Ways of Seeing Online: An analysis of John Berger’s ideas in the Digital Age.

John Berger, noted art critic and author, expresses in his seminal work “Ways of Seeing” the idea that advertising is omnipresent. This is truer today than ever before. Every site we visit, every search we make, even the duration we hover over a link before changing our minds, all are recorded to form a profile of who we are and what we like, and, more importantly, to estimate what kind of images would affect us the most and compel us to buy a product, read an article, etc. Then, we are bombarded with ‘related’ banners, popups and website ads. There are video ads before and during YouTube videos. There are obtrusive, ugly ads plastered all over websites, even ones where we would expect quality and discretion.

Targeted Facebook ad, targeting user’s ambition.
Ad targeting self-dissatisfaction.
Ad using glamour and fame for promotion.
Ad implying business success.

All of these advertisements either attempt to plant subconscious thoughts, or to tap into them.

In some of the above examples, the ads make an attempt to harness the viewers’ ambition(Gmail for work) or self-dissatisfaction(Skin Whitening).

Glamour for publicity online is more in line with conventional advertising. Beautiful and enviable models, actors and sportspeople are used to promote products with which they have little or no semantic relationship. Products like fairness creams or deodorant sprays create an image of beauty and attractiveness to aspire to, and their advertisements always show common, ordinary, unattractive looking men and women achieving that image by the use of that product. In this way, the ads show that good fortune, prosperity, respect, comfort and admiration are obtained through the product advertised by the models. Thus, the models become the mode of delivery of these blessings, and, in that respect, replace the nymphs and goddesses of history.

Berger states that personal envy did not exist in old times, therefore glamour did not exist, because status was determined by birth. In the pre­computer/internet age, personal envy was propagated by models or well-known public figures in publicity images. Therefore, The Marlboro Man became someone to aspire to be, a symbol of manhood.

Today, however, publicity is quite different. Earlier, it used to be that a model was used to promote a product. Today, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the product maker and the model. A celebrity may sell their tweets, or may post some pictures on Instagram with the product they sponsor, and often, it’s not explicitly declared that those posts are sponsored. Thus, the celebrity uses his popularity to have followers and be able to influence people, and the company pays the celebrity a sum in exchange for a small act of publicity, to harness the influence that he commands. The viewer responds with adoration, aspiration and envy not only for the model but also for the product, and the idea of possessing that product. In this way, the product being advertised reinforces the model’s public image, whether that be of strength, wealth, beauty, intelligence, style or fame. Thus the product promotes the model as much as the model promotes the product.

Publicity traditionally has impersonated paintings or incorporated them for effects like atmosphere, settings, pleasures, objects, poses, symbols of prestige, gestures, signs of love, etc. However, what is seen in publicity today is that the paintings themselves are not so important as their style, which is copied and transplanted onto modern ads. Also, it is not only paintings, but all dated styles of art and design, that are now used for comedic effect or to give a “retro look”.

Advertisement incorporating the style of Picasso.
Advertisement incorporating the style of Dali.
A tongue-in-cheek YouTube advertisement styled like an old print ad.

Berger states that the point of difference between oil paintings and publicity images is that oil paintings were meant to reinforce the owner’s self-confidence, whereas publicity images are meant to create aspirations. Publicity promotes the value of money, and money equals (sexual) power, desirability, adequacy. Publicity tells us we are inadequate, but promises the prospect of becoming better if we buy the product.

Image of a rich, successful, attractive man, and the implication that the buyer will become something similar.

Berger says that publicity images always depict one of three dreams. This held true in the print age, still holds true now, and is likely to hold true for the advertising media of the future. These three dreams are:

  1. Being the life of the party, enjoying luxury and hedonism.
All Royal Stag ad films feature stars in celebrations, award ceremonies etc. where they are the winners, or recounting their successes.

2. The skin dream: Featuring objectified, almost consumable skin.

BMW advertisement.
Toyota advertisement.

3. The Faraway Place: Dreamy, featuring distances without horizons, and the idea of being yourself in distant, alien lands.

Mahindra XUV 500 advertisement.

As can be seen from these examples, even today, publicity is public, but taps into intimate dreams. It puts ordinary products in a context, making them cool, funny, manly, sexy, etc.

Berger also stated that in print, there is no coherence. There might be a tragedy on one page and an ad for whisky in the next. A starving man on one and an ad for Coca-Cola on the next. Theoretically, this problem should not exist in online publicity since online ads are aware of what context they are being displayed in, but in their effort to advertise as heavily as possible and maximise reach and conversion rates, companies throw subtlety and context out of the window, and it would not be unusual to find an advertisement for shoes(based on your browsing history) while reading an article about amputees or an ad for a new car while reading about road accidents. In fact, because the keywords overlap, there is an increased chance of this impropriety.

Oil paintings were surrounded by gold frames. Physical publicity images are surrounded by us. Digital publicity images are targeted in the context of our login session, or our computer, or our IP address, so they are surrounded by our virtual presence. We can only enter the dreams they show if we upgrade ourselves, i.e. if we buy what they are selling.

Buy John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, click here.

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