Advertisements are a part and parcel of a modern lifestyle. Contemporary society is driven heavily by the purchasing habits of consumers like you and me, and ever since our very own Adam Smith came up with the modern free market economy, companies have been using advertisements to vie for our attention. From Andy Warhol’s depictions of Campbell’s Soup Cans, to Annie Leibovitz’s 2016 shoot for the Lincoln Motor Company, ads have enticed and influenced many prominent artists as well. But, in a time when a mass extinction looms over our head, is engaging with consumption culture as much as we do beneficiary?
The days of easily identifiable advertisement techniques are long gone. We have come to a point where advertisements are so subtly tied into what we see and hear daily that it has become more or less impossible to discriminate between the two. Most of the ‘free’ services we enjoy survive on ad revenue, and even ones we pay for are often embedded with ads: we are constantly exposed to product placements in movies, branded merch even in videogames, product mentions by influencers on social media, and so on. These inconspicuous ads influence the social subconscious, and thereby, the buying behaviour. Advertisement has become such a big industry, massive companies like Facebook and Google have a majority of their multibillion revenue from ads only.1,2 Since ad revenue is so important to these corporations, they have established dedicated divisions working on how to get the right advertisements to the right person: if Facebook has been known to collect user data in order to market more effectively to correct demographics, as evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica leaks, Google is set out to roll out machine learning ad sense in order to not show the same ads even to the people who have opted not to share their data with a particular company or website.3
Since more younger people are on the internet than ever before, and have more purchasing power than previous generations, there has also been a shift in advertising targets to young impressionable audiences. This questionable move has justifiably raised quite a few red flags. The wave of lawsuits against Juul, a very popular vape manufacturer, is showing this shift in the zeitgeist. Juul is being accused of marketing to youngsters by promoting flavours like Mango and Mint so to gradually and insidiously get them hooked onto nicotine. Similarly, video-game companies have started selling loot-boxes, which are basically a form of gambling, in videogames, and have for this reason invited a similarly large number of lawsuits.
Interconnected with this issue is the growing influence of social media influencers, and the role they play in this new market of consumers. Social media platforms have more power than ever, and with their rise, a slew of new celebrities emerged as well. Now, along with movie stars and rock stars, we notoriously have what brands call ‘influencers’. These now well-established figures are paid quite a bit of money by companies to endorse their products to an audience which mostly comprises of, again, children. In this online age, FOMO is a very real phenomenon, and one which is exploited by companies online to sell their stuff. Influencers play a massive part here: by putting their latest vacation, their latest tech, the clothes they wear, and an abundance of other trending products on their stories, they play on their audience’s fear of missing out. Only recently has the UK government come up with a set of rules and guidelines for online promotion and advertising, which means that, up until now, it has all been largely unregulated business.
Many of the big companies also employ advertising tactics which are not aligned with their own actual business model, in blatant mockery of their consumers. Fashion retailers like Gap and H&M have been accused of keeping garment workers in horrific conditions in some Asian countries, like Myanmar and Bangladesh. They are underpaid, have severe deadlines, and more than 540 workers at factories supplying the two retailers have described incidents of threats and gender-based abuse, according to two separate reports by Global Labour Justice.4 In 2016, H&M was also accused of employing children as young as 14 in Myanmar for gruelling labour shifts lasting more than 12 hours a day.5 However, both H&M and Gap had extensive ad campaigns centred around women and kids in First World consumer bases when all this was still going on, which can only be described as the most audaciously unethical use of advertising one could think of.
Even though an increasing number of regulatory practices are being implemented to control the phenomenon, the question still remains: how far should corporations be allowed to go for advertising purposes? We are in an era where all media has become so diluted with ads, it has become imperative we make guidelines to distinguish the two: it is simply unethical to not tell people that they are being advertised to. Some change is coming, with companies now having to ask permission before downloading cookies to your computer, and so forth. But we still have a long way to go, and until then, we should be wary of the content we consume, lest it consume us.
[Gautam Gupta – he/him – @9gcity]
[Photo Credit: Augmented Reality Images (Getty)/flickr.com]