Advertising is one of the most prevalent forms of media we encounter on a regular basis. While we can generally choose to engage with television, magazines, cinema, gaming, or the internet on our own time, advertisements bombards our senses on a daily basis no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We see it in the streets, on billboards, and in the spaces in between the content we do want to engage. Thus, it’s easy for some to assume that advertising has no direct power over us and that it’s easy to tune them out, but the true power of advertisements is not only how they consciously make us want to buy things, but how they subconsciously shape our views of the world and of ourselves.
Kilbourne has famously said of advertising, “they sell values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy.” (Beauty and the Beast of Advertising, pp 121). This is to say that ads are complicit in how we learn to view the world and ourselves in relation to that world. These images created to sell us a product have an affect on what we believe to be normal and acceptable in our society. Many who defend advertisers would say that ads only serve to inform the public – which is true, but what exactly is the public being informed about if not the manufactured standards of the world around them as decided by the needs of the media corporations?
It is in advertisers’ best interest to have consumers believe themselves to be inadequate, and in need of the product that is being sold. Naomi Wolf discusses our artificial need to solve imagined problems advertisers put in us through their ads saying, “Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they [consumers] will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring “beauties.”” (Culture, pp 66). The result of these campaigns is a generation of people who, without questioning the nature of these images, believe them to be reflective of the real world and what is expected of them.
While many of the issues brought up by ad campaigns trying to sell us products to fix things that we didn’t know were broken in the first place ring hollow to the critical eye, it is important to understand that there is a reason these images also resonate with us in a very real way. Advertisements, like all other media, reflect the culture they arise from, as well as the desires of its consumers and producers. Anthony Cortese echoes this notion, saying that “Advertising reflects the traditional beliefs, myths, tales and practices of our society and a culture based on commodities. Advertising articulates and channels cultural acts, but it does not create artificial desires nor mandate behavioral patterns.” (Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising, pp. 76). These images do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed into and consumed by those who participate in the pervasive structures popular culture.
This is not to say that all advertising is inherently bad or damaging. Like with any other wide-reaching and powerfully influential media structure, advertisements have the capacity to do great good as well as evil. Anthony Cortese discusses this in his piece, Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising on the power of advertisements to subvert and challenge popular beliefs within the framework of media structures, all while informing he greater public of alternatives to what is presented to them by the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist corporations that control the media landscape.
With the growing ubiquity of the internet, the media powers that be are more divided than ever, unable to funnel consumer attention as well as they used to with in older media. It’s in this new culture of media convergence that alternatives to the images we see in corporate advertisements can be just as prevalent (if not more so) than traditional ads. Commonplace on the internet are what Cortese called ‘subvertising’ (Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising, pp 49), ways in which groups or even individuals can create images and other media that reflect their reality and beliefs, subverting and/or otherwise ignoring the standards corporate advertisements are still trying to sell us. In the new, more democratic media playing field the internet offers, everyone has the opportunity to both produce and consume alternative images that have just as far a reach and wide an impact as traditional advertisements, but divorced from the harmful standards corporately-sponsored ads and imagery offer.
Video: Fotoshop (can’t seem to embed this video into the post)
Images from Adbusters, a Canada-based anti-consumerist media foundation.