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 and distribute images have changed drastically since Jhally originally published his works, I argue consumers are now actively participating in the selling of products, lifestyles and glamour, 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 lives.
In terms of pure economics, the major difference between feudalism and industrial capitalism is the sheer 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, and 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, utility, or price. During the 1920s, advertisers turned to the increasingly popular medium of photography and radio. This period also saw the integration of people via visual representation, radio program sponsorship or “tie-ins” between product and program. 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.
By the mid-1940s, as the ad industry shifted its attention to television and research about the demographics and psychology of the television consumer (interest in convenience, fascination with technology and science, desire for glamour), the discourse through and about objects shifted to greater psychological depth in the portrayal of the person and an individual’s changing emotional states. Jhally called this the era of “narcissism” and was exemplified by the “mirror ad,” where the human face dominates the scene and stares out at the viewer-consumer.
By the mid-60s the utility, symbolism, and personae of the product image is mixed and remixed with signs of social interactions of the groups, where consumption is meant to be a spectacle, a public enterprise. “Product images fulfill their totemic potentialities in becoming emblems for social collectivities,” Jhally suggested, “principally by means of their associations with lifestyles.” He goes on to say that the “totems” (product images) themseleves are the badges of group membership, which also entails self-administered codes of “authority for dress,” “appearance,” “popular entertainment,” “customary places of assembly,” “behavior rituals,” and “role stereotyping.”
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 advertising. 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.
It is important here not to confuse advertising with the pleasure or benefits to be enjoyed from the goods it advertises. Advertising is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Advertising begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms. The more convincingly advertising conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he or she is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote chance of bathing in it will seem to him or her. This is why advertising can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Advertising is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Advertising is always about the future consumer. It offers him or her an image of himself or herself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him or her envious as he or she might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. In his seminal work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes:
Advertising is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour. Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest — if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect, the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat is his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
In this regard, the spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the advertising-image steals her love for herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.
The purpose of advertising is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is. Advertising speaks in the future tense and yet the achievement of this future is endlessly deferred. How then does advertising remain credible — or credible enough to exert the influence it does? It remains credible because the truthfulness of advertising is judged, not by a real fulfillment of its promises through action or lived experience, but by the relevance of its fantasies and glamorous day-dreams to those of the spectator-buyer. The process has been reinforced by working conditions. The interminable present of meaningless working hours is “balanced” by a dreamt future in which imaginary activity replaces the passivity of the moment. In his or her day-dreams the passive worker becomes the active consumer. The working self envies the consuming self. No two dreams are the same. Some are instantaneous, others prolonged. The dream is always personal to the dreamer. Advertising does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable — yet could be.
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 individual 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 tax-paying 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:
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, South America, and of course the massacring of indigenous tribes served as undercards before it. As the world runs out of resources, the most powerful state-military sources will use that might to ensure access.
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 and perhaps the intelligence agencies and departments of “defense”.
Advertising has another important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Advertising turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Advertising helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society and it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world. Advertising adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world. The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of advertising’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same. According to advertising, to be sophisticated is to live beyond conflict. Advertising can translate even revolution into its own terms.
The contrast between advertising’s interpretation of the world and the world’s actual condition is a very stark one, and this sometimes becomes evident in the news magazines and programs. The shock of such contrasts is considerable: not only because of the coexistence of the two worlds shown between the news and the advertisement, but also because of the cynicism of the culture which shows them one above or after the other. It can be argued that the juxtaposition of images is never planned. Nevertheless the text or dialogue, the photographs or video taken in the Middle East or North Korea for instance, the photographs or video taken for the advertisements, the editing of the magazine or news program, the layout of the advertisement, the printing or broadcasting of both, the fact that the advertiser’s pages and segments cannot be co-ordinated — all these are produced by the same culture. Advertising exerts an enormous influence and is a political phenomenon of great importance. But its offer is as narrow as its references are wide. It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. All hopes are gathered together, made homogenous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase. No other kind of hope or satisfaction or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism. Advertising is the life of this culture — in so far as without advertising capitalism could not survive — and at the same time advertising is its dream.
Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interest as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable. 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 individuals 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 decentralized sustainable energy sources and products. 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 neoliberal 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.
Ditching neoliberalism might be the easy part here and might happen without a concrete plan to do so. 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 digital phenomenon 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.”
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”. In this we’ve seen companies like Uber, AirBnB and Twitter challenge traditional capitalist businesses — transportation, hotel & lodging and media respectively. We’ve also seen technologies like P2P networking and blockchain challenge everything from the music, movie, and entertainment industry to finance and legal to telecommunications and internet services to, even, the electrical grid.
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. Since the 90s, we’ve seen formats like pop-ups, banner and display ads, and native ads, pre-roll and mid-roll video ads. All the new ad technologies promise the same things, things like: “Based off personal data, we can target a consumer most likely to convert.” We’ve stuck to measurement terms such as impression and views, which don’t appropriately attribute sales efforts with brand or direct marketing campaigns. In turn, we’ve seen incredible algorithmic biases by the platforms that implement the new programmatic ad tech. This is the model adopted by Google with AdWords, Instagram with Sponsored Native Posts and now mid-roll video ads, and Snapchat with somewhat creative branded selfies. This way of mass commercializing ordinary life 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. 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 at least six generations born always-already, inevitably and immediately as a spectator-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 and cultural influencers on social media 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.
In earlier societies individuals became acquainted with the meanings carried by objects through culture and customs. In a consumer society needs and commodities must be introduced by some other means: marketing and advertising become the chief matchmakers. The burgeoning array of new goods that began to emerge from mass production techniques towards the end of the 19th century presented businesses with the challenge of “binding” product to culturally-sanctioned formats for the satisfaction of needs. Where the division of labor, mass migrations from rural to urban areas, sustained technological innovation, and the erosion of traditional customs had rent the fabric of social collectivities, there mass marketing began to feed its way, gradually stitching together a new type of human association. In the first phase of mass marketing, but before the emergence of consumer society, the objects that had circulated before were replaced by industrial articles that were promoted largely on the basis of their own “abstract” qualities: their utility, incorporation of technological progress, low cost, and efficiency. Thereafter marketing and advertising strategies sought, with ever greater directness and self-awareness, to fill the void left by the disappearance of traditional collectivities, by creating a sense of social solidarity in messages about the relations between persons and things. When the new system of commodity product emptied the world of the traditional material elements in the lives of groups, the new system of mass marketing sought to refill that world with its own form and content.
The distinctive form of life that the consumer society brings into being is based on a notion about how individuals can regard their affiliation with social groups: it suggests that they can situate themselves in a fluid milieu made up of temporary associations that are distinguishable from each other styles of appearance and behavior as well as by choices of activities — a commodified lifestyle. The key idea is that no one is bound permanently to particular circumstances, originating in accidents of either birth or fortune, on the contrary, everyone can participate in an eternal process whereby groupings are dissolved and regenerated.
Perhaps the change social media and the increasingly digitally networked society created is the velocity and near-immediacy that we can share our branded social intimacies and lifestyles with others and push this near-immediate sell unto others globally. Here we see a transnational, transcultural effect on international political relations as lifestyles from one locale easily affect another. In the social media era, everyone is availed the opportunity of a glamorous life; that is, everyone can strive for the happiness of being envied. Of course, being envied becomes a solitary form of reassurance. Paradoxically, we might be attracted to these new modes of socialization, seeking human connections in new ways, embedding ourselves within certain branded lifestyle groups as a means to deal with our own growing anxieties of a potentially reclusive and automated, digitized future where robots are the laborers and humans become more and more detached from the productive process. This uncertainty very well might also be the reason for our trends of organic marketing — filling the void advertising had abstracted from products and the process and labor of their production — as an attempt to reconnect with the creators of our goods, the human beings and the earth.
Under the guise of social togetherness and in conjunction with lifestyle or brand representation, these spectator-consumer-advertisers facing the social anxiety of the digital world greatly foster a powerful dynamic that masks happiness and “sociality” with participation-consumption and participation- 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 also unimportant here. What is interesting is the power these new modes of digital networks avail the image-based commodity system.
We name our collective enterprise for producing goods “the economy,” and we often carry over to it our representations of things as living forces. In times of business slowdown there are calls to “get the economy moving again,” as if it were some huge, sluggish beast which inexplicably had stopped to rest. High government officials are on record as saying that the objective of public policy is “to stimulate the private sector,” an expression which perhaps ought to be dropped from the bureaucratic vocabulary on account of its unfortunate noneconomic undertones. A contact refrain is the admonition to “let the market decide” among various options before us. Investors are said to “lack confidence” in the economy at times, as if it were some ne’er-do-well relative looking for a loan. Medical metaphors abound, and every commentator has a favorite nostrum for restoring the economy’s “health.” Goods can act as communicators in social interactions because we breathe life into them, and they turn vivify our everyday exchanges. At this point we are better able to appreciate the perspective offered by Douglas and Isherwood, which at first seems trifle odd: “Man needs goods for communicating with others and for making sense of what is going on around him. The two needs are but one, for communication can only be formed in a structured system of meanings. His overriding objective as a consumer, put at its most general, is a concern for information about the changing cultural scene.” They go on to say that goods are part of the “live information system” — and not merely the messages or messengers in the system, but in fact the very structure of the social message system itself. Finally, what is important is not the meanings attached to a particular thing or type of thing at any moment, but rather the relations among an ensemble of goods.
The anthropological perspective on the function of goods in human cultures is a significant advance in our understanding of contemporary life and it helps us well to appreciate the full extent of advertising’s role in consumer society, especially an increasingly networked one. Note immediately the phrase “information system” denotes not bits and pieces of data about products but rather the very activity of “making sense out of cultural world around one.” This activity in turn depends upon discovering a structured or patterned system of meanings in our culture, in relation to which an individual can form his or her own individual tastes.
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.
I’d like to conclude with two question for any and all us to now consider for possible research from here: 1.) How might the preference of programmatic content-advertising feeds in social media over chronological feeds affect our human or cultural comprehensions of “space-time” and render it increasingly to the edicts of digital advertising?; and, 2.) What are the transnational and transcultural effects that social media advertising has on international politics?