14 Citizens, Consumers, and Advertising
Citizens, Consumers, and Advertising
When did we stop being considered citizens and start being seen as consumers? This is a question I’ve often wondered about. To me being a citizen implies taking an active interest in the development and directions of our communities. This may be through governing politics, volunteering at organizations, or simply being a good neighbor. This might take many forms such as helping build a barn, offering a ride, or simply lending a tool. As citizens we work to build community that should in turn support and enrich our lives. When I wrote in a past article about finding and utilizing your resources to save money and develop a more fulfilling life this is part of what I was speaking of.
For example, I’ve got an older neighbor whose ability to crawl under and climb up on things is rapidly diminishing. So I’ve helped him fix his lawnmower and assemble a carport. It’s not a big deal for me as I have both the tools and ability. This summer I’ve been building an experimental passive solar structure. My neighbor has in turn been helping me with his loader to excavate, move tons of dirt, and set some steel I-beams in place. It’s not a big deal to him as he has the tools and ability for this. We both save a bunch of money while building a friendship.
Being a consumer, however, has a different connotation than being a citizen. A consumer’s job is to consume, which really means buy stuff. I’ve even seen it implied that to be good citizens we need to spend things like tax breaks or refunds. If my neighbor or I lived with a consumer mindset the above example would go much differently. My neighbor would go and buy the wrenches he needed to fix his lawnmower or take it to a repair shop. He would contract someone to assemble his carport. I in turn would have rented some heavy equipment with an operator to move dirt and set my I-beams. Of course, if I was really being a good consumer I would get a general contractor to do the whole thing for me ignoring the fact that my experience as an artist/sculptor gives me the skills needed. Lest we forget, my neighbor would also stay on his side of the fence and me on mine with little interaction, each living separate lives. Instead the fence has literally come down.
So this gets me back to the original question, why did we stop considering ourselves citizens and become consumers instead? I believe a major reason for this is advertising. One of my big tips for lowering your costs and living a more creative life is to limit the amount of advertising you are exposed to and be critically observant of what you do see. Don’t perceive yourself as a “consumer”.
Before I get into this too deeply I should confess that I don’t really know exactly what many of you are being bombarded with these days. The various forms of mass media, especially television, are primary avenues for getting ads into your line of sight. I have pretty much shut all forms of commercial mass media out of my life for many years now. The OJ Simpson circus was just starting when I got rid of the TV. Long before that I had quit listening to commercial radio, switching instead to a community radio station that has greatly enriched my life with the vast selection of musical artistry they present. I had never known the level of musical richness that was really available. I never really did read the newspaper and I got all those annoying “shopper” type papers to quit dumping their garbage in my driveway each week. I don’t care if it’s a free paper they were essentially all ads and only increased the volume of trash I had to deal with. So while I don’t know exactly what’s going on out there in mass media land here are my observations on the subject. You can compare them to specific commercials and see how it fits.
Advertising plays a powerful role in the way we solve the problems of life. Ads take many forms, but one basic formula is to present a need or problem and then offer the solution. It’s problem solving made easy. You don’t really have to solve the problem, someone else has, and it’s available for only $29.95 at your local dealer.
When you get two or more products that solve the same problem then another level emerges. Now it’s about brand X being more effective than brand Y and vice versa. The two products, while competing with each other, are still supporting the same underlying notion. This is that you need to buy a product to solve this problem.
Advertising plays on emotions. Fear is a common emotion to exploit, be it fear of ridicule for having that scourge of society, dandruff, or fear for your safety. “What if your car breaks down in the middle of the night, on a deserted highway, in a dangerous part of town, while you’re carrying gold and jewels, AND YOU DON’T HAVE A CELL PHONE?”
Advertising plays on our desire to be liked, sexually desirable, have friends, and be a part of a group or community. It shows you what your desired group looks like, does, and owns, whether that group is the “in” crowd, the blue collar workers, the retirees, the loving parents, the disenfranchised, etc. I had a friend once make the observation to me regarding the “Goth” group. He feels they are just trying to be different and made the point that if you were really different and unique there wouldn’t be a store in the mall catering to you.
The ads that really offend me are the ones suggesting you are a bad or uncaring parent if you don’t buy the best possible anything and everything for your children. Personally I don’t feel I was scarred for life because I wore hand-me-downs rather than the latest fashions. My favorite toys were not the trendy action figures or electronic gizmos, but rather dirt, dominos, wooden blocks, and cardboard boxes. This fact doesn’t seem to have impaired my development. Actually, I think it helped it.
A current trend I’ve noticed that confuses me is bottled water. I just have to believe the popularity of this is driven almost exclusively by advertising. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that drinking water is a very good thing. In fact, I see staying fully hydrated as one of the most effective and cheapest ways to stay healthy. (I’m not a doctor. Do your own research and make up your own mind on this.) Drinking water is good, but grossly overpriced bottled water seems absurd. We bemoan the cost of gasoline these days, yet many happily pay even more for water! As I understand it the ads imply that bottled water is safer than tap water playing on fears of health. Again I suggest you do a little research on this. Bottled water also seems to be getting marketed as a “hip” thing to drink. I suppose I look a little un-hip carrying around my 64 oz. juice jug refilled with tap water, but then as I understand it I’m also paying 240 to 10,000 times less.
Not all advertising is explicitly presenting itself as advertising either. There is the sometimes-blatant product placement in movies or television. Other times it is subtler. I’ve read that the connection between diamonds and engagement/wedding rings was originally generated in large part by the diamond industry working with Hollywood. I’m unsure of the truth of this, but it’s hard to deny that there now exists an image of the perfect, romantic proposal and it involves opening a little box with a big diamond ring inside. Every time variations on this scene are played out in a movie this image is re-enforced. I know some people consider kids TV shows to often be nothing more than long advertisements for the related toys. Certainly we’ve all read the newspaper or magazine stories that are little more than advertising. When you walk into a store the way products are displayed and the signs around them is another form of advertising, as is the product packaging.
Advertising is all around us. It’s a part of our culture. Much of it is also very sophisticated. They know how to generate the fears or desires to develop a sale. For this reason I strive first of all to limit my exposure to it both by avoiding mass media and by not window-shopping for entertainment. Window-shopping can quickly become just plain shopping and shopping for entertainment is clearly an expensive form of entertainment unless you really needed the items anyway.
My other strategy to defuse advertising of its power is to scrutinize the mechanics of it. I think of this as critiquing the ad. Often it is a form of art after all, using visual and sometimes auditory elements to generate a specific feeling for the viewer. What conceptual tactics are they using? How are the visual juxtapositions used to re-enforce this? What is it trying to steer me away from thinking about? What is it doing to establish a connection with the viewer? What are the implied concepts? When you really stop to analyze an advertisement you understand better how they work and become less susceptible to any manipulation involved.
The benefit of this is, of course, to reduce the desire you have to spend money on things that don’t really fulfill YOUR desires. This then allows you to devote your resources, be it money or time, to what you do want.
I have also found one other benefit to me as an artist. Mass media and mass advertising consumed passively is inherently a mind control device. I’m not saying there is some nefarious evil doing plot behind it all. It is simply the nature of the media to broadly dictate what subjects you think about. It can’t be helped. As a classic example of this I can write here in this print form of mass media, “Whatever you do, don’t think about elephants! However, if you do please don’t think about a herd of pink elephants with frilly tutus.” You’d be hard pressed to not generate an image in your head of a bunch of pink elephants in tutus. I’d bet that a fair number of you also see them standing on their hind legs dancing around. While I’m not necessarily forcing you to believe these pachyderms are good or bad I am keeping your mind occupied on the subject. I’m setting your mental agenda. The more time your mental agenda is set for you, and the more time it is from a source masses of others are set to, the less your ability to come up with unique thoughts and ideas, at least that’s my theory.
As artists who desire to make a living from the sale of our artwork it seems we need to come up with a unique voice, yet one others can connect to. I believe this has been the greatest benefit I’ve gotten from keeping mass media exposure to a minimum. My mental agenda is more or less of my own choosing or influenced by the people I directly interact with. The natural result seems to be a distinctive body of work that sets me apart from the crowd. My danger is to become too separated from the mental agenda of the larger group, because if others can’t connect with my work they won’t wish to buy it. This issue, I suspect, is where acting as a citizen, rather than a consumer, comes into play. Striving to be a good citizen is essentially about being a part of the community, and understanding your fellow citizens within it. This is a connection to others deeper than just consuming the same goods or watching the same TV shows. It stands to reason this connection will find it’s way into my artwork.
So there’s my money management tip for the month. Don’t think of yourself as a consumer. Be a citizen instead. Be wary of advertising. Control your exposure to it as best you can, and try to analyze the mechanics of the ads you do see and hear. This should help you separate the desires that truly fulfill you from false desires generated for you. It should lower your cost of living making your art career more viable and secure. As a side benefit you might even find your art developing into a more distinctive direction.
Because it feels somehow dishonest to do otherwise, next time I will write an almost contradictory piece about the various ways I advertise my artwork without spending loads of money.