As the call for freedom in the Middle-East cements itself into Western culture, some of us continue to question the extent to which a culture so consumed in consumerism is able to make such a call. This is considered in light of major and more nuanced social and psychological problems that arise from such ‘freedoms.’ In what follows I wish to highlight a few of these disturbances, which are often overlooked.
It’s not clear how many advertisements we are exposed to every day. Taking into account the average hours of TV viewing, radio listening, newspapers/magazine reading, internet surfing, public street and transport use; common estimates range from around 250 per day on the conservative side, to 3000 and above. Regardless of which is more accurate, there’s no doubt that being exposed to adverts is an extremely significantly common and almost necessary part of human experience in the modern world.
As well as showing us products, adverts also present us with values, ideals and social standards. They draw upon major personal themes such as beauty, happiness, love, companionship, sex, and self-image, in a positive but unrealistic light to promote their product. As a consequence, these adverts are potentially shaping us towards mental states, which are in fact, quite inhibiting, insecure, and unhealthy.
A common psychological principle used by advertisers is that repetition constitutes mental conditioning. Studies show that the more something is repeated to you, the more you will believe it. So whether it’s “I’m lovin’ it”, “Have a break, have a `Kit-Kat”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, the mere repetition of these messages is able to motivate potential buyers and construct certain ideas in their minds with added cognitive and emotional associations.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such methods. Psychotherapy typically uses the brain’s ability to re-condition its associations to heal people and make their lives more fulfilling. This, however, is done with both consent and good clinical intention. Advertising is a different story altogether. A company’s main purpose is to sell a product and make money, even if that means falsely creating insecurities in people and offering their product as a solution.
The link between psychology and consumerism was expanded on in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s ideas regarding primitive hidden sexual and aggressive forces to show corporations how to link purchasable products to unconscious desires. As a result, the insatiable fantasy and anticipation of buying a product became more pleasurable than actually possessing it. This would ensure that people would keep buying irrationally, giving rise to a consumer culture.
Bernays, who worked closely with numerous US presidents and large corporations, was one of the first to use psychological methods such as celebrity association, product marketing in films, and to link products to male or female power. In his book Propaganda (later Public Relations) he causally explains how, in many instances throughout our daily lives, “we imagine ourselves free agents”, but are “ruled by dictators exercising great power”. “A man buying a suit of clothes” he explains, “imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London.” Bernays then explains how the gentleman tailor in London is part of a wider network utilising the psychological methods listed above. Thus, even our consumer choices are largely an illusion of freedom, as clarified by the official “Father of Public Relations” himself.
The values being presented to a nation through major advertising come in all shapes and sizes. Constant images of happy, smiling, healthy people with buyable products both insists on a materialistic existence, and promotes the idea that if you want fulfilment, you need to buy things. As a result, our worth is valued more and more by what we own as opposed to what we do, or who we are. Self-gratification is also excessively promoted by the advertising culture, encouraging a focus on our own immediate desires as opposed to our relations with others. Whenever displayed, family and friendship ties are seen as outlets for gift giving, while intimate and traditional ‘special occasions’ have been mutilated into wholesale consumer events. Not much is offered for the integrity of the self. Morally reflective messages are usually only found in charity ads, which, although might be sincere, share the principal goal of encouraging some partition with your finances. Thus, your worth still depends on what you can spend.
Sexualization and Body Dissatisfaction
An increasingly concerning issue regarding images in advertising is the consistent connection between women, sex, desire, beauty, thinness, and happiness. This collection of associations is one of the most oft-repeated and overtly used advertising methods that modern society is exposed to multiple times a day. It’s now so commonly used that we hardly even notice it.
The American Psychological Association defines ‘sexualization’ as: “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Sexual objectification shares a similar definition, and is theoretically accentuated in a consumer-advertising context, where, not only is the individual sexually objectified in the way the body is presented, but also in the fact that they are associated with a purchasable object. Moreover, studies have confirmed that images which sexually objectify women have led to them being seen as “less human”, lacking “mind” and morality, and has caused men to grow indifferent to women’s experience of pain.
The phenomenon of ‘body dissatisfaction’ is defined as the perceived difference between one’s own body image and the ideal body image established and maintained by commercial media. Countless psychological studies show that this ‘dissatisfaction’ is a precursor to both eating disorders and psychological disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, and even self-disgust. What permanently cements these disorders into Western culture is that the gap between the reality and the ideal can never actually be closed since the beauty standard set by popular culture is impossible to attain. It has been argued that the female body-type typically portrayed in adverts is genetically true to some 5% of the female population, while photoshopped images and the portrayal of eternal youth further distances the ideal into an ever-higher fantasy. Insecurities are moreover ignited by evidence showing that men who are exposed to “media-perfect” beautiful women tend to view real life average females as significantly less attractive. This would theoretically include their own partners.
Although men are not exempt from an increased sexualisation in advertising, it is still nowhere near as prevalent as the sexualisation of women. Moreover, due to both the dissimilar perceived ideals and physiological differences of each gender, it is highly unlikely that men will ever be affected in the same way, despite the rise of the metrosexual man. A longitudinal study shows that when girls reach puberty, natural increase in body mass at this age distances them from the thin ideal, significantly increasing the chance of psychological and eating disorders. Boys, on the other hand, tend to grow closer to their bulkier ideal at puberty and thus show no increase in body dissatisfaction during adolescence. The gender bias is further confirmed with national stats from the UK and US showing that around 90% of cosmetic procedures are carried out on women, with breast implants being the most common, and vaginal modification being one of the fastest growing.
Most critical to the concept of freedom is how the beauty standard is imposed upon children, especially young girls. As one psychologist puts it: “the current aesthetic model for women, characterised by skinniness, is internalised early on, before the age of 10, and remains throughout adolescence.” Since children are below the age of responsible choice, freedom is entirely undercut, directing them to a series of potentially life long social and personal disorders and harms. Although a causal link has not been confirmed, this may well contribute towards explaining the belief that women are at least twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.
Of course, for the majority of major towns and cities in the Middle East, the caution is too late. The presence of multi-national corporations and the electronic mediums through which they advertise, have long been a part of Arab urban culture. “Thin and sexy” images of women in public are indeed rising, and Arab manufactures are quick to create equivalent products, which are no doubt having the same effects on their own children as they are on children in the West (Fulla is just as abnormally thin as Barbie). But in many cases, it’s not to the same degree. Strict values of individualism haven’t completely taken over the culture in the Middle East and it’s fair to say that some inhabited areas are completely untouched by commercialism. Traditional values of selfless hospitality, genuine respect for elders, and community spirit, still strongly subsist in non-consumerist communities scattered throughout non-Western lands. The spreading of modern Western values of freedom – of which consumer choice and abundant advertising are integral parts – tends to inverse these values producing opposite social effects.
In conclusion, meaning is derived from our associations. And advertisers are proving incredibly successful at shaping these associations for the sake of commercial and financial interests. While they may not always anticipate the negative effects, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the spread of consumer culture, along with its accompanying adverts, promotes far more social problems and insecurities than it does freedoms.