Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Did you know that you are likely to be bombarded by over 1,500 adverts a day? Advertising is increasingly dominating every space. It has reached out from billboards, papers, magazines, television and radio into every area, from schools to sponsored concerts and art shows, into wage slips and even public toilets. Last year saw the world's first sponsored wedding.
This is what Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, means by 'no space'. And it is irritating enough. But when you consider the economics of advertising it is truly sickening. In 1998 $197 billion--4 percent of the gross national product of the US--was spent on advertising . Disney alone spent $1,250,000,000, with McDonald's not far behind. This money could abolish world starvation, since the cost of feeding the starving is $5 billion a day. Nike pays $20 million per year to Michael Jordan, which is the exact cost of doubling pay for the workers it employs tax-free in Indonesia. The wasteful spending is free money for the companies involved since they pass the costs on to us in higher prices and, in a double whammy, they can write off the costs of sponsorship as a tax deductible business expense!
It's no wonder then that adbusting, often called culture jamming, is so popular with anti-capitalist protesters. It's also little wonder that the question of why so many people--often the poorest and most obviously oppressed by capitalism--buy into the brands is a topic of debate within the movement, with a section arguing that the culture industry (including advertising) has duped the vast majority into buying into the dehumanising and wasteful overproduction of the capitalist system.
To understand both why we are dominated by advertising and what effect it has, we need to start not at the process of consumption, but of production. Karl Marx didn't write about advertising, but his writing on alienation--a theory of how the process of production shapes the totality of our lives--has a lot to say about the process of advertising. He said that 'selling is the process of alienation'.
Advertising dominates because we live in a world centred on buying and selling. At the centre of this is the way we have to sell ourselves and our ability to work in order to get enough money for food and shelter, and to participate in society. We don't have any say in how we produce. Increasingly the search for profit means the production process is broken down into ever smaller tasks performed by individual workers--robbing us further of any connection to the things we make.
And of course we don't own the things we make. One of many contradictions of capitalism is that while the bosses always want to drive down the relative value of our wages to increase profit, they need to sell back to us what we produce. Moreover, because they don't pay us enough to consume all we produce, they have to compete with each other.
Advertising, like transport, is part of what Marx called non-productive labour--the means of bringing goods to market and selling them to realise profit. The history of advertising is intimately connected to the development of capitalism. The first advertising agencies appeared shortly after the industrial revolution, with the first British agency recorded in 1800. The combination of the enclosure of common land, which forced people to become wage labourers, and the spread of the factories meant that for the first time money became the universal method of obtaining all the necessities of life for all classes in society. As production shifted from the family unit to work in the factories, buying on the market became the means to meet all needs. Home life, leisure and the family became a means to try to escape the alienation of work.
People no longer had direct experience of the goods produced in society, so early adverts are all about making these new consumers--at first only a privileged layer of society--aware of the products of which they have no direct experience. It is later, in the 1880s, as the market for consumer goods begins to grow, that brands and competition between brands begin to appear. Advertising has always sought to humanise the products created in the alienating environment of the factories. Think of how Quaker Oats created the character on the cereal box in much the same way as McDonald's created the not so loveable clown.
Because advertising is generated in the competition between different bosses to maximise profits it is a mistake to see it, as some sections of the anti-capitalist movement do, as a conspiracy of a monolithic capitalist class. The advertising industry is not static. It is itself divided into competing agencies who fight for a share of the profits.
This competition means advertising is often at the cutting edge of developments in technology. Internet advertising, already worth $5 billion per year, is set to grow to an expected $17 billion industry in the next few years, with massive amounts of research currently being undertaken into the most effective techniques.
Advertising is not just a passive process of competition for the bosses. Under monopoly capitalism it is actively used by the big brands to keep competitors from being able to enter into the market in the first place. Generally it is considered to be impossible to start up production without huge advertising budgets--although outfits like Starbucks and the Body Shop have bucked that trend.
If our alienation from the work process explains why the bosses need to create advertising, another aspect of alienation explains why we are in any way susceptible to its message. We relate to thousands of other people every day through using or buying the products of their labour, but we do not relate in a fully human way as people cooperating to shape the world. Instead we experience each other through the market as consumers or through the fractured work process. The one place we look to for escape from the market is in our personal relationships. But what shapes these relationships? Because the family is the central unit of consumption in society, the market and capitalist relations of production shape the family too. This gives rise to the stereotypes which trap and dissatisfy women and men, and the unequal relationships between family members.
Marx wrote that alienation made it possible for us to seek to meet our human needs in such a distorted way that a whole range of products which are completely unnecessary and even harmful--for example cigarettes, alcohol, fashion--become central to a sense of self worth. This is what makes us so susceptible to advertising. A process of going to market that begins with food, housing and household goods ends with every aspect of our most personal desires being offered for sale. If you can't find self worth in the workplace, or the family, or in any other personal sphere, then you can try to buy it, or at least buy the illusion of it.
And the capitalists are well aware of this process. The ads for a £100 pair of Nike shoes and Hilfiger jeans at a similar price are not just targeted at rich preppy kids but at the impoverished black youth of the ghettos. But this attempt to create a sense of self worth and space is not just something targeted at the poorest. The chief executive of Starbucks coffee tells us, 'Consumers don't truly believe that there's a huge difference between products...we must establish emotional ties...it's the feeling of warmth and community that people get in Starbucks stores'.
But all this does not mean that we are completely under the sway of advertising. The attempt to sell us products and lifestyles is full of contradictions for the advertising industry. Study after study shows that the effect of advertising is to get a name known by constant repetition, but that this is most powerful when connecting to pre-existing attitudes. Hence ads tend to stay away from the world of work and seek to connect to positive emotions, albeit in a distorted way. This is why sex is used to sell just about everything from ice cream to cars. This is certainly not a hopeless situation in which people can just be duped. Naomi Klein's book No Logo elaborates how we are certainly not all taken in by the ads. Resistance against capitalism is often finding dramatic expression in targeting the companies which most seek to brand our lives. The most spectacular examples are the J18 and Seattle protests--in both McDonald's was targeted and Starbucks got a whole new emotional experience.
In a less spectacular form culture jamming, which is a sort of agitprop using music, grafitti, mime and a host of computer techniques, is being used by anti-capitalist protesters to subvert the messages of ads. In Britain this has become a popular technique among strikers--Liverpool dockers parodied Calvin Klein and the Essex firefighters did the same to Adidas with the 'Adinuff' slogan.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Great Depression of the 1930s in the US led to a large movement targeted on advertising. It was part of a mushrooming of discontent in the US which included union revolt, small farmers' protests against the supermarket chains, and the founding of militant consumer organisations.
The Ballyhoo magazine, which engaged in culture jamming, established firms and invented fake products such as the 'Lady Pipperal Bedsheet Deluxe: made to fit over a park bench', grew to a circulation of 1.5 million because it focused its anger on the way the American Dream was a lie.
This resistance is possible because advertising and the media do not create our reality. Look at sexism in advertising. Despite the fact that men appear in ads twice as often as women, women's bodies as commodities is one of the most prevalent features of all advertising. This sexism isn't created by the agencies. The ads are playing to stereotypes created elsewhere: in the roles we play within the family, and on the reality that women's bodies are bought and sold as commodities in the real world. In doing so, of course, they reinforce those stereotypes.
Advertisers are well aware that resistance to such stereotypes can turn people off products, and therefore they have to adapt to what is happening in society. So Nike uses feminism to sell its shoes, and images of gay sex started appearing--famously in Diesel's ad which featured two sailors kissing. The agencies go to ludicrous lengths to try to keep up with the cutting edge of trends within society. Nike invented 'bro-ing'--sending teams into the ghettos to hang out on the block and test what the kids think of the latest model. The agencies have even tried to incorporate the anti-capitalist mood. In just one of many recent examples Che Guevara appears on the label of Revolution Soda (for which the photographer is now suing for misuse of the image).
The biggest problem for the advertisers, however, is that our experiences of the real world conflict with the image. The advertising is not just paid for by us in higher prices, but in factory closures and the hunger wages paid in the sweatshops. Barclays Bank's recent 'big is beautiful' campaign flopped. In fact NatWest's campaign specifically takes up consumers' unhappiness with Barclays' policies. Ronald can't protect McDonald's from the anger over rainforests and workers' conditions, and the anti-sweatshop campaigns against Nike and other big companies are now massive.
The firms with the biggest budgets are not targeted because they represent a new form of exploitation. The lifestyle brand firms happen to be the industries most able to subcontract, but they actually retain absolute control over the production process, product and conditions of the workers. Because they use the least intensive labour they are at the leading edge of intensifying the globally connected exploitation in which the car and manufacturing industries are also involved.
It is because of how this relates to the experience of millions that the explosion of advertising budgets has coincided with the massive growth of anti-capitalist resistance. This has not been a movement focused on advertising, but on the process of exploitation arising in production. Seattle grew from thousands of little battles and hurts--layoffs in factories like Levi's, kids being force-fed the brands throughout the school day, college students being 'swooshed', campaigns against giant out of town stores, genetically modified foods or mobile phone masts that smash up communities. It is a process in which in town after town, school after school, campus after campus, resistance to individual aspects of the domination of the brands has connected up because the capitalist system itself connects them. What made Seattle so exciting is not just that the ads for McDonald's, Gap and Starbucks came tumbling down, but that the coming together of all the strands of resistance was a glimpse of our power to smash not just their images, but the system which gives those images any power over us at all.