advertising encourages a desire for products which people do not actually need

They are everywhere. Banners, billboards, Internet Websites, newspapers, radio spots, television commercials, magazines, logos on clothing, cars and even cutlery. Advertising has so permeated everyday life that at last count, individuals can expect to be bombarded by approximately 1200 messages everyday, telling them what to eat, wear, do and believe in. The ubiquity of advertising is a phenomenon of our modern world akin to and sometimes elevated to an art form, a consequence of the much touted ethos of free trade and capitalistic consumerism. But not all are lured by the siren song of the commercial jingle.

Cynics lambast advertisers for convincing people to spend money they do not have, for something that they do not need. Malcolm Muggeridge, prominent British journalist and thinker direfully prophesied that history will remember advertising as “one of the evils of our time”, wrongfully stimulating people to “constantly want things, want this, want that”. Critics like John Arbuthnot Fischer see the corrupt connection between society’s deteriorating values and the hidden agenda that advertising subtly (or not so subtly) champions: that youth equals popularity, popularity equals success, success equals happiness.

How does advertising weave such a hypnotic influence? The ultimate objective of advertising is to sell products, services and ideas persuasively and creatively. To that end, advertisers and copy writers resort to all manner of strategy to arrest the attention of consumers long enough to create awareness and perhaps, even desire for the product, service or idea. The variety of methods to entice both existing and potential clientele range from the obvious to the subtle, from the staid to the subliminal (incidentally outlawed in many countries).

Whatever the methods used, professional advertisers all agree that good advertising is not just about circulating information; it is about penetrating the public mind with desires and belief. In fact, advertising guru Leo Burnett once said that the secret of effective and original commercials is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships. Such perception altering strategies are what may induce consumers to desire and eventually buy the superfluous and the frivolous.

Consider for instance De Beers diamonds. Before its advertisements for diamonds were launched, the gemstone was merely another sparkling jewel, fit for royalty, not so much for the commoners. By equating diamonds with love, De Beers successfully created a hitherto non-existent appetite for the stones (albeit really lovely ones). If a girl does not get a diamond engagement ring, the husband-to-be had better be prepared for trouble. Take a closer look also at the latest range of Louis Vuitton advertisements which capitalize on big-name appeal.

The very public figures of Mikhail Gorbachev (former premier of the Russia, no less), Sean Connery (of James Bond 007 fame), even queen of pop and controversy Madonna, who have fronted these advertisements convey more than just a sense of the luxury that the brand is famous for. These iconic figures, exuding power, history and a touch of legend, are whom a successful generation has grown up with and therefore feel a connection. You may not need a Louis Vuitton bag, but being able to buy one becomes a subtle statement that you have arrived, putting you in the same league as the celebrities who endorse the brand.

Yet, while it is true that advertising can generate awareness of people’s desire of things that they now know to exist, it is equally true that advertising cannot create a need that did not previously exist. Jeff I Richards points out that advertising will only die when “people everywhere are satisfied with their weight, their hair, their skin, their wardrobes and their aroma”. Certainly, advertising brings to the fore feelings of inadequacy, lack and perhaps deep underlying insecurities that may be alleviated to some extent via purchasing a product or service.

Scarcity is the fear that you may miss an opportunity to purchase a product. Thus “one day sales” and phrases such as, “for a limited time only” or “limited supply” are commonly employed to increase sales and promote the idea that you can supply a lack. Advertisements about health often capitalise on fear to get the audiences’ attention. Once this is accomplished they hope to “scare” the audience enough to produce an attitude change, be it buying their product or changing your lifestyle.

Alcohol and cigarette advertisements appeal to peoples’ desires for pleasure Models and actors are portrayed as having a good time, leading to the belief that if you purchase these products you too will have a good time. Of course, many advertisements employ more than one technique in attempting to persuade the audience. Plastic surgery ads, for instance, work well by appealing to people’s love of beauty via exposing their fear of aging as well as their vanity and egotism.

Fear, love, pleasure, and vanity are thus powerful motivators of behaviour that can supposedly be eradicated or fulfilled through some product, service or action, at least in the mind of the consumer. Without them, advertising messages are simply messages. Moreover, while it is true that some deep-seated desires rule human nature and behaviour, almost everyone exercises a choice as to when and how such desires are met. To some extent, the consciousness-raising power of advertisements puts the onus of action on the consumer and provides some options for exercising that initiative.

Yet, advertisements cannot make one do anything that one is not willing or able to undertake in the first place. Campaigns and posters (a type of advertising) warning against the evils of smoking are visibly mounted, but have not really produced a significant reduction in the numbers of smokers in Singapore despite the fact that cigarette advertising is banned here! Health promotion advisories across the world promote healthy eating plans and options, but that does not stop one from chomping on that artery-clogging hamburger or carcinogenic char kway teow.

In fact, not all advertising is focused on inducing consumers to purchase the unnecessary. To believe that would be to limit the many useful functions it fulfils. There are genuine needs that require the consciousness-raising and educational function of advertising to fulfil. Look at the countless advertisements for domestic, office and personal needs. Consider also the innovations that advertising brings to one’s awareness. Take into account that advertisements can serve as reminders to consumers, particularly when a consumer has a specific need or desire that can be associated with a product or service.

At the end of the day, what must be remembered is that in a free-market society where a plethora of goods and services is available, consumers ultimately exercise the responsibility that accompanies the freedom of choice. Advertisers will continue to market their wares strategically, but consumers are not helpless victims held enthralled in a life-or-death struggle. If they were, advertisers would not have to wrack their brains to conjure up creative ways to entice customers. To think otherwise is to sorely underestimate the strength of the human mind and spirit.

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