The Tyranny of Advertising

In my last post, I talked about how I had been living without television for months. Well, it’s back now, and aside from a few guilty pleasures such as “Hoarders” and “Pawn Stars,” it hasn’t made much of a difference. However, I do think that my months without television caused a bit of culture shock for me, kind of like a person who visits an impoverished village and then returns to the superabundance of the United States. As it happens, during the time I was living without television I was also neglecting to read my magazine subscriptions (Health, Runner’s World, and Real Simple were casualties of my busy life; I managed to keep up with Mother Jones and The Nation). But now the dissertation is done and I can watch TV and read my lighter magazines without guilt, and I have noticed something: the subtle tyranny of advertising.

A big part of my dissertation discusses the concept of hegemony, which is basically the underlying structures of power that serve to perpetuate economic and social inequality. In the case of advertising, economic hegemony is served by convincing us in barely noticeable ways that we need things that we really don’t. On television and radio, advertising attempts to trick us by using labels that make things sound more important than they really are. These are usually phrases that describe self-evident things in ways that make them sound special or unique. For some reason I tend to notice them in relation to food advertising. Carl’s Jr. touts its “hand-breaded” chicken sandwich as something more desirable than a sandwich breaded by a machine. This is similar to “hand-leafed lettuce” or “hand-crafted coffee.” But when you stop to consciously think about that, you realize it’s meaningless. Let’s assume the breading used is the same regardless of whether the labor is done by man or machine, and that it is applied to a fresh chicken breast that is then frozen to be cooked later. Okay. If I put both a hand-breaded piece of chicken and a machine-breaded piece of chicken in front of you and ask you to taste them, will you be able to tell the difference? I’d wager not. Is there something about a piece of iceberg lettuce pulled from the head by hand that makes it taste better than a piece handled (pun intended!) by a machine? No – iceberg lettuce still tastes like iceberg lettuce. Yet this is used as a persuasive piece of advertising that implies a human touch improves the quality and taste of the food, even when the food itself has not been altered in any way. In all truth it probably does make the consumer more likely to want the hand-breaded or hand-crafted food. It sounds like higher quality, and more care, is going into the product. But the bottom line is that Carl’s Jr. is only using that description to increase its market share and not to give the consumer a better product, and the advertising agency that created the campaign is banking on it. We are being fooled and we don’t even know it. And that, my friends, is hegemony.

Magazines are another story altogether. The actual advertisements are usually pretty obvious, although women’s magazines (and probably men’s) often employ advertisements that look very similar to articles, and you may even start reading them before you notice the tiny-print “ADVERTISEMENT” label at the top of the page. But what’s much more insidious is the advertising in the articles. To wit: you read an article about this summer’s new hairstyle trends. There are a few puffy paragraphs about ponytails or hairclips or what have you, accompanied by product suggestions and pretty pictures. “To get this look, try Revlon Silky Shine Spray, $4 at drugstores.” Or “Get the perfect glossy lip with Lancome Pout Perfection, $18, Macy’s.” These are commercials. IN the article. Try an experiment: grab your favorite light magazine and go through it page by page, and count how many pages do not have a single advertisement or product suggestion. I would bet that you will find maybe 10 percent of the pages are product-placement free.

This is hegemony. This is what we are led to believe. This is what we think we have to have, and we don’t even know why. This, we are told, is what keeps the capitalist machinery operating – and that part of it is actually true. I’m not saying we’re all automatons without free will, but I am saying that advertising can easily fool even the most skeptical of us. Try a week or two without your TV or magazines, then go back, like I did. I’m sure you’ll see it too, if you haven’t already; and if you’ve noticed it before, it will be even more obvious after you choose to ignore it for a while.

Now excuse me while I go shine my hair, perfect my pout, and eat my hand-breaded chicken – after all, there’s an economy to grow!

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