Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Advertisements For Sale

The question now (a rather random one with an abrupt opening, but a question nonetheless) is whether the consumer is influenced by the advertiser or the other way around, and whether we as consumers are doomed to be held captive in the self-perpetuating cycle of consumption.

For starters, as a consumer myself (not a great one, but I hardly know anyone in the society I'm living in to live in a social vacuum and not consume at all), I would say that the influence of advertisements on the audience is irrefutable. It's impossible to be completely unaffected by advertising - they bombard us from all sides, offering prettily-packaged products that promise to improve our lives, offering us a plethora of identities to assume and define ourselves with. We align ourselves with the values and qualities of the products we consume. And what influences us to make our decisions are the advertisements that reach us through the various media: print, broadcast, and so on. Wait for your bus and you see a Juicy Couture advertisement, walk along the street and you see a sultry model showcasing a Fendi bag. The list goes on. We go about our lives with these as part of the scenery, so accustomed we have become to advertisements as a result of its relentless ubiquity. Quite possibly, as a result of this, we have become immune to them, or at least weary. I know I have. It's tiring to see models posing with a bag, or a faceless voice on the TV extolling the merits of a certain good, when it's not the only one in the market. Product differentiation has become such a vital part of selling a good that one can't help but wonder if there really is a difference between choosing one brand over another, when essentially the same type of good is being sold.

And what annoys me the most is how people think they are asserting the identity(s) they have carved out for themselves - given the wide range (or is it really as wide as we think?) to choose from, that advertisers offer us - when everyone basically dresses / eats / watches the same way, the same thing. On a personal level, girls everywhere I see wear shorts and gladiator sandals or leggings/jeggings and high-waisted skirts offered by a certain brand offering all-cotton clothings. Someone commented somewhere that women are the - and I quote - 'biggest herd-mentality consumer lemmings'. And I have to agree, indignation aside. Because these advertisers prey on our vanity, our constant desire to seek something to enhance our looks, make us more attractive, therefore improve our lives (I'm not sure how those are linked, but apparently that's how it is supposed to work). We grab our girlfriends, go shopping, queue in line at the dressing rooms, checking out accessories along the way, buy a dress, get excited about our new purchases (shopper's high) - life is good. And then weeks later, we decide that we're bored with our wardrobe and want something else to improve our lives, make us stand out. And the cycle repeats itself.

I'm not saying shopping and vanity are condemnable. No, to be vain is only human, and shopping is a great way to bond (or so I'm told). I just don't understand what we are supposed to achieve by doing that. I'm wondering if it's the society that makes us turn to an external agent to improve the quality of our lives, or if it's within us all along to constantly seek something better. But not to digress, it is because of this human psyche that advertisers are able to make a profit out of us. So is it us who sustains the consumer-advertiser dynamic, or the advertiser that makes us feel like we need to look elsewhere to fill up that internal vacuum (just to dramatise things a bit). Maybe it's fifty-fifty. It's a rather sit-on-the-fence approach, but I feel that it's a case of 'one can't live while the other survives' (sound familiar?).

Advertisers have to take their cues from us consumers. Without them, they wouldn't know how to persuade us to buy their products, and therefore how best to package them in a way that would entice us to buy their stuff. It's a rather chicken-and-egg conundrum - is it the consumer who first shows the advertiser his desires and his needs, or the advertiser who tells the consumer that, hey loser, this is what is lacking in your life, and this is the thing that can save you? Is it possibly even a more insidious case of upper class domination, wherein the dominant class(es) present the 'ideal' life that we should all want, all strive to attain? If that is the case, then we can't blame advertisers for preying on us so ruthlessly, almost unscrupulously, because we were willingly coerced by the dominant elites to want that sort of lifestyle - luxury cars, big house with temperature-control and state-of-the-art kitchen mechanism, LV bags and access to the trendiest clubs (I always thought that phrase sounded the very opposite of what it tries to sound. I mean, 'trendiest clubs'? Lame). It's not the advertisers' fault we are exercising herd mentality and consume their goods blindly, thinking that we are being unique but in fact looking and behaving just like everybody else because we are afraid of breaking away from the pack. And even if we did break away by dressing or behaving differently, it's just to seek attention by screaming, Look at me - I'm different, I have a more unique idenity, I stand out more! I'm not saying it doesn't work either way - I'm just saying that I feel it's pointless to put that much stock into identity-construction when all we're doing is re-presenting the identities and qualities that advertisers already have wrapped up in pretty boxes for us.

So are we doomed to being prisoners of this endless cycle of want? Not necessarily. I hold out on the hope that we won't, because of the weariness that might settle upon us eventually. Then again, advertising constantly evolves with market sentiment and trends, so advertisers can always find new ways of exploiting our desires and our weariness itself to sell us another product. I guess it depends on whether or not you're a cynic. But for now, every time I see an advertisement, I try to make a connection between what is presented to me - the qualities that the good is supposed to embody - and the intention of the advertisement.

Just my two cents' worth.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I would recommend you to read Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein. It proposes choice architecture, which I think is pretty neat, without limiting freedom of choice.