Does mass media direct our lives, or do we ourselves shape and form our wants, habits, wants and likes? As various media theorists and analysts have shown over decades of research, no side of this argument stands uncorroborated. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Frankfurt School had argued that media’s tremendous influence on individual behaviour came about as a result of indiscriminate consumption on the part of its audience. From the 1940s, there was a change in this position as it was postulated by researchers such as E. Katz that audiences were in fact self-aware, active consumers of media and they do not absorb everything that is played out to them (O’Donohoe 52). This idea contradicts without completely denying the idea that masses can be controlled by media, which is an all-powerful force in the hands of a handful of powerful wealthy men. No matter which side of this debate one is on, it must be agreed that what is to be confronted first is that ideas and images disseminated by the media are being consumed at a rapidly increasing rate by more and more people on an everyday basis.
Ostensibly, mass media, through its processes of consumption, aims at providing information, entertainment and diversion to its audience. But as mass communication scholars have pointed out, media also extends itself to generate demands that never existed in the first place. It then goes on to show that these demands can be satisfied and must be satisfied. “According to Uses and Gratification theory, the mass media constitutes a resource on which audiences draw to satisfy needs” (O’Donohoe 52). Advertising is especially important therefore, particularly when mass media is being approached from this point of view.
Advertisements are important to mass media for its sustenance and, for the most part, the sustenance of the other. Television shows, radio programs, websites, films, newspapers, magazines and public places carry advertisements to generate revenue for themselves and this breeds more advertisements. Advertising was supposed to be about informing consumers about the choices they can avail in the market. It was supposed to be about catching a break during a show or a long match. It was supposed to be about engendering healthy competition among product manufacturers and service providers. Today, surpassing all these primary functions, advertisements are constantly endeavoring to structure lifestyles. They are propagating a hedonistic culture. It is not enough to have a 24-inch television, but a home theatre system with speakers loud enough to make your neighbors jealous. Nothing is ever enough says the advertisement. We are bombarded with images in an endless cycle of production, accumulation and promotion.
Guy Debord, the French situationist had called such an image-saturated society the Society of the Spectacle. In his 1967 book called The Society of the Spectacle, he gives numerous explanations for what he means by it. While it is not possible to summarize the book in a few lines, essentially, Debord argues that “the present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” has led to “a generalized sliding from having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”
This statement of Debord has travelled through time to sound like an indictment of the present society. Advertisements are all about “having” and “maintaining appearances”. An individual has come to compare him/herself to the models in the advertisements he/she sees and is constantly forming his/her self-identity on this basis. It is damaging to the self-image of an individual to know he can’t buy something others can and do. Thus, people become discontented with their lives. Some also seek vicarious pleasure by flipping through advertisements as they come in contact with a world they can only fantasize about. So, most advertisements fill people either with despair on their lack of material wealth or an unconquerable desire to be someone they are not or own something they already don’t.
Advertisements also work their way into the lives of millions of consumers by raising their consumption-related aspirations. Consumers compete among themselves to demonstrate their status through tokens of material possession that have been posed as status-symbols by advertisements. A tagline such as “the ultimate driving machine” can elevate the brand image of BMW and transform the car into something more than a car. The owner of a BMW is now a self-acclaimed role model for all the other BMW aspirants or anyone who wishes to buy a car.
Advertisements are creating their own versions of what one should have or be to be considered successful or attractive. When an ad for Cadillac says, “the penalty of leadership,” there is already an assumption that anyone with a Cadillac is a leader. This tagline for Cadillac goes as far back as 1915. A century has passed since and some brands have come to be staunchly associated with a few qualities by consumers, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or economic backgrounds. Advertisements have travelled far and wide to be global brands that resonate the same things the world over. This value-affirming function of advertisements doesn’t work only in the category of luxury goods or high-end products, and something as necessary as food can also have hidden messages perpetuating need and greed. Fast-food advertisements are especially damaging in this regard.
Fast-food advertisements reach out to those who cannot afford healthy food. It is as simple as that. It has nothing to do with time. Healthy food costs more. One could argue a hectic life in the city is what turns people away from healthy food. But that is not so. It is not a matter of “how much time?” as much as it is about “how much?” A workaholic can also eat nutritious food if he had the money to get it made for or delivered to him. To cover up the negative effects fast-food has on health, fast-food outlets augment the taste of their food by using synthetic substances or less than wholesome, flavoured sauces. Then, they hit the bull’s-eye by advertising their food as the healthiest and tastiest one can buy at the cheapest price possible.
The recent advertisements for KFC, McDonald’s or Pizza Hut have used this strategy. A KFC ad says, “Now enjoy canteen ke prices mein KFC ka great taste with KFC’s streetwise range starting from Rs. 25.” Implicitly, KFC is striving to increase its sales by converting those, especially students, who eat in canteens, into its own customers. A canteen owner will not have the means to fight this by putting out another advertisement. Advertising again is exclusionary. It belongs to those wealthy companies who don’t care about the welfare of small-scale entrepreneurs. The bigger the corporation producing the advertisement, the greater is the frequency and duration of the advertisement and higher are the chances that people will buy into it. McDonald’s is selling veggie pops at Rs. 25 and Pizza Hut has iPan pizzas only for Rs. 29. The price range is the same, making obvious the cut-throat competition that exists among global brands selling fast-food. In this race for more customers, health concerns and quality of the food get inevitably pushed to the backseat.
In an article “Fast-food designed to keep you hungry”. Dr. Karl says, “The human body has evolved to eat when it’s hungry — and to stop when it is full. But the goal of the American food industry (aka ‘big food’) is the exact opposite. They manufacture a product that stimulates your appetite, so you eat more of it — and yet, leaves you hungry for more.” As an example, he talks of the chicken which is deep fried once in the factory, frozen for transportation, fried a second time in the restaurant and served with a creamy, salty or sweet sauce. The chicken is thus loaded with bad fat and sauce is served so it could be then layered with an excess of salt or sweet. This works well for the restaurant as consumers get addicted to food that is full of empty calories but tastes so good. Thus is born a culture of need and greed where one is made to feel out of place if one does not conform to what is generally the fad and is then made an addict slowly but surely.
What is also disturbing is the disparity that exists between advertisements and reality. The burger we see in the ad is a dream burger. The burger we get at the restaurant will never be as good as the one on TV. Advertisements for food, not just fast-food, play on our senses by delighting us with the way food, especially processed food, is presented on TV. It is a pleasure to imagine eating a giant burger with loads of cheese, fresh tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce and meat stacked neatly between two soft buns. But in reality, the burger is a factory-made product just like other goods that exist for mass consumption. Also, it is common sense that what sells at an air-conditioned restaurant for Rs. 25 can’t be high on taste and quality. The Veggie Pops McDonald’s showed on TV, if to be had for real, will cost the consumer more than three times its price.
In spite of the falsity that underlies fast-food advertisements, consumers are consuming the same items again and again. What may be had once in a month or two months is consumed many times a week. Internet, often termed as the new media, is a realm where parental control is more limited as compared to television, and is fast turning into a space where targeted advertisements are sold to people depending on their personal data and demographic details. Advertisements are also widespread on the Internet where information is served alongside promotion.
In this whirlwind of commercials we are caught. A writer had once commented, “Advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones” (Dickinson 163). A neo-liberal economy understands this well and has made it its dictum to exploit the social, physical, financial, mental anxieties of the consumers. To be aware of this is the only anti-dote to the manipulative forces of advertising. The dominant paradigm may dictate that “a rich person owns a Rolls Royce” or “cool kids eat burgers”. What must not be missed is that there could be and there are different definitions for being “rich” or “cool”. A family that grows its own food is rich too. A school kid who prefers a home-cooked meal to a pizza at a fancy restaurant stays smarter, healthier and therefore cooler. Advertisements shouldn’t regulate our lives or our choices for us. They exist for our convenience and not dominance.
Also significant is the contrasting image of a burger-stall set up outside a fast-food restaurant. This image reveals to us the level of economic stratification that exists in a society. The burger from the stall could be as healthy or unhealthy as the one sold in the restaurant but the stall-owner cannot dream of selling it at the same price as the price of his burger has already been decided for him by market forces. Then again, market forces fluctuate as per the supply and demand for a product and demands are created by advertisements. In a round about way, advertisements play a vital role in stratifying society on the basis of economic class. Not only is the stall-owner categorized but also his customers. An economic-elevation for the same customers in the predominant view is possible only when they can begin to afford the restaurant burger. It is not generally considered that there could be some who can eat at the restaurant but choose not to.
Some may argue we can actively and consciously try to avoid getting influenced by advertisements. Buying a product is, all said and done, a choice still exercised by us. But what if our instincts in themselves are being shaped by advertising? It surely is a cause for concern. In 2012, KFC had to cough up 8 million dollars to the family of a seven-year-old Australian girl who was left brain damaged after contracting salmonella poisoning from a KFC chicken wrap in 2005. (“KFC fined $8 million dollars for Australian Salmonella Case”). It would not be wrong to say that when the verdict came out, most of us looked more at the huge sum of compensation being doled out and less at the irreparable damage that has been done to the girl or at the fact that the family had been fighting the case for seven years or at the unwillingness of KFC to pay up in spite of the court’s decision.
Soon after the case broke out, in 2006, KFC as a damage control measure brought out a food quality assurance sticker to be advertised on its boxes. The sticker merely said – “Rigorously inspected, Thoroughly Cooked, Quality Assured.” (“KFC fined $8 million dollars for Australian Salmonella Case”). Now, are our choices rigorously and thoroughly uninfluenced as we would like them to be?
Dr. Karl. “Fast-food designed to keep you hungry.” ABC Science. 9 October 2012. Web. 10 October 2013. <http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/10/09/3604793.htm>.
Harris, John. “Guy Debord predicted our distracted society.” The Guardian. 30 March 2012. Web. 11 October 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle>
“KFC fined $8 million dollars for Australian Salmonella Case.” CBS News. 27 April, 2012. Web. 23 Oct, 2013. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kfc-fined-8-million-for-australia-salmonella-case/>
O’Donohoe Stephanie. “Advertsing Uses and Gratifications.” European Journal of Marketing 28. 8/9 (1993): 52- 53. Print.
Roy Dickinson, “Freshen Up Your Product.” Printer’s Ink 6 (February 6 1930): 163. Print.
Priyanka Shivadas is presently in her third semester, M.A. English Literature in the Centre for English studies, School of Languages, Literature and Culture, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She wants to travel the world for as long as she remains young and beautiful and write a novel before she is too old to do it. Her research interests fall under the vast area of Mythology. She believes stories can change lives, music can heal wounded souls and with the two, she is set for life. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.