CultureEconomyEthicsSociety

Ad lib: The illusiory freedom of the advertising world

Want to fulfil your dreams and be happy? Why not ad liberate yourself today? Now available in convenient 30-second doses.

In a darkened cinema, as we sat impatiently waiting for the film to begin, we twiddled our thumbs because the darkness made it impossible to navel gaze. Resisting the indifferent glazing of the eyes that usually afflicts us when the ads are on, we began speculating, in hushed whispers, about what impression of our society someone from the past or future would glean, if all they had to go on were the creations of the advertising industry.

Would they look at all the smiling, cheerful faces and wonder what kind of we were on to make us all so manically, deliriously, pathologically happy? Would they see the ad playing before our eyes claiming that Red Bull “gives you wings” as a sign that we are a superstitious society which believes in magic potions that can make you fly, or would they see it for the advertising bull that it is?

In Italy, Red Bull took the “miracle” joke a step too far and had its wings clipped by the Catholic Church which condemned the rather harmless fun as “blasphemous”. In December, it withdrew a nativity ad in which there were four wise (or magi) bearing not only gold, frankincense and myrrh, but also a can of the energy drink.

Since freedom of expression, whose champions were conspicuous in their silence on this occasion, should apply to all cartoons equally, regardless of their religious colour, here's a link to the offending ad.

Of course, despite the Italian overreaction, most people take the magic of the ad world with a pinch of salt. And Red Bull is well aware of this and has transformed it into caricature. Yet, what we call “” and “imaging” sometimes looks suspiciously like superstition dressed up for the modern age, down to the ironic, post-modern self-consciousness and .

At university, I studied economics and we were told that advertising plays a crucial role in informing the consumer about different products, enabling him or her to make more rational purchasing decisions. But how many ads today actually tell us anything about the product? Most, especially at the luxury end of the market, are all image and no substance – and we pay a substantial premium as consumers for that image.

See also  Pfizer buys up rival Pharmacia

Every day, we are constantly bombarded by thousands of messages telling us that this or that charmed object – be it an alcoholic beverage, clothes, perfume or a car – will invest us with special powers that will make us happier, more confident, more attractive, sexier, more successful, funnier, fitter – veritable titans among the hobbit masses.

And our faith in the salvation of consumerism has reached such heights that we even have a high priesthood in the form of celebrity endorsers. You, too, could be as beautiful and desired as Nicole Kidman with a squirt of Chanel No 5. For the honour of blessing the holy toilet water, or eau de toilette, the Australian actress “earned” a mind-boggling record-breaking amount of nearly a million dollars per minute.

Given how large the ranks of the priesthood have grown and the lavish offerings they receive, ads – in order to distinguish themselves – have been transformed into veritable “advertainment”, which many people enjoy simply for their own production qualities.

George Clooney has starred in a series of advertisements for Martini which try to be ironic and funny. There's one where he turns up to a party and is refused entry because he doesn't have a bottle of the cocktail with him. In real life, it's doubtful whether the worst binge drinker would choose Martini over Clooney, but there's no accounting for tastes.

In another, “gorgeous” George is done up as Clark Gable arriving at a film premiere, whereupon he leaves his beautiful blonde date stranded – drawn away, like a closet alcoholic, to a nearby Martini stand.

When he discovers there's no ice to mix in his drink, he looks around him in bewilderment, whereupon a female matador inexplicably appears beside an improbable ice sculpture of a bull and, whipping the glass out of Clooney's hand, proceeds to castrate the poor animal with her sword, using his balls as ice cubes. I'm too distressed even to begin to deconstruct the psychological implications!

See also  Suez Cement may not lure foreign investors

The ad world, in its bid to become more inclusive is not exclusively about the glamorous and beautiful. There has been quite an effort in recent years to put nerd-dom on the map. In one ad by Proximus/Vodaphone for wireless broadband internet, a legion of nerds emerge, squinting, from their indoor hermitages armed with WiFi laptops, and head for the local park where they can socialise and surf.

Empowering one group can sometimes be at the expense of another. An advertisement in the same series has a college geek coming home to find his mother has been transformed into a beautiful, long-legged brunette with full lips (Oedipus complex anyone?), and his house is teeming with her gorgeous friends.

Although we haven't moved away from objectifying the female form, there is a trend towards an equality of sorts, as the male form is also increasingly objectified, such as in Calvin Klein campaigns, and even Coca-Cola has been doing it with its hunky swimmer who turns out to be a priest.

At one level, this is all harmless fun and helps keep the wheels of the turning. But the increasing extravagance, emotiveness and uninformativeness of advertising has its side effects. Advertisers play on our insecurities and inadequacies to shift the products of their paymasters and, with the ubiquitousness and omnipresence of advertising, it must, at some subconscious level, actually make us feel unhappier and less content.

As the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi once put it, “… images are like shrouds, and one can hide beneath the shroud. When the images are dispelled and the realities appear without the shroud of the mental image, there is a ‘reawakening'.”

The consumerist drug is a potent one, but each subsequent hit is weaker and less satisfying, especially as we discover that, underneath all the iconic layers, we are exactly the same person. In our post-religious societies, perhaps shopping has become the new opiate of the masses, giving them the patience and hope to deal with mediocrity.

See also  Deconstructing Belgium and its future

______

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 28 February 2008.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

    View all posts

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

error

Enjoyed your visit? Please spread the word