Kevin Simler recently wrote a very thought provoking piece about the mechanisms, intent and efficacy of advertising, that I enjoyed reading. This piece is not a refutation nor a bitchy ‘kick in the crotch’ piece that is not uncommon in academic circles. I do believe that Simler overlooked one key component of the mix.
The concept of Emotional Inception – if I understand it correctly – whereby we are manipulated by images of situations/states that we aspire to doesn’t go into the required depth. It is true that the initial premise is correct, though there is a much deeper psychological explanation underlying this. The understanding of this state also helps to explain why we do not act in an economically rational way, something the behavioural scientists have also long challenged. See this (now older but still excellent) TED Talk on apparently irrational consumer choices.
Simler goes further with an example of a Corona beer ad, remarking how it is devoid of any information, instead it seems to be designed to associate the product with an ideal relaxation scenario. Whilst this is not wrong in and of itself, it isnot so simple. Advertising people would argue that such an ad cannot exist on its own but as part of a larger campaign, often running over many years, likely comprised of television, billboards, bus stops, targeted digital advertising and a variety of print mediums. Therefore, looking at it to serve as a stand-alone explanatory piece is unsatisfactory.
More importantly, what is being overlooked are the concepts on consumption developed by the recently deceased Sociologist and Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. He writes of Liquid Modernity (2002 Polity Press). One of several areas addressed is the discussion of shopping (consumption) as a liquid modern rite for exorcising uncertainty. The concept that to ease the cognitive dissonance of realising where you are (not close enough) and where the ‘ideal’ is (beach, beer, new car, new phone etc) one has to constantly consume and consume again, merely to keep the gap at a minimum. Bauman contends that in the post post-modern (he refers to it as liquid modernity) times we live in the pace of everything is higher. Electronic communications and social media facilitate a much greater rate of information transfer. As a slight aside this has increased our fear (unsurprisingly, called liquid fear by ZB) of the world we live in. In general the rates of bad things happening hasn’t risen (proportionally) but the speed and ease with which we hear of them has.
Advertisers need also to create the feeling in consumers that there is always a new ideal. Fashion is the epitome of this as it is ever-changing, liquid. One has to invest so much time absorbing what is the latest ideal, then resources to consume to conform – or even come closer – to it. Only by engaging in this constant quest can the cognitive dissonance be kept at bay, made tolerable. Effective advertising relies on the consumer never questioning why but merely striving to avoid the deep rooted mental discomfort. Little wonder that the personal borrowing rate has rocketed in the UK
Having a teenage daughter is an excellent way to observe this at work. It is a constant challenge, as whilst empathising with her feelings (I was a teen too once upon a time) of the need to conform or, even better, to be ‘fresh everyday’ (her phrase!), trying to highlight the absurdity of chasing a moving target that can never be caught is the really tough thing to do. And, that is the point, it can never be caught. It is an unobtainable goal regardless of the resources at one’s disposal.