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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 drugs 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 men (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 “branding” and “imaging” sometimes looks suspiciously like superstition dressed up for the modern age, down to the ironic, post-modern self-consciousness and humour.
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.
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!
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 economy 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.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 28 February 2008.