This article analyzes advertisement in contemporary
market economies, to illustrate the fact, that consumer consciousness,
far from being 'sovereign' as Neo-classical theory assumes, is systematically
structured to serve the needs of capital accumulation. An attempt is made
to show that advertisements are essentially a system of signs and symbols,
and as such constitute a powerful language that by reaching into the inner
most terrain of our psyche, influence not only our tastes and preferences
but our very attitude to life.
COMMODITIES AS OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Desire manifests the human impulse, to transcend one's
separateness through connection with the other. This "other"
may be the ineffable transience of a flower in bloom, or the eternal beauty
of a lake at sunset, another human being, or the totality of existence.
Thus, desire expresses a highly evolved need to connect. It is desire
that activates the dialectic between the actual and the possible. Here
is how Sultan Bahu, the great Punjabi Sufi poet puts it:
JO DILL MUNGGE, HOVE NAHAIN
HOVEN GYA AGERE HU
[That which the heart desires is always a step ahead
of the actual. As soon as one possibility is actualized, a new possibility
If there was no longing in us, the creative endeavour
unique to human beings would wither away. We would then be lifeless, i.e.,
Now objects unlike human beings can be possessed,
or used according to their function, but cannot be related to at an emotional
level. Yet the dominant social form that desire takes in our society,
is the "desire" for objects. This is an everyday phenomenon,
that we are all part of and which we therefore take for granted. However,
when we subject it to serious scrutiny we discover that it is a truly
fantastic phenomenon. How is it that desire has been displaced from its
creative origin and directed to those strange objects called "commodities"?
How is it that we have come to love commodities and use human beings?
To highlight the peculiarity of this inversion let us see it in the perspective
of Bulleh Shah:
TUNN, MUNN DHUNN, SUBB VEKH LYA
JHUGGA PHOOK KE APNA SEK LIYA
[The distinction between the body, desire and property
became clear at the moment when I set to light my hut and felt the warmth
of the self"].
Thus, for Bulleh Shah it is only at the dramatic moment
of complete renunciation of property that the magical illusion of commodities
is overcome. A magic so powerful that it obfuscates the distinction between
desire and commodities. (Tunn, Munn, Dhunn). There is the longing of the
heart, there is the body (through which both the heart's desire and greed
for goods is apprehended sensually and then there are commodities). The
light of Bulleh Shah's burning hut clarifies these dimensions of human
The question that now arises is, how this magical
spell is weaved in contemporary society, whereby commodities are re-presented
to us through the media as images of fantasy. Their material attributes
are dimmed, and our disbelief is suspended to make us experience them
as pure objects of desire.
THE SEMIOTICS OF ADVERTISEMENT
Consider a motor-car advertisement. The car is not
represented in terms of its real or material functions, but is instead
re-presented to us through a set of images that shift us into a realm
of fantasy (My Toyota is fantastic, it says). It appears to us not as
a means of transport, but as a receptacle of sexuality, efficacy and power.
An after-shave lotion does not merely have a pleasant fragrance, but gives
to the person wearing it a "feel of power". (Drakkar after shave!).
Similarly, for example, cigarettes are not just things that give a kick
and clog up the lungs. They give magical access to the "Spirit of
Enterprise". (The ad accompanying the slogan, shows a sailboat, its
sails filled with fresh sea breeze, embarking on a voyage). Thus, attributes
which are organic to us as human beings, are transposed into the commodity
through the device of advertisement. The subliminal suggestion is that
without it we are nothing. By possessing it we enter a realm where we
can re-appropriate our qualities of grace and power; we gain recognition,
and become authentic through our possessions. Thus, a new cult has emerged
in contemporary market societies. It is based on perceiving commodities
as totems which contain qualities which we once possessed as human beings.
The grammar of the advertised image has three main
elements: (1) It suspends our disbelief through the creation of a dream
like format. This is achieved through music, soft focus and editing. (2)
The commodity within the ad is placed in a context quite different from
the one in which we would actually observe it. This is achieved through
association, or metaphor, just as in a dream. For example, a toothpaste
would appear not in the environment of a toilet but will have mountain
streams or stately mansions as the back drop. (3) The advertised commodity
is pulled out of physical proportion. Thus, the Omega wrist watch ("the
only watch to have been worn on the moon") lying on the lunar landscape,
appears bigger than the astronaut. In the context of the ad it is the
wrist watch and not the man on the moon that is the centre of attraction.
The power of these psychological devices is derived
from the fact that through their dream structure they get an access over
the unconscious mind. In the context of a dream format the clever advertiser
can suggest attributes to us, which if articulated across the office table
9 O'Clock on a week day would appear quite absurd. The haunting eyes of
the girl (who with a single sip of tea goes into a trance) and the serene
motion of the whirling dervishes, become integrated with the taste of
the tea being advertised.
The culture based on an insatiable desire for commodities
is of course an imperative of the growth process in a market economy.
If firms are to survive in a competitive environment, they must grow in
terms of both the volume and range of goods. J.K. Galbraith has indicated
two characteristics of large firms that are relevant here: (1) They have
a long term time horizon. i.e. they can only recover profits over a relatively
long period of time. (2) They plan production. The consequence of these
characteristics of modern firms is that they are obliged to achieve security
by controlling both the sources of supply of their raw materials as well
as demand for their products. Therefore, they can afford neither strictly
sovereign states nor sovereign consumers. As a great social scientist
puts it, "The capitalist system not only produces goods that satisfy
needs but also the needs which these goods satisfy."
In days of yore the snake charmers of the sub-continent
carried a piece of lamb skin which they called a GIDDER SINGHI. (and which
you could acquire for a few rupees). As you heard the plaintive strains
of the snake charmer's flute you were drawn into the charm, and thought
that if you carried the GIDDER SINGHI your dreams would be fulfilled.
Today all commodities are presented to us as Gidder Singhis through far
more resonant images which enter our unconscious mind. The grammar of
the projected image subtly suggests that it is not the inherent function
of the commodity, but its magical appeal that is important. It transposes
our desire to connect with life, into greed for commodities.