• Jasmine L. Moultrie

Dark Side of the Force: A Social Critique of Advertising

Buying MySelf More Time

"Time, through manipulation, can be limitless; it can also be punitive"

I decided grad school would be a good idea. I wanted an agency internship and student status helps with securing said internship.

I've since come to realize that I also went back to school to buy myself more time.

Time to retreat back into the bubble of college life before real life happens,

To redeem myself from missed opportunities in undergrad,

To be intellectually stimulated and connect with like-minded people.

To understand how hypervisibility challenges my autonomy and sets me apart,

To make real what I keep stored in headspace,

To start a side hustle (DJ, gardener, filmmaker).

To figure out how to balance being in this industry with being a radical thinker,

To reconcile feeling like a walking contradiction by owning this space I find myself in,

To continue my discovery of Self.

Now that I'm halfway through grad school, it's occurred to me that I cannot simply buy time to accomplish what I want to accomplish, to be who I want to be. I just have to do and be and put forth energy.

Time is our greatest resource. The more of it I buy to invest in something later, the less I'll have to spend doing things like writing this.

P.S. Sorry to bother you

I wrote this over the summer while interning at an ad agency. I’ve since refused to settle for “walking contradiction” hence the P.S., which doubles as a reference to a dope movie and as my goodbye to the advertising industry...

Advertising stimulates human interest and builds a propensity to consume. This propensity to consume serves to reinforce and preserve the system of capitalism. It encourages people to be productive, so that we can “keep consuming...to work in order to buy.” In this sense, advertising is an agent of the system. It also works to highlight the differences between your real and ideal self, and facilitates the dissonance that follows. As consumers, we cannot escape advertising. Yes, it includes the typical TV commercials and pop-up banners, but the Apple logo on my classmate’s laptop and Nike’s branded Facebook page are ads as well, and we are continuously bombarded with ideological messages that intend to influence. Internalizing this broad definition of advertising best positions us to recognize what we’re up against.

Because goods and service can serve as signals of status, the industry sees opportunity in the exploitation of consumer insecurities, fears, and anxieties. This exploitation can be delivered consciously and subconsciously. Advertising messages are designed to trigger an emotional response. By eliciting an affective reaction, the advertiser succeeds in gaining our attention and has a greater chance of being added to our consideration set (brands we consider when deciding what to buy). Another commonly employed tactic is repetition. Repetitive messages (i.e. the recurring Toyota commercial that airs during an NBA game) are often received passively, which allows for brand associations to be developed subconsciously.

Exploitation is also expressed in the form of multicultural advertising. As a commodifier of difference, it serves to manipulate perceptions of difference in order to maintain unequal power relations. The industry argument is that “diverse” ads speak to everyone, especially racialized peoples who are then encouraged to consume the product or service advertised. Consider the snapshot below of an Airbnb commercial, which ran during last year’s Super Bowl. The goal of the ad is to project Airbnb as an inclusive brand, but in actuality it is a mediated attempt to appropriate and transcend difference in order to feed corporate interests. What it says to us (as consumers) is that notions of equality, such as inclusion, can be achieved through material means. Despite the postracial-American ideology it attempts to project, this ad in no way substitutes for ongoing efforts to dismantle oppressive systems of power. In actuality, it serves to subtly reinforce these systems.

Though individual campaigns have succeeded in bringing awareness to issues, advertising is an inherently problematic institution. Even when conveying values, such as community and family in the messaging, these tactics are ultimately being used to influence us to be favorable towards the brand (via our money or attention), and the so-called values are only a reflection of what is socially prescribed as acceptable, such as diversity. Likewise, one could argue that advertising has stimulated economies by lowering prices, increasing the standard of living, and assisting in providing information to consumers amidst all of the “choices” we have. In reality, we lack real choice. Most often we are unable to choose whether to be exposed to an ad or not, and the illusion of choice is an expression of pseudo-individualization where sameness is disguised through different product packaging and messaging (i.e. different brands of bread at the grocery store).

To begin to assess the scope of its influence, advertising must be examined on an institutional level. It is not just a tool of communication. This would imply that it can be used to help or to harm, and is at the disposal of the consumer. Rather, it is an institution that we are forced to participate in. One way we can begin to resist is by actively paying attention to the ads we encounter and by making a conscious assessment of their intended and underlying messages to reduce their power. One other way involves recognizing how our participation in this system, via the choices we make (whether that’s a career choice or endorsing a brand), hinders liberation.

“Each one of us here is a link in the connection between anti-poor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people. I ask myself as well as each one of you, exactly what alteration in the particular fabric of my everyday life does this connection call for? Survival is not a theory. In what way do I contribute to the subjugation of any part of those who I define as my people?”-Gamba Asida


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