People will often ask me my views on the state of the world. We’re a progression in a long line, so we’re pretty much always advancing, then repairing mistakes, and then repeating that pattern. I’m okay with just a decent general direction. Certainly our prioritization of economies over ecosystems is not sustainable. And we can certainly do better than war and petty politics. But if you were to ask me for the single most insidious, society-destroying aspect of our culture I would offer that it is advertising.
This is somewhat ironic to me because I love advertising. It’s exactly the sort of thing my brain is really good at. Today I would rather use those skills to create works along the same themes as Banksy, the brilliant artist responsible for the mock Coke ad (among many others). His work makes things clearer, unlike advertising which uses super-subtle psychological effects to essentially brainwash you into a self-hating, other-fearing, branded, controllable person. That probably seems extreme to you, but allow me to explain.
Would you feel good if random strangers approached you on the street and told you your clothes were out of fashion, or ugly, or too cheap, or that they were from the wrong store or manufacturer? Or that your skin looked bad, or that if it didn’t, then it would soon? What if they told you to worry about diseases you had almost no chance of getting? Or that your car wasn’t nice enough, or that you need to vote this or that way. Frankly, you’d think that person was a remarkable jerk for offering their uninvited opinion to you in a way that undermines your sense of self and you would be right.
Some cities like Amsterdam try not to accost you with advertising. The government appears to feel its role is to protect public visual space from being taken over by those with a singular agenda. You’re welcome to let people know you’re there, but advertising in the North American sense would be seen as disrespectful to the visual environment of many European citizens. But other than a few holdouts like that, thanks to a TVs, computers, signs on the street, phones, or even people’s t-shirts, our personal space is for salesmen, not the world or our own life. Inevitably these are all invasions of our space by commercial interests who are fully engaged in manipulating us.
Young girls around the world feel ugly because of advertising. Young boys feel they must be more macho or sex-motivated than they likely may naturally be. Media images (whether they are formal ads or ads disguised as shows), present an impossible view of beauty precisely because the idea must be impossible.
There is no way to continue selling you products if some day you finally actually think you’re beautiful the way you are. That would be the worst thing that could happen to them—that you liked yourself as-is. Doesn’t it say something about our society that we’re so remarkably permissive about an industry that is built upon the idea of telling us that whatever we are or have is simply never enough? How little respect for ourselves do we have as a culture that one of our biggest and most powerful creations is literally designed to work against us?
Start seeing advertisements for what they truly are: lies told to you to get you to buy things you don’t need to generate profits for a company that is ultimately just an idea, not an actual thing. We’ve built a monster and we’ve programmed it to chase us around the world and beat up our self esteem.
Increasingly, people want to take their space back. Through laws, or art projects, or simple citizen action as groups or just as individuals. They put up messages that encourage you rather than discourage you. Because they can see: how can we complain about the plight of the world if all we focus on is industry-created short-comings in ourselves? How can the world be surprised that people are more and more depressed when they are ever-increasingly told they are wrong and that they don’t fit in?! It’s insane. Truly, completely, fully insane.
You need almost nothing you buy, you have been told to buy it by people that understandably want the benefits of your labour (your money) to be transferred to them. And even for them it is a losing proposition because wealth does not buy happiness, so if we truly wanted to make the world a healthier psychological environment then we could do no better than to seriously look at how we view advertising. Because you are a beautiful human being, created by miraculous cosmic forces and no collection of words or images changes how remarkable your existence is.
Advertising, by design, is simply dangerous to your mental health. Become conscious of its remarkable effect on your life. Because whether it’s losing more weight because you’re not watching food ads during TV shows, or whether you just go out more and have fun because you’re not constantly being told you’re not beautiful enough; breaking through the thought-based ties that advertisers use to bind us is one of the first steps toward a psychologically free society.
Ignore the ads. You’re fine the way you are. Enjoy your day.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.
P.S. Here’s a link that demonstrates how the subtle power of advertising can change even the most basic cultural norms. This really is crazy: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1673020/in-20-years-we-re-all-going-to-realize-this-apple-ad-is-nuts
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.