10 Agt 2006

Advertising and The End of The World (3)

Challenging media

Writer & Editor: Sut Jhally
Assistant Editor: Sanjay Talreja
Line Producer: Kim Neumann
Featuring an interview with Sut Jhally Professor of Communication,
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Media Education Foundation © MEF 1997

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”


A culture dominated by commercial messages that tells individuals that the way to happiness is through consuming objects, gives a very particular answer to the question “What is a society?” What is it that binds us together in some kind of collective way? In fact, Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative British Prime Minister, gave the most succinct answer to this question from the viewpoint of the market. She said, “There is no such thing as society. There are just individuals and their families.” That is, there is nothing solid that we can call society. There are no group values, no collective interests. Society is just a bunch of individuals acting on their own. And, in fact that is precisely how advertising talks to us. It addresses us, not as members of a society talking about collective issues, but as individuals. It talks about our individual needs and desires. It does not talk about those things we have to negotiate collectively, things like poverty, like health care, like housing and the homeless, like the environment.

“There is no such thing as society. There are just individuals and their families.”

The market appeals to the worst in us- greed, selfishness- and discourages what is the best about us, things like compassion, caring, and generosity. Again, this shouldn’t surprise us. In those societies where the marketplace dominates there will be more stress on what the marketplace can deliver. Advertising is the main voice of the marketplace. In that sense, advertising systematically relegates discussion of key societal issues to the peripheries of the culture- to the margins, and talks in powerful ways of individual fantasy, of individual pleasure, and comfort.


The consumer vision that is pushed by advertising, and which is conquering the world, is based fundamentally, of course, on a notion of economic growth. More consumption requires more production. So it is pushing industrial production. Now, industrial production has costs. It requires resources, raw materials, and energy, and there is now broad consensus among environmental scholars that the Earth simply cannot sustain present levels of economic expansion. Especially as more and more third world nations transform their economies to industrial economies. We simply cannot keep going the way we have.

Look at resource depletion. We are running out of vital supplies, and if we project into the future, we can anticipate when we may run out. That is if we take what we know we have, known reserves, and we generously anticipate what we may be able to find, and we correlate that with what we will need based on predicted levels of economic growth, then we have a time table for when we will run out. An important study using these methods put it the following way: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”

This is because industrial production uses up resources and energy at a rate that had never before been imagined by previous populations. Since 1950 the world’s population has used up more of the Earth’s resources than all the generations that came before. In fifty years we have matched the use of thousands and thousands of years. The West, and especially Americans, have used the most of these resources, so we have a special responsibility for the approaching crisis. In another hundred years we will have exhausted the planet.

The clearest indication of the way we produce as having an effect on the ecosystem of the planet is the depletion of the ozone layer, which has dramatically increased the leak of ultra-violet radiation that is damaging or lethal to many life forms on the planet. In 1985 we discovered the existence of a huge hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole that is the size of the continental United States. The activities of humans are changing the very make up of the Earth. Bill McKibben, in his book The End of Nature, reminds us that “we have done this ourselves...by driving our cars, building our factories, cutting down our forests, turning on air conditioners.” He says the history of the world is full of the most incredible events that change the way we live, but all those changes are dwarfed by what we have done in the last fifty years. He says: “Man’s efforts, even at their mightiest, were tiny compared with the size of the planet. The Roman Empire meant nothing to the Arctic of the Amazon. But now, the way of life of one part of the world in one-half century is altering every inch, and every hour of the globe.”

The situation is so bad that the scientific community is desperately trying to get the rest of the world to wake up to the danger. 1700 of the world’s leading scientists, including a majority of Nobel Laureates in the sciences, recently issued this appeal: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. If not checked, many of our current practices may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring” (Union of Concerned Scientists).

It’s important to avoid the prediction of immediate catastrophe. We’ve already done a lot of damage, but the real environmental crisis will not hit until sometime in the middle of the next century. So we have some time, but not much. To avoid the catastrophe we have to take action now. We have to put into place the steps, which will save us in seventy years time.

The metaphor to think of is that of an oil tanker heading for a crash on the shore. Because it is so huge, because of the momentum that has been built up, to stop crashing the oil tanker has to start turning well before it reaches the coast. We have to anticipate the momentum. If we start turning too late we will smash into the coast. That’s where we are right now. We have to make fundamental changes in the way we organize ourselves, and in what we stress in our economy if we want to avoid the effect sixty, seventy, eighty years down the road. We have to take action now.

In that sense, this generation has a unique responsibility in human history. It is literally up to this generation to save the world, to make the changes we need to make. Because if we don’t, we will be in barbarism and savagery towards each other in seventy years time. We have to make short-term sacrifices. We have to rethink our relationship to the car. It was fun for a while, but now it’s just choking the life out of the planet. We have to make real changes, not just recycling, but fundamental changes in how we live and produce. We can’t do this individually. We have to do it collectively. We have to find the political will somehow to do this, and we may even be dead when its real effects will be felt. How can we connect psychically to that next generation? Two generation hence, and make their interests our interests? Well, that is a very difficult undertaking, and it will be made even more difficult when the context for it is the market and stories of advertising. The marketplace cannot deal with longrange issues by definition. It’s an institution that is good for dealing with the present.

Corporations, the institutions that dominate the market system, think about their profits now, perhaps next week, or possibly even a year down the road, but they do not -cannot- think seventy years down the road about collective interests. And if we think about advertising, which forms the background on which we have to develop new ways of thinking, it tells a similar story about the future. The time frame of advertising is very short. Its dominant mode is talking about the present. If you’re lucky, it may talk about tomorrow. If you’re really lucky, it may talk about the following week, but that’s about it. It does not encourage us to look a year, two years, ten years, seventy years down the road.

Corporations, the institutions that dominate the market system, think about their profits now, perhaps next week, or possibly even a year down the road, but they do not -cannot- think seventy years down the road about collective interests.

And in fact, the present oriented nature of advertising will increase because of the current situation. First, you have an audience that is cynical about advertising, that tries all it can to avoid it. That’s why advertising spreads everywhere, so people cannot avoid it. And as it does that, advertisers are faced with the problem of clutter and noise. In that situation advertising will be even more connected to the present. It will speak to us more through our bodies than through our heads. It will try and bypass thinking and go straight for the gut, straight for our emotions. That’s how you cut through the clutter to communicate with a cynical and reluctant audience. You smack them, metaphorically, in the mouth.

You make the advertising visceral- something you feel, not necessarily something you think. The best example of that is the Benetton campaign which uses striking images of really emotional scenes- images which you could not just turn the pages from easily, images that you could not zap because they were so emotional.

Sexual imagery will become even more powerful. Sex is one way of cutting through the clutter. We’ve only scratched the surface so far. Advertisers are looking for even more shocking images to get our attention. And while there are some uses of the male body to achieve this, what’s been called the new male objectification, the predominant way that sexuality will be translated into a visual form will be through male fantasies of the female body. Because advertising creativity is almost totally a male dominated field, it’s not just sex, but a particular version of sex that will come to dominate, where objectified female bodies will be given the responsibility to break through the clutter and cynicism of the audience. There was a recent ad for Candie’s shoes featuring Jenny McCarthy that was impossible to ignore. In this move from the cognitive to the emotional, it’s not just pleasant emotions like sexuality that will be targeted. Any emotion, however unpleasant, that cuts through the clutter will be used.

If at one level advertising reflects our dream life, it will also reflect our nightmares as well. There was a recent ad for Merry-Go-Round clothes that focused on the nightmares and embarrassment that people have about being in public spaces naked. This is not about pleasure, but about panic. Panic cuts through the clutter. Unfortunately, in this move advertising will not stress the value of a collective-long range future. The prevailing values of the commercial system provide no incentives to develop bonds with the future generations. We don’t care about the future. There’s a real sense of nihilism and despair about the future, and a closing of ranks against the outside. At one time it was thought, by some people, that the environmental crisis would be the linchpin for the lessening of international tensions. That as we recognize that we can only survive collectively, together, then the world would come together to cooperate to save the Earth. Unfortunately, as the Persian Gulf War made clear, the new world order of the twenty-first century will be based on international conflict over increasingly scarce resources. As George Bush said, “American troops are being dispatched at the Gulf to make possible our way of life.” That requires cheap oil, and if the cost of that is 100,000 dead Iraqis, well, so be it. Someone has to pay the cost so we can keep driving our cars and using our appliances. The Gulf War is a review of what is to come. As the world runs out of resources, the most powerful military forces will use that might to ensure access. The Third World will simply be seen as enemies who are making unreasonable claims on our resources.

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