The Imaginary Choice Between False Consumer Realities

From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, our senses are assaulted by a barrage of advertising. All sorts of confusing imagery cascade upon each other and overwhelm our brains (already softened with the burden of materialism and institutionalized greed) until we are saturated with subtle suggestions of how a particular brand of toothpaste will enhance our sex-appeal, or how a popular fast food brand will always make us smile.

Despite the disparity in the specific images broadcasted in these advertisements, there are three common themes running through them.

The first of these is that each product seeks to convince you that it is better than its competitors. The advertiser seeks to give you a choice. He says, “instead of buying their product, buy ours. Because ours is better. And it’ll make you happier, sexier, and more loved than theirs.” But will it?

Capitalism as Adam Smith envisioned it consists of a Free Market. This free market, in theory, ensured us (the consumers) a free and open choice between the products of competitors. If one did not appeal to us, we could turn to another. There was an underlying assumption that if the product of any one manufacturer lead to dissatisfaction, then another manufacturer would step in to remove that fault, thereby assuring the consumer a perfect product.

Adam Smith cannot be faulted for expecting capitalism to play out that way – after all, he was relying on one of the most fundamental of human emotions – greed. He assumed that inherent greed will ensure that every manufacturer try to give their customers the perfect product, in an effort to corner the market.

Of course, as we all know, he underestimated the greed of our species.

Where it was thought that all manufacturers will scramble to make their product perfect and keep the customer happy, the reality was that manufacturers shifted their focus from this middle step to the final goal of reaping in profits. Instead of making products that are better than the others, the manufacturers shifted their focus to making profits that bring in more money than the others.

While these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the progress of industry played a large part in putting distance between them. Whether through market strategies or through interference in democracy, every successful industry has been trying its best to ensure that it is tougher and tougher for any new entrant to venture in. What this means, is that the established businesses are free to focus on their bottom-line without having to worry about the possibility of a new brand entering in and fulfilling the original premise of creating a perfect product. And as for creating the illusion that one product is better than another – well, that is now a job for advertising.

Which brings us to the second common thread – the creation of a need. Advertising in the modern world is not about the “actual” merits about a product; merits, when sparingly mentioned, are comparative. Modern advertisements are actually about insecurity. Thanks to the notion that happiness is linked to an external source (which is the cornerstone of modern capitalism and consumerism), advertisers use a series of deceptive and irrelevant images to convince us that our happiness lies in their products. The advertisements are structured around the message that we will not be happy unless we acquire the product being touted by them.

They try to create a need where earlier there was none. Tell me – was your life really in senseless disarray before you bought that latest piece of technology? Are you absolutely certain that you could not have survived without it? But then why is it that you were surviving without it quite well before it was created? There can be no doubt that any technological advance will ease your life somewhat (after all, that is the point of technological advances), but the pertinent question is, “Was it really necessary?” There is certainly the possibility that the newest edition of your phone (which is just out on the market a few months after you already purchased its predecessor) will make your life slightly easier; but is that upgrade necessary? Can you really not function without it at all?

“No”, the advertisements answer. They show you happy people using their new product, surrounded by other things that we have been taught are supposed to make us happy. We correlate their happiness with the product they are selling, and distinguish that from our sadness borne out of our insecurity, and the fact that we do not have in our possession the magic trinket that is supposed to make us happy. We are already trapped by the advertisements, and tricked into believing that we need the product that is being sold to us. We tell ourselves it is because of what it offers, while it is actually because of what it promises to us – happiness.

Sure we have the choice of choosing another competitors product rather than theirs. However, is choosing another brand really exercising a choice, given that they both are a result of you being tricked into believing you need something that you actually didn’t? Is it really a choice when both options are a result of the same goal – to maximise profits at your expense? Can it really be called a choice when both options (however disparate they may seem) are controlled and lead to the same result – that of another insatiable false need being created, and temporarily filled?

And as for the third common thread – its quite simple really. All advertisements tell you to buy their product. Not to find the best option, just to buy theirs. All they want is your money.

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