Television · University Portfolio: BA (Hons) Communication and Media

Discuss Monbiot’s assertion that ‘advertising is a poison that demeans even love’

Below is an essay set as part of the advertising unit on the Communication and Media course in which I achieved a high 2:1 for.

In today’s society, advertising is a major part of the environment society works, rests and lives in. People accept the prominence of advertising in the newspapers and magazines they read but often fail to acknowledge the persuasive power of these consumer messages that appear on the sides of buses, next to roads, on the websites they browse or even on the products they buy. Advertisers use every opportunity to show consumers what they lack and what they need to fill in any void within their life (Rutledge Shields & Heinecken 2002). Advertising has managed to seep its way into society’s unconsciousness and Monbiot’s quote suggests that it has now managed to affect the way society views one of the most precious life experiences any human can have; love.
Monbiot’s assertion that “Advertising is a poison that demeans even love” will be examined from both supporting and criticising viewpoints to try and assess whether this bold statement is a true reflection on how society views love and relationships. The supporting argument will be based upon Kilbourne’s (1999) argument against the power of advertising and how it creates addictions at the expense of relationships with other humans and how the choice of the models used in the advertisements are affecting what people expect from any potential partner. The counter argument will be formed using theory from Hall (1973) and how audiences receive messages and Jung’s ‘collective unconsciousness’.
Both arguments will use key examples from advertising to support their perspective including advertisements for Match.com, Specsavers and Cadbury Flake.
Monbiot’s statement suggests that advertising has now reached a stage where it can control individuals’ emotions and the way they view relationships and what they expect to get out of them. Advertising has created a culture where society has generally become obsessed with obtaining instant gratification and the idea that reward should and can be gained with little effort. Monbiot (2011) noted that there appeared to have been a shift in society from the valuing of intrinsic values and the worth of relationships with family, friends and the community to valuing extrinsic values of status, wealth and power. In society, those who are often idolised are those who have a celebrity status, a huge bank balance or the perfect appearance. Celebrity culture has really embellished the idea of becoming famous and loved without the need for effort or even talent. This constantly reinforced message has made society become disillusioned with the idea of hard work and patience as advertising has created a utopia of constant excitement and stimulation, often thanks to the latest ‘must have’ product (Kilbourne 1999). This idea that individuals should not settle for the ordinary has now begun to transfer to relationships, as they are often depicted as exciting, passionate and fun. The key message appears to be why settle for a comfortable and nurturing relationship when it can be an experience that appears to constantly be on the brink of an orgasm? There are many issues with this depiction of relationships which will be examined further; the use of young, attractive models, the suggestion that love can only be shown through product consumption and the idea that products are more reliable than humans.
In order for advertisements to be effective, they need to connect with their target market and often this is done through the inclusion of desirable models that the target market wants to aspire to. In today’s society, the common aspiration of people is to appear aesthetically desirable through appearing youthful, thin and flawless. Psychologically, it is innate in humans that males find a younger female more attractive as she is likely to be more fertile (Cortese 1999). Advertising has jumped upon this instinct as it is profitable, especially in the beauty enhancing and cosmetic sector, to make women believe that the only way to gain a partner is through appearing desirable. Personality counts for nothing in advertising. By the constant inclusion of young, thin models and the accompanying message that this is what a real woman should look like has established a culture in which looks are the most important aspect of a female’s identity. A great example of this is in the current Match.com advertisement being broadcast on television where a man serenades a girl he finds attractive at a train station. The entire song focuses on her appearance and the line that “her skin was really, really, really great” just highlights how even something as simple as her complexion is a means of attracting a mate. This message suggests that it is not enough for a woman to appear thin or well groomed, but now she must have perfect, blemish free skin, much like that of the models who appear in airbrushed adverts (Kilbourne 1999). The problem with this fixation on the appearance of a partner is that it does demean any possibility of a lasting, loving relationship. If any personal connection is formed purely on the basis of looks, it does not promote a nurturing environment for which love to flourish. As much as advertisers try to insist otherwise, every individual will age and will stop looking so young, no matter how much make up they buy and use or cosmetic surgery they undergo. This is perhaps why advertisers often show relationships that appear to be long lasting and loving only with older actors in. An example of this is the Specsavers advertisement where an elderly couple on a day out end up mistaking a rollercoaster for a bench. Viewers of the advert are to assume this is a long-married couple and this assertion is enforced with the wife looking after the husband by providing him with his packed lunch. However, even in this example is the relationship brushed aside as the key message delivered is one of humour at the situation the couple find themselves in so any viewers are likely to ignore the relationship as it is not a key point in the advertisement’s message.
The next problem with the portrayal of relationships is the idea that in order to express love, it needs to be done alongside a product. The obvious example of this mindset is Valentine’s Day where it is expected that to show to a partner that you love them, you need to buy a card, a present and often take them out for an expensive meal. Anyone who tries to rebel against this consumerism is often accused of being more concerned about their money than their partner or not really loving their partner. Another good example of this belief in society is the idea that when a woman is proposed to, the man must do so with a diamond ring. If it is not a diamond ring, questions are raised over how committed the man is to the idea of marriage and to his future wife. The diamond has become a symbol for romance, affluence and ultimately engagement (Rutledge Shields & Heinecken 2002). Advertisers want consumers to believe that in order to show love they need to do it with products as this is what helps keep businesses going. When dating, individuals go out and spend money on experiences together and it is often a case of trying to impress a potential partner through spending as much money as possible. This is often the area that males try to impress in as psychologically, females look for a partner with good resources who can look after their offspring. Once this was through athletic prowess (although still considered a desirable trait), it has become more concerned with the wealth of a partner (Cortese 1999).
The final issue Kilbourne (1999) highlighted with advertising is the idea that advertisers promote that consumers can have a better relationship with the products they buy than they can with other individuals. Products can be more reliable as they do not have emotions that can make them unpredictable or hurtful. If the unthinkable happens and a consumer feels let down by a product, they have the safety net of guarantees and warranties to protect them, something that cannot apply to relationships. Consumers can create a relationship with a brand and feel intimate with certain products; an ideal advertisers want to create as it helps towards ensuring brand loyalty from consumers. An example of individuals creating relationships with products is the relationship women have with food, especially chocolate. Chocolate adverts often depict a woman enjoying a bar of chocolate as a moving experience often resulting in an emotional response similar to that is felt in relationships or even during sex. The most explicit example of this is the Cadbury Flake advertisements that run during the 1970s and 1980s although the advertising campaign was brought back in the mid 2000s due to high consumer recall, suggesting that the message within the advert had been internalised by the target market. The idea that this chocolate bar will never fail to deliver a moment of intense satisfaction leads consumers to the belief that is a relationship that can be trusted and fallen back upon, especially after a romantic relationships fails. The image that chocolate advertisers appear to want to portray is when the men of your life let you down; chocolate will be there to make you feel better about yourself.
This relationship with chocolate is a double edged one, as mentioned earlier, advertisers are wanting women to believe that they need to be thin in order to be deemed attractive but having an all consuming relationship with such an indulgent and calorific product is going to make it hard for any woman to stay slim, so therefore she has to rely on other products to help achieve the ‘perfect body shape’.
Another argument that supports Monbiot’s assertion is the feminist approach to advertising. For decades, women have been used as a promotional tool in order to sell products and often the strategy involves dismemberment of the female model (Cortese 1999). Often the only inclusion of women involves a pretty face or suggestive imagery of her breasts, buttocks or genitalia as sex always gets attention and the goals of advertisers is to get attention towards the product. By repeatedly showing women as only body parts rather than as actual whole individual, a message is sent that women are only an object and that her features are her only value. This is destructive towards creating a loving relationship as it creates a fixation on her appearance rather than her personality or intelligence and makes it seem acceptable to treat women as an object for consumption rather than a person to treat humanely.
The counter argument to the supporting perspective of Monbiot’s assertion questions just how much society pays attention to the messages advertisers send out and how they interpret these messages.
Most people will argue that they are aware of the persuasiveness of advertising and it is naïve to say that every individual would take the messages in every advert at face value. Hall’s (1973) encoding and decoding model suggests how individuals interpret a message. Hall suggested that there are three positions an individual can take when interpreting a message. The first is the dominant hegemonic position when the individual takes the message and its meaning at face value without questioning it. The second is the negotiated position where the individual may accept the message but adapts it to fit with their own values and beliefs. The final position is the oppositional code where the individual reinterprets the message with an alternative perspective (Philo 2008).
Hall’s (1973) model suggests that individuals have the ability and the opportunity to deconstruct a message and interpret it rather than just accept it. This suggests that when individuals are exposed to advertising messages to buy a product or to try and achieve an enforced cultural ideal, individuals can choose to question the motives behind it and ultimately reject the advertiser’s message by choosing not to buy the product. Especially in today’s society, where individuals are more aware that the motives of advertisers, however innocent they appear at face value, is to create a buying impulse within the consumer, it is likely that individuals can choose to reject the notions of love that advertisers are trying to sell. It is likely that Hall’s (1973) model is an accurate depiction of how individuals deconstruct a message as postmodern advertising has acknowledged that consumers are aware of the intent of advertisers to grab attention and to create a buying impulse. Often these adverts use humour or irony to highlight this awareness (Cortese 1999).
The other counter argument to Monbiot’s assertion is the idea that advertising is only a reflection on culture rather than a creator of cultural values. Carl Jung created the idea of a ‘collective unconscious’ in which all individuals of a culture share the same values and beliefs without realising. Advertisers are also a member of culture and therefore have also been conditioned to accept society’s cultures and values. This argument does appear to be somewhat accurate as there has been an increase in recent years of the depiction of non-heterosexual relationships in advertising as society has become more accepting of homosexuality. However, any depiction appears to be somewhat a rarity as advertisers only want to appeal to the largest consumer market and also want to avoid the risk of offending any consumers (Kilbourne 1999).
Mobiot’s assertion appears to have strong support and it does seem accurate that advertisers have managed to turn love into a selling point, even for products completely unrelated to relationships. By bombarding consumers with the message that appearance is crucial for any chance to form a connection to another individual, it demeans the other areas of love that were considered important such as personality or trust. Of course, it is up to each individual to choose whether or not to accept the messages advertisers send out and to choose to value the worth of a product higher than the worth of other people.
Another point the arguments have highlighted is whether advertising is a reflection or controlling society’s values. Until this can be wholly determined, it is unlikely that a definitive answer over how accurate Mobiot’s assertion is can be made, however both sides of the argument will be able to put across a persuasive point, much like advertising does every day.

  

References:

Cortese, A. J. 1999. Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Kilbourne, J. 1999. Can’t Buy Me Love; How Advertising Changes The Way We Think and Feel. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Monbiot, G. 2011. Sucking Out Our Brains Through Our Eyes [online] Accessed at: <www.monbiot.com/2011/10/24/sucking-our-brains-through-our-eyes> [Accessed on: 01 March 2012].

Philo, G. 2008. Active Audiences and the Construction of Public Knowledge. Journalism Studies.

Rutledge Shields, V. & Heinecken, D. 2002. Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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