What ads sell when they fail to sell

by Rob Horning

30 December 2008


Most people, myself included, are pretty confident that ads have a minimal effect on their decisionmaking; they might make us aware of the existence of certain things, but the decision to act is ours, motivated by some deep inner urge. That analysis, which I often use myself when rationalizing some marketing-driven purchase of my own, seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what advertising accomplishes collectively. Individual ads may inform and persuade us about particular products, but this is what we expect of them, and we stoke our resistance accordingly. We regard the specific advertised product skeptically.

But that expense of skepticism may make us vulnerable to marketing’s less overt goals, which are about drumming up consent for consumerism’s value system. Sometimes this is a matter of attuning us to its peculiar kind of associational illogic, in which fetishized products have transformational capabilities and sit at the center of all sorts of dramas within everyday life. When commercials make no sense or seem extraordinarily stupid (“the coldest tasting beer” campaign, for example), they are working on this string, trying to establish in our minds that connections between products and feelings don’t have to make rational sense to be effective, to exist, to affect our lives. Of course there’s no logical reason a shampoo will make us attractive, but the advertising is trying to persuade us that rationality is irrelevant, that feeling flows through different, equally authentic channels. Whether or not we think feeling flows from the particular product advertised becomes irrelevant if we are that much more convinced that it could flow from any product.

Marketing sets up the nonrational system of association that is to govern our appreciation of the things we buy, and at the same time, it encourages us to blame ourselves if we end up disappointed. After all, it’s our fault if we end up with irrational expectations because we’ve been drawn in by commercials that so clearly were nothing more than “fun” fantasies and jokes about quotidian life. In Shifting Involvements, Albert Hirschman remarks on the existence of insidious products (he cites psychoanalysis) which have blame-shifting built into them. With such products, our disappointment with how they failed to transform us turns into disheartening disappointment with ourselves—we feel as if we had let the product down. (“This shirt had the capacity to make me sophisticated, only I persisted in my boorish ways. Why can’t I live up to the sophistication of my wardrobe?”) Hirschman suggests we can turn on ourselves in respect to “any purchase that requires discrimination on the part of the buyer.” We are always in danger of not living up to our own good judgment. The degree to which we take responsibility for the disappointment inherent in our purchases protects consumerism overall. So ads will frequently work in a theme of how “you make the difference” with the help of a product, which unleashes your potential. Then, when nothing happens, it is because you didn’t have that potential, upon which another product can be marketed to dig deeper into you to find it.

Ads also reinforce the ideology of the soundness of private pursuits. As Hirschman notes, consumerism rests on “an ideology that proclaims self-interested behavior as a social duty”:

Accordingly, the dogged pursuit of happiness along the private road is not, as we often tend to think, “what comes naturally”; rather, it is presided over and impelled by an ideology which justifies it, not only in terms of its beneficial results for the individual pursuer, but as the surest and perhaps only way in which the individual can make a contribution to the common good.

This is the model for voting through the market as a way of moving society toward some ideal form. If only everyone stopped buying goods made in Chinese sweatshops, sweatshops would not exist. All we need to do is arrange a boycott and buy other things. The barrage of ads associated with an election day theme reinforces this ideology, equating consumer choice in the market with political expression. Sometimes these connections seem comically hyperbolic (vote for fried chicken today!), in which case they work on both this front and the illogic front, conveying a sense that we belong to a society that doesn’t privilege rationality and one in which our choice is held to be stupendously significant, no matter how banal the substance of it.

Hirschman continues:

The ideological claims made for the private life thus sustain the individual’s quest with two messages: one, the promise of satisfaction and happiness [this is typically the specific, overt content of an ad]; and two, the assurance that there is no need for guilt feelings or regrets over the neglect of public life.”

This is the message that slips through even when we resist the specific appeal for a particular product. We don’t choose that product, but we accept the flattering idea that such a choice is all-important and our primary social responsibility. Rejecting what is advertised may actually be a way of simultaneously affirming the whole structure which makes possible such a rejection and dignifies it.

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