this diamond necklace you can feel it intimately close to your skin and therefore happy forever; diamonds last forever right? Each emotion portrayed in an ad, explicit or implicit, is used for selling purposes.

         As the advertising guru, Ogivly states,

There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines… The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”[5] 

 So where does that leave us? As I stated at the beginning of the article, Black Friday has recently passed and Christmas is on the horizon; buying gifts for loved ones is inevitably on our minds. However, some are going into this Christmas season with heartaches, hurting or loss. Whether we end up purchasing the beautiful diamond necklace or amazing pair of booties, we need to remember it is our friends and families who are going to fulfill our desire to be in relationship with others. No matter what the advertisers try to make me believe, I know what will truly make me feel satisfied and content.

[1] Jhally, S. (1998). Advertising and the end of the world (a video). Northamptom, MA: Media Education Foundation

[2] Time Magazine (October 12, 1962) US Business: The Men on the Cover: Advertising

[3] Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition 2000

[4] Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition 2000. Quote, page 77

[5] Time Magazine (October 12, 1962) US Business: The Men on the Cover: Advertising