The “West” actually has less freedom than it thinks it does, thanks to the proliferation of advertising and marketing. I know advertising and marketing are not synonymous, but for the purposes of this essay one will be shorthand for both.
I’d like to describe the problem by means of an allegory. I will borrow from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a story well-suited for the purpose.
In Milton’s re-telling of the Old Testament’s Adam and Eve story, God has advance knowledge that Eve will definitely eat the apple (thereby forcing humanity to fall into sin: history’s unhealthiest bite of fruit), yet it is stated that she had the freedom not to eat it. Consider this: can Eve really have the freedom to refrain from doing something if God knows she will do it? If she doesn’t eat it, a choice allegedly within her freedom, then God’s knowledge is wrong, which is impossible, because God is infallible. If in fact she is bound to eat it because God knows she will, then she cannot be said to be truly free.
The apparent paradox of the situation falls apart when reality instead of the theoretical conditions posited are applied; this is a fictional story about another fictional story and the God posited in it does not exist, so neither can any of the conditions.
But the allegory applies today to consumers/citizens (Eve) and advertisers (God). In this sense, advertisers have preordained knowledge citizens will buy into consumer culture, even orient their life around it, despite having the freedom not to.
Are people free, then?
Their advanced knowledge about consumer/market behaviour is not omniscient, but reliable and improving all the time. Becoming more god-like.
In this sense, how much freedom do people ruthlessly subjected to advertising truly have? An important amount! There is an enormous difference between governments actively depriving citizens of their actual freedom, and being given freedom with the foreknowledge that it will be exercised narrowly. Advertising does not equal freedom eliminated, certainly not on a legal level. But at least psychologically, ads’ increasing volume and sophistication (of the ads themselves and the accuracy in targeting) does undermine people’s agency in their own life. This is problematic.
Outside influences are inevitable, though
But it’s also impossible to imagine a scenario where nothing external influences a person’s life. Humans live in communities where, thankfully, we must encounter people and institutions. Outside influences change our minds and behavior. This is good and inevitable. In this sense, freedom cannot be thought of as a person’s life being guided merely by the intrinsic things inside them, or free from outside messaging, like ads. The question is, then, what is the nature of the outside forces seeking to influence people? Whose side are they on, theirs or ours?
Give people a break!
Some people, often self-satisfied, scoff looking at the latest stupid/expensive/useless shit to hit the markets, and say “what kind of idiots buy this shit?” Many products are indeed useless and expensive and the rest.
But it’s unfair to assemble teams of sophisticated psychologists, artists and others for the express purpose of seducing masses of people, bombard them with million dollar ad campaigns, then blame the targeted people for succumbing.
You can hate the vapidness, triteness and all the exploitation of consumer culture without thinking every participant is an idiot. It’s not just unfair but irrational to subject people to what amounts to mind-control, then blame them for being controlled to some degree. Marketers conduct tests until they know the targeted demographic will respond. How, then, can the demographic be blamed for responding?
To be sure, the larger social issue is bigger than the merits of a single ad or product, but about buying into a concept of life, buying into the end product of an accumulation of ads. This is consumerism.
Narrow economic outcomes are dictating the psychological well-being of millions of people by coercing them psychologically. Many people in Toronto, other Western cities too, are surrounded by money and misery. Why? People are spiritually bored, there is no outlet. Aside from the daily work grind, having babies and going to the gym, meaning is in short supply. The messaging they are bombarded by doesn’t fulfill them. Of course they don’t. They are meant to take, not give.
Is advertising evil?
No. Advertising is inherently amoral—advertising is done for causes good and evil. But every evil cause can use advertising to pass itself off as virtuous. From cigarette companies targeting children, to Narendra Modi’s BJP Party spreading bogus stories via WhatsApp. The point isn’t that all advertising is evil, it’s that any evil on Earth can use advertising to further its purposes.
Besides, nobody totally avoids the consumer shit around us, not even the smug pieces of shit who write articles about how stupid it all is. If you want to be an activist for exploited labourers, it’s an extremely worthy cause. But for most people the point isn’t to abstain from consumer culture entirely, it’s to prevent life from being reduced to its (often empty) values, to maintain some kind of unique inner-life in the face of ads.
This doesn’t excuse the worst sins of the ad industry or those who use it sinfully, just that public ire should be directed chiefly at the perpetrators.
On the surface the participants in ad culture, the middle- and upper-middle class around the world, look like its benefactors not its victims. There is some illusion here. Only professionals or people who come from money (often the same), or that ultra-rare species the self-made-man/woman , can afford to comfortably participate in top-shelf consumerism. They will buy “local” things, which are expensive because a white person made them. To appear like they belong, the less affluent social aspirants either buy things they can’t afford or buy Fast Fashion, things cheap because a white person merely markets them.
The middle and upper-middle class people are of course not the worst victims–that would be the factory worker in Bangladesh, etc. But they are pressured relentlessly in different ways to pay for social status, to calibrate their values according to lines people from dire regions find incomprehensibly decadent, and in this way they are parted from their money and often left wondering why they are so miserable in a rich society. I tried to explain the mental health crisis, the rise in suicide, to my Indian colleagues–I suspect it has something to do with this.
They/we enable consumerism, but are victims too. No doubt some people disagree. They find their place in this arrangement to be wonderful. OK. Many people born into a favourable place in it loved slavery, too.
The above is oversimplification perhaps, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate. It’s complicated, this ad shit. These are just some thoughts.