Media as Ideological Consumerism

From Mad Men to a Mad Society

Living on the canals and rivers of London for many years, I came within close quarters of some of that city’s most desperate inhabitants, namely those who live on narrowboats because living in London has, in recent years, become horrifically expensive and beyond the means of most, even when flat sharing. Yet, reading the media reports from the BBC, a media corporation which is obligatorily funded by British residents, it would be easy to think that there is no economic inequality in the country, that homelessness is not rising at record rates, and that all the British are just thrilled about the impending royal wedding next May.

The fact is that media often sells the public an image that functions in diametric opposition to their best interests. We have seen this in the analysis of U.S. elections and how conservatives consistently vote against their own interests when selecting the best candidate and we are seeing this in recent years with the media’s liberal use of “clickbait” as headlines mislead the reader as we are drawn in only to find a flimsily concocted story.

“Fake news,” ironically one of the President Trump’s favorite phrases, is precisely how he gained access to the White House.  Still, we are given so much fake news that we must struggle to find the least fake news to read during our morning coffee.  We are living in an era where even a morsel of truth is better than the vast numbers of publications where “news” has been replaced by ideological dogma, such as the new millennium’s penchant for prescriptive list of items that women must do or stop doing.

Media has radically shifted its mandate in recent years having come to take on the role of the advertiser, selling an ideal lifestyle and political ideology, instead of reporting on the mechanisms of power which are forcing ideology forward, revealing who is sponsoring these narratives, how these ideological mechanisms are being bought and sold, and why. I am most concerned that in an era where the average American university graduate is indebted for an average of 21 years to repay student loans while their salary is not commensurate to their investment and more and more people are surviving simply by accumulating debt on their credit cards.  The economic crisis has been largely cast as a government one, but the reality is that media has played a large role in towing a line of personal wealth, despite the fact that 68 percent of Americans have destroyed their credit before age 30 and credit repair will likely be their only way forward under a lifetime of growing economic despair.

How did the media come to dominate the role of ideological mouthpiece for consumerism instead of being a transparent vehicle which reports and queries such ideologies?  It would be useful here to examine the interconnectivity between these media messages where economic hardship is swapped out for images of glamour. Certainly, there is a well-known link between how advertising promotes a product through creating a desire for said product. But how might media function to promote ideology in much the same way that advert campaigns sell perfume or car tires?

In Ways of Seeing Berger discusses this link between image and how people perceive themselves:

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.  Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

Here Berger analyses the notion that somehow art is “pure” and devoid of any commercial value as he demonstrates how economic structures absorb messages from culture and the art world to sell these repackaged messages once again. Berger’s thesis?  That “without social envy, glamour cannot exist”:

Glamour is a new idea…when everybody’s place in society is more or less determined by birth, personal envy is a less familiar emotion.  And without social envy, glamour cannot exist. Envy becomes a common emotion in a society that has moved toward democracy and then stopped halfway, where status is theoretically open to everyone but enjoyed by few.

The oil painting and the publicity image are not so dissimilar:  reality is based on paintings, art reflects reality,  and then art becomes co-opted by media to give prestige to the product when sold. It is the value of the artwork as possession, as having x value, that elicits this cycle of art as ideology. The consumer will forever want this ideal because what she is buying is ephemeral.

The well-known television series, Mad Men, was in many ways a critique of how media has taken hold of our society, of culture, and of the individual from herself, such that the focus of the plot ultimately fell to the protagonist whose job it was to show us how shallow we all are in the face of consumerism.  As Don Draper states: “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.”  Emotional lack and need feeds the machinery of consumerism as ideology and ideology as product.

John Berger’s task in Ways of Seeing and later the BBC series of the same name, demonstrates how markets create their own demand by utilizing emotion—be it glamour, pleasure, possession, prestige, future dreams—in order to ensure its hereafter? Or might things have changed since the 1970s?

Berger states in the narration of his BBC show: “The highest value of this civilization is the individual ego,” and he demonstrates his point through the images and messages of a British advertisement for Pimms. He leafs through the magazine and placed in juxtaposition to this advert is a story about refugees in East Pakistan with an accompanying text appealing to a political conscious and the next page, an ad for another alcoholic beverage Martini. There is, according to Berger, no coherence between these images and text: “Reality itself becomes unrecognisable.”  And this is salient point especially today. What do words mean when images of Pakistan, England, and elsewhere are juxtaposed to realities of “over there” where the fundamental message is that we deserve to drink Pimms and those people over there deserve what happens to them:  “What happens out there, happens to strangers whose fate is meant to be different from ours.”

Today, two generations after Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) was released on the BBC, we have an explosion of images coming to us through television, print media, and the Internet, all which function to imbue “truths” through their hyper-multiplicity and repetition.  There is no change in the way that we are sold “things” as objects or in the form of ideology.  Wealth abounds virtually such that the impoverished reader is allowed to identify with this mediatic fiction which manipulates economic inequality, where those on one side are deserving of wealth, those on the other side are deserving of death. It is the ultimate in naturalizing social, political, and ethnic hierarchy.

“Whatever happens in the dream is meant to happen to us,” says Berger.  Publicity implicates that there are simply those who are meant to be included, and necessarily those whom it excludes are negligible.  The fact that you matter also includes the unfortunate fact in our world today, many others simply do not. Ideology as media message attempts to render invisible this “sad fact” replacing political analysis within the surrogate model of a new, happier reality. Indeed, that dreams is meant to happen uniquely to you.

Desire, glamour, future dreams, social mobility—these are all part of how products are advertised and marketed.  The idea that “you are unique” hinges upon this social suspension of reality and the belief that the subject really does have a choice from a plurality of possibilities (ie. Pimms versus a humanitarian disaster) while paradoxically being unique in the world of choices.  The images might say multiplicity, but the message—as Don Draper knows all too well—is choice.  She is one person buying this product which means she is not only unique, but she holds the power.

What happens when you take advertising from the 1960’s and analyze it in the terms of the information highway of our contemporary world?  How has media changed and how might the consumer body (and consumerism) have changed in a world where we have billions of images and messages floating around cyberspace every second?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman compares the Middle Ages (belief in the authority of religion) with our contemporary world (belief in the authority of science (58). Along with science, technology, and orbiting narratives of progress (60), Postman argues, comes a new problem which he calls the “information glut” which leads to “information chaos.” According to Postman, none of our problems are due to insufficient information, but from a lack of the ability to analyze and prioritize it. We can’t answer the question of the purpose our information is supposed to serve. So managing information has become the key issue (J. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society). Postman goes on to explain the cultural impact of printing, and aligns printing, telegraphy, photography, broadcasting and computers as the technological driving forces in changing cultures which together give us access to instant, indiscriminate information.

The result is that we accommodate ourselves to new technology in a world where technological progress has become the chief aim of life (70).  Postman applies this notion of technological progress to advertising contending that advertising is less about the product and more about the consumer. Market research, not product research, is key today. And the questions of marketing and advertising are no longer how to reach the consumer but rather what is wrong with the consumer? How can this product be seen to fix that other, fictional problem?  Postman views that the problem of media is not really about advertising itself but the holistic worldview of technopoly which brings together concepts of progress and consumption, and where tradition is the obstacle (ie. he describes Christmas a “culture rape”).

During London’s “Occupy LSX” in 2011, I was shooting a film at the protest locations and interviewing many people who came in daily to participate as well as those who were living in tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral.  The occupation site was disheveled, there was no main organizer or leader of this occupation as hierarchies were denounced in this movement, chaos ruled and handmade signs abounded.  I walked around the camp daily filming and talking with protestors. Many—most even—would cite quotations from the Internet hit film Zeitgeist when I would ask them what they hoped to accomplish.  Ostensibly from the Left, many of these individuals would talk about the “system,” “the Man,” and most would recite this line as if a memorized chorus: “One day, machines will do everything and we won’t have to work.” I would interject and say, “But most everyone I know loves to work.  Don’t we need work to fulfill ourselves? I do!”   Another said, “But that is how the system wants you to think? There is enough money out there that we don’t really need to work.  One day we can all be sitting at home all day playing video games.” I responded that this seemed like a very bleak future, and a boring one at that.  I asked them to tell me more about this “system” and none could elaborate it aside from clichés of our being brainwashed, our being forced into this “system,” our being unhappy in “this system.”

By the end of my weeks filming at St Pauls, it was unclear to me what this system was or if their system was any different in structure to ethos.  In having discussions like this over several months I came to experience that at the heart of Occupy LSX included zero organization, no plan for understanding its greater constituency, and this protest lacked any coherent message or guiding force.  If anything could have used Don Draper, it was Occupy LSX.  For every single protestor I noted bought their food from the most exploitative of UK food chains, Tesco Supermarket, where £1 of every £8 in the UK retail market goes.  Their actions were in complete contradiction to their words and sadly these protestors did not even realize it.

It was this moment that led me to understand how political activity can mirror the consummation of messages and how advertising has become an irrefutable tool for mass communications today—even if that message is anti-consumerist.  Postman’s technopoly demonstrates how all messages of protest failed (in London) because there was an appeal to rationality whilst the images of the protest were, if anything, anti-rational.  Like LSX needing to find its willing consumer to come into its makeshift tea tent to discuss a future revolution, all advertising projects require the investment in belief.  Postman moves Berger’s connection between rational thought and advertising into a completely new dimension where now the “truth” no longer matters:

By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama-a mythology, if you will-of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

Indeed, we may go this far: The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products….And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research. The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas.

So the “system” of the protestor living in a tent for half a year would seem to be the holistic social space wherein everyone—these protestors included—recreate their own communities, their own notions of change and even revolution.  Certainly, the “system” is not a unilateral mass of power being speculated onto the multitudes by some overlord. But it is a discourse for reading society and for understanding which individuals take part and which opt out.  When looking very closely at how these new products exist in all their forms—from green energy tools to donations to the Red Cross to helping victims of a natural disaster—we can notice a trend in how the “system” is very much reflective of our cultural and social values, constantly shifting and changing into something else. Thirty years ago North American women were sold on margarine, today they are told it is toxic to the body with informercials running 24/7 about how low density fat will kill you.  Now buying butter makes the subject feel as if life will never end for her.

So if we must speak about “the system”—or any system for that matter—it is the one in which we have made ourselves simultaneous subjects and objects of ideology whereby consuming helps us be better people.  Today the narrative that media tows is very much in line with turning the reader/spectator of news into the subject-object of a political ideology that seeks its own end by amassing believers. In not fulfilling the mandate to reveal the facts and expose “the truth about the facts” as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel maintain as the role of journalism, we are simply allowing media to become a pipeline for corporate and elite interests.

We can give way to these economic and political giants, or we can demand regulation of media that might allow it be more about investigation and presenting of the facts over political partisanship and ideological pantomime.  To pretend that we are absolutely powerless and surrender ourselves to “the system” does not seem to be a healthy or constructive approach to countering the force of fake news or ideological propagation within media.  It is up to us to hold our politicians and media accountable.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.