Advertising in the Age of The Social Networks and The ‘Shared Economy’

An Introduction to The Introduction of Advertising

In the early development of capitalism, workers were taught to read but not write. As Raymond Williams pointed out, the skills of reading were all that were required to follow orders and to understand the Bible. In his works on advertising and image-based popular culture, Sut Jhally stressed the importance of “visual literacy” — that is, not only learning how to produce images but also understanding the institutional context of production and consumption of the image-system. “Contemporary society is in a similar position [to early capitalism],” Jhally argued. “While we can read images quite adequately (for the purposes of their creators) we do not know how to produce them.” However, as the economics to produce images have changed drastically since Jhally originally published his works, I argue consumers are now actively participating in the selling of products, blurring the lines between consumer and advertiser. Camera technology has been infused in the everyday with smartphones and advertising invades the popular social media platforms we use in our everyday to connect with others and share our content.

In terms of pure economics, the major difference between feudalism and industrial capitalism is the number of commodities produced, many of which are nonessential goods. But capitalism is more than just an economic structure or a set of laws and institutions certainly. It is a whole system — social, economic, political, demographic, cultural, ideological, and technological — needed to make a developed society function through markets and private ownership. That includes companies, markets and states. But it also includes criminal gangs, secret power networks, miracle preachers, rogue analysts on Wall Street. The challenge that capitalism faced for a very long time was not in the production or distribution of these commodities but in making sure there exists enough consumption. The solution to this problem became advertising. Jhally explains that before the 1920s, advertising consisted of simple “reason why” celebrations of the product’s features. During the 1920s, advertisers turned to the increasingly popular medium of photography. This period also saw the integration of people via visual representation. These weren’t actual people like celebrities, but people who symbolized family structures, status and hierarchical authority. Because use of photographic images was relatively nascent, there was no guarantee that the audience was sufficiently visually literate. Advertisers solved this problem by conjoining the images with written material to decode the images. After The War, these texts became more and more symbolic, where it appeared as a key to the puzzle — a slogan if you will.

Jhally professed that if we want to understand our culture and our society, we have to come to terms with the role of advertising in media and the power of commercial images. This, he claimed, will involve clarifying what we mean by the power and effectiveness of ads. For too long, it has been commonplace to question whether ad campaigns create demand for a particular product. These sorts of questions are only interesting if you are the advertiser. It is more interesting to ask ourselves: what impact does advertising have on culture and what are the consistent stories advertising tells us. Culture is the place and space where society tells stories of itself, where values are articulated and expressed, where notions of good and evil and morality are defined. Every society has a cultural field that talks about these things. In our culture it’s the stories of advertising that dominate the cultural field. Advertising is the main storyteller of our society.

And so how do we identify the consistent stories that advertising tells? I think we can do that by posing a series of questions and understanding advertising’s answers to these questions. Questions like: how do we become happy; what am I to society; and, what is the future like?

The Image-System and Manufacturing of Dreams

Every society has a story of happiness. Advertising has a very specific answer for us: the way to happiness is through the consumption of objects. When consumption is so essential to the way our economy functions that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Happiness comes form the market, from economic growth. That is the major force of social change on a global scale. The questions we need to pose are: does happiness come from material things and do we get happier as a we become richer? Jhally claimed the answer to these questions was “no.” “When people are asked what they want out of life, people normally reply with non-material answers.” Elements of a quality of life include: autonomy and control, good self-esteem, warm family relationships, relaxing leisure time, romance and love, and close and meaningful friendships. People reply with the social elements of life.

At a certain level, material things stop giving us the satisfaction that advertising insists that world can deliver. It’s one of the great ironies of our market system: the market is good at providing those things that can be bought and sold and it pushes us in those directions via advertising. But the real sources of happiness — social relationships — are outside the capability the marketplace can provide. “This is why advertising by the 1920s,” Jhally explains, “advertising stopped selling us goods based on their properties” or “reason why” advertising. By the 1920s advertising shifts to the relationship of objects to the social life of people. Advertisers started to connect commodities with powerful images of a social life people say they want. No wonder, advertising is so powerful and seductive. Advertising does more than reflect our dreams; it creates and translates our real desires for a social life into our dreams. The modern context, then, provides a curious satisfaction experience, ­one that William Leiss describes as “an ensemble of satisfactions and dissatisfactions” in which the consumption of commodities mediated by the image-­system of advertising leads to consumer uncertainty and confusion. The image­-system of the marketplace reflects our desires and dreams, yet we have only the pleasure of the images to sustain us in our actual experience with goods.

A Comprehension of the “Self” in Society

A culture dominated by commercial messages that tells individuals that the way to happiness is through consuming objects bought in the marketplace gives a very particular answer to the question of “what is society?” What is it that binds us together in some kind of collective way and what concerns or interests do we share? In fact, Margaret Thatcher, the former neoliberal conservative British Prime Minister, gave the most succinct answer to this question from the viewpoint of the market: “There is no such thing as ‘society’. There are just individuals and their families.” According to Mrs. Thatcher, there is nothing solid we can call society — no group values, no collective interests. Society is just a bunch of individuals acting on their own. This is precisely how advertising talks to us. It addresses us not as a collective but as individuals. It pushes all conversations we need to negotiate collectively to the margins and forces us to identify with the “self” and the “other” in relation to society, further embedding the indiviual ego in the social ego and the social ego in the individual ego. What is my gender? What is my sexuality? What is his sexuality? Am I a good mother? Is he a good father? Is he a good human? Am I a good voting citizen?

An Individually Collective Future or a Collectively Individual Future?

Now, what is the future like? The consumer vision pushed by capitalism is based on economic growth. More consumption requires more production. Now industrial production has costs. It requires resources, raw material and energy. Broad consensus among the environmental community argues that the earth and its climate cannot sustain such levels of economic expansion, especially as more and more Third-World nations have transformed their economies to industrial economies. Many people thought that the environmental crisis would be the linchpin for the lessening of international tensions as we recognized our interdependence and our collective security and future. But as the many wars in the Middle East made clear, the New World Order will be based upon a struggle for scarce resources. Writing for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald points out this contemporariness:

In the last two months, Trump has ordered a commando raid in Yemen that has massacred children and dozens of innocent people, bombed Mosul and killed scores of civilians, and bombed a mosque near Aleppo that killed dozens. During the campaign, he vowed to murder the family members of alleged terrorists. He shut America’s doors to Syrian refugees, and is deporting people who have lived in the U.S. since childhood despite committing no crimes. Given all that, could American elites possibly believe him when he says that he is motivated by humanitarianism — deep-seated anger over seeing Syrian children harmed — in bombing Syria? Yes, they could, and they are. That’s because American elites always want to believe — or at least want others to believe — that the U.S. bombs countries over and over not out of aggression or dominance but out of love, freedom, democracy and humanitarian concern. The U.S. Government does not wage war, and the U.S. military does not blow things up, out of humanitarianism. It does so when it believes there is some benefit to be obtained for itself. Again, Federalist 4 warned us: “nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.” If humanitarianism is what motivated the U.S. in Syria, it would take in massive numbers of refugees, but it hasn’t. If humanitarianism is what motivated the U.S. bombing of Libya, it would have given large amounts of aid to that country in the aftermath to help it deal with the ensuing misery, but it didn’t. That’s because humanitarianism is the pretext for U.S. wars, not the actual motive.

This is just a recent example. Before the propaganda rationale shifted to the “struggle for freedom and democracy,” our presidents have reminded the American people that the troops were being dispatched to the Middle East to protect the resources that make possible “our way of life”. An automobile culture and commodity-based culture such as ours is reliant upon sources of cheap oil. And if the cost of that is 100,000 dead Arabs, well so be it. In such a scenario the peoples of the Third World will be seen as enemies who are making unreasonable claims on “our” resources. The future and the Third World can wait. Our commercially dominated cultural discourse reminds us powerfully everyday, we need ours and we need it now. In that sense the Middle East is the main card, where Europe, Southeast Asia and South America served as undercards before it (of course, I’m leaving out many of the short-fought battles and invasions). As the world runs out of resources, the most powerful military sources will use that might to ensure access. Many, like Jhally, have argued that the way out of this collision course is through statist and collective means:

The destructive aspects of capitalism (its short-term nature, its denial of collective values, its stress on the material life), are starting to be recognized by some people who have made their fortunes through the market. The billionaire turned philanthropist George Soros (1997) talks about what he calls “the capitalist threat” and culturally speaking, advertising is the main voice of that threat. To the extent that it pushes us towards material things for satisfaction and away from the construction of social relationships, it pushes us down the road to increased economic production that is driving the coming environmental catastrophe. To the extent that it talks about our individual and private needs, it pushes discussion about collective issues to the margins. To the extent that it talks about the present only, it makes thinking about the future difficult. To the extent that it does all these things, then advertising becomes one of the major obstacles to our survival as a species. Getting out of this situation, coming up with new ways to look at the world, will require enormous work, and one response may just be to enjoy the end of the world as one last great fling, the party to end all parties. The alternative response, to change the situation, to work for humane, collective long-term values, will require an effort of the most immense kind.

And there is evidence to be hopeful about the results of such an attempt. It is important to stress that creating and maintaining the present structure of the consumer culture takes enormous work and effort. The reason consumer ways of looking at the world predominate is because there are billions of dollars spent on it every single day. The consumer culture is not simply erected and then forgotten. It has to be held in place by the activities of the ad industry, and increasingly the activities of the public relations industry. Capitalism has to try really hard to convince us about the value of the commercial vision. In some senses consumer capitalism is a house of cards, held together in a fragile way by immense effort, and it could just as soon melt away as it is held together. It will depend if there are viable alternatives that will motivate people to believe in a different future, if there are other ideas as pleasurable, as powerful, as fun, as passionate with which people can identify.

It is not just collective values that need to be struggled for, but collective values that recognize individual rights and individual creativity. The task is not easy. It means balancing and integrating different views of the world. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes:

Can we envision a society which values not “collectivity” with its dreary implications of conformity but what I can only think to call conviviality, which could, potentially, be built right into the social infrastructure with opportunities, at all levels for rewarding, democratic participation? Can we envision a society that does not dismiss individualism, but truly values individual creative expression including dissidence, debate, nonconformity, artistic experimentation, and in the larger sense, adventure. The project remains what it has always been: to replace the consumer culture with a genuinely human culture.

Post-capitalism: An Introduction to Our Future

The digital revolution has made many things real that once seemed to belong to realms of science fiction. Autonomous vehicles are here, telepathic communication may not be far off, and now major environmental breakthroughs such as sustainable energy sources and products that make use of them. In Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason argues that the internet is bringing another quaint and fantastical idea within the scope of the achievable: networked socialism. By socialism, he doesn’t mean the tame social democracy that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on moderating inequality and championing workers’ rights. This is socialism as a root-and-branch challenge to capitalism, the market and the very idea of private ownership. Still, Mason is no orthodox Marxist. His is an eclectic take on the history of socialist thought. From the utopians, he gets the idea of unfettered choice and radical social experimentation, which the internet can deliver in spades. His Marx is not the author of Capital so much as the author of an obscure text called “The Fragment on Machines”, which argued that information overload would ultimately destroy capitalism by dispersing knowledge among the workers.

In response to the serious impacts of climate change, demographic aging and population growth, Mason proposes an alternative: “first, we save globalization by ditching neoliberalism; then we save the planet — and rescue ourselves from turmoil and inequality — by moving beyond capitalism itself.” Moreover, Mason argues that any project to move beyond capitalism has to shape its priorities around the urgent challenge of climate change. Paradoxically, Mason himself is not averse to embracing some aspects of hierarchical politics when the occasion demands. His own solution to the challenge of climate change is to push for action that is “centralised, strategic and fast … it will require more state ownership than anybody expects or wants.” Adaptable states will have to make use of networks — including “smart grids” for regulating energy supply — but it is impossible to believe that these states will themselves be nothing more than networks. Mason argues that the only sector where it is imperative to suppress market forces completely is wholesale energy:

To meet climate change with urgent action, the state should take ownership and control of the energy distribution grid, plus all big carbon-based suppliers of energy. These corporations are already toast, as the majority of their reserves cannot be burnt without destroying the planet. To incentivize capital investment in renewables, this technology would be subsidized and the companies providing it remain outside state ownership where possible. This could be done while keeping the overall energy price to consumers high — in order to suppress demand and force them to change behavior. But it’s equally important to reshape the way households consume energy. The aim would be to decentralize the consumer side of the energy market, so that technologies such as combined heat and power and local generation grids could take off. At every stage, energy efficiency would be rewarded and inefficiency punished — from building design, insulation and heating to transportation networks. There is a wide range of proven techniques to choose from, but by decentralizing and allowing local communities to keep the efficiency gains they make, market forces in the retail energy market could be used to achieve a defined and measurable goal.

Ditching neoliberalism might be the easy part here. There’s a growing consensus among protest movements, radical economists and radical political parties around the world as to how you do it: suppress high finance, reverse austerity, invest in green energy and promote high-waged work. But then what? Within the neoliberal capitalist society there seems to be no alternative, at least no better alternative. All routes away from capitalism end in the kind of disaster that befell the Soviet Union; and that a revolt against capitalism is a revolt against a natural and timeless order. The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity among ordinary people. Neoliberalism, with its belief in the permanence and finality of “free markets,” tried to rewrite the whole prior history of humanity as “things that went wrong before us.” But once you begin to think about the history of capitalism, you are forced to ask which events, amid the chaos, are part of a recurrent pattern and which are part of an irreversible change. The current crisis not only spells the end of the neoliberal model, it is a symptom of the longer-term mismatch between market systems and an economy based on information. Mason suggests that replacing capitalism is no longer a utopian dream: “the basic forms of a post-capitalist economy can be found within the current system.”

What exactly is neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is the doctrine of quasi-uncontrolled markets: it says that the best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and the market is the only way to express that self-interest. It says the state should be small (except for its riot squad, secret police and military); that financial speculation is good; that inequality is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals, competing with each other. Its prestige rests on tangible achievements: in the past twenty-five years, neoliberalism has triggered the biggest surge in development the world has ever seen, and it unleashed an exponential improvement in core information technologies. But in the process, it has revived inequality to a state close to that of 100 years ago and has now triggered a survival-level event. Beyond all tactical mistakes, and the repression, the reason general resistance to neoliberalism has failed is simple: “free-market” capitalism is a clear and powerful idea, while the forces opposing it looked like they were defending something old, worse and incoherent.

Among the 1 percent, neoliberalism has the power of a religion: the more you practice it, the better you feel — and the richer you become. Even among the poor, once the system is in full swing, to act in any other way but according to neoliberal strictures became irrational: you borrow, you duck and dive around the edges of the tax system, you stick to the pointless rules imposed at work. And for decades the opponents of capitalism have reveled in their own incoherence. From the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s through to Occupy and beyond, the movement for social justice has rejected the idea of a coherent program. The incoherence is logical if you think the only alternative is what the twentieth century left called “socialism.” Why fight for a big change if it’s only a regression — towards state control and economic nationalism, to economies that work only if everyone behaves the same or submits to a brutal hierarchy? In turn, the absence of a clear alternative explains why most protest movements never win: in their hearts they don’t want to. There’s even a term for it in the protest movement: “refusal to win”.

But capitalism is like an organism: it has a lifecycle — a beginning, middle and end. It is a complex system, operating beyond the controls of individuals, governments and even superpowers. It creates outcomes that are often contrary to people’s intentions, even when they are acting rationally. Capitalism is also a learning organism: it adapts constantly, and not just in small increments. At major turning points, it morphs and mutates in response to danger, creating patterns and structures barely recognizable to the generation that came before. However, as a complex, adaptive system, once capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change, it will reach the limits of its capacity to adapt. Mason argues:

Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which breaks through, reshaping the economy around new values, behaviors and norms. As with feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s demise will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of being. And it has started.

The emerging character of the digital age can’t be made to fit any previous socialist blueprint, but it does have uncanny echoes of earlier glimpses of an alternative future. Critics of monopoly capitalism traditionally argued that the only way the system could survive was to keep finding new markets to conquer. In the early 20th century, that meant imperial wars of conquest. In the early 21st century, Mason suggests, it means “the mass commercialization of ordinary human life”, pushing the market mechanism into the private world of our unspoken hopes and desires. What is Facebook’s advertising model if not that? The pressure an info-tech economy puts on the price mechanism drives the relentless search for new things to sell. For Mason, capitalism can’t survive if its primary resources are available at little cost and with an almost limitless shelf life. Social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin has coined this transformation, the “zero-marginal cost society.” Abundant information is currently both too valuable and too cheap for an economic model based on private property to endure. This tension between knowledge (which is limitless) and ownership (which is limited) represents the basic contradiction of capitalism. Earlier thinkers caught sight of it from various different angles. Now the digital revolution has laid it bare.

Info-tech has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. Info-goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s dense mechanism is to form monopolies on a scale not seen in the past 200 years. Now we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. New forms of ownership, of lending and currencies, of legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged, which the media has dubbed the “sharing economy”.

There seem to be only two possibilities here for capitalism. The first is to accept that the digital goods have to be given away free, and to finance the capitalist business by advertising. This is the model adopted by Google, but it has obvious limitations. There is a limited pool of advertising expenditure, and so a limit to the number of companies that can finance themselves in this way. In fact, the transfer of advertising to the internet has hit commercial television channels. Moreover who pays for the advertising? It can only be traditional capitalist firms. Thus the new digital economy, on this model, becomes parasitic on old traditional firms. This constitutes an obvious limitation. The second approach is to get the lawyers to work, and try to enforce copyright and intellectual property. However, as we have seen, this is fraught with difficulties. If millions are already collaborating and consuming for free in small hidden and large conspicuous networks, how can draconian copyright laws be enforced? This post-capitalist sector might coexist with the market sector for decades, but it is certainly happening.

Commercial Culture in the Spaces

But for now, in the contemporary world, messages about goods and services remain so pervasive and diffuse, our media systems, institutions and private and public spaces have all become vehicles for selling products. Once left to newspapers, radio, billboards, buildings and TV, advertising soon seeped into movies, sports and schools. Now, advertising has found its way into the spaces — the environment, the cyberspace and outer-space. It’s no longer enough to say that the prime function of our media and institutions is to sell commodities. Moreover, it is also the prime effect of our media and institutions. We are now six generations born always-already, inevitably and immediately as a consumer. With the ability to create and share content at mass through social media platforms though, more contemporary generations have become not only consumers but also advertisers themselves selling the means to social happiness through commodities they hold in high esteem. Branded Snapchat filters seem to be the obvious evidence here. But YouTube and Instagram stars and influencers suggest that the means to a happy social life is through the consumption and re-selling of an advertiser’s product. This re-selling is packaged with the similar illusions advertising has promised for a long time; however, now it becomes more potent as the advertising becomes embedded in our very notions of what it means to be social — sharing our personal lives on social media. Our quest for more followers and more likes is a quest or validation of social connection and we compare our happiness to others in this digital space.

Commercial culture is inside our intimate relationships, inside our heads and dreams. Under the guise of social togetherness and in conjunction with brand representation, these consumer-advertisers facing the social anxiety of the digital world greatly foster a powerful dynamic that masks happiness and “sociality” with consumption and consumption with “sociality” and happiness. The common distinctions between the essence of human connection through social media and human connection in the physical realm are not only hackneyed and arbitrary but, moreover, unimportant here. What is interesting is the power these new modes of social togetherness avail the image-based commodity system. Perhaps the change social media created is the velocity and near-immediacy that we can share our branded social intimacies with others and push this near-immediate sell unto others.

The abundance of objects is no longer as interesting as the ever-present discourse through and about objects that permeates the spaces of our public and private domains. This commercial discourse is the ground on which we live, the space in which we learn to think, the lens through which we come to understand the world that surrounds us and its future. It is not a minor propaganda system — it is all pervasive. From a universal perspective, again at the very moment that there needs to be informed debate about the direction and scope of industrial production, the commodity propaganda system is colonizing new areas and new media, and channeling debate into narrower confines. Our understandings and workings in worldly space (the environmental strategies), in cyberspace and outer-space face the perils of us limiting their very potentialities of infinity to our image-based commodity system. And so I argue, in seeking to understand where we are headed as a society in these spaces, an adequate analysis of this commercial environment is ever-the-more essential. Perhaps we start this analysis with the commercial efforts of ride-sharing companies (i.e., Uber and Lyft), Elon Musk’s initiatives (i.e., Tesla and Space-X) and the advertising strategies of and on the major mass-market social networks (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat) as well as the major digital commerce platforms (i.e, Amazon and AliBaba)…