I Fell Into My TV:
A Study of the Abusive Relationship Between Consumers and Advertisers
Walking down the street your mouth goes dry. Ahead lies a billboard plastered with familiar white cursive letters that pop out of the solid cherry red background. People smile on the billboard caressing a bottle of the sweet fizzy liquid. Maybe if you had one of those little tin cans of happiness your day would pull itself from its dismal averageness. Palms sweating, you remember the last time that you gave into this indulgence. All it had earned you was a stomach ache and a concerned look from your dentist.
Since advertising is so prominent in our everyday lives, scores of research has been done on it as it affects the consumer. Undoubtedly, consumers and advertisers have formed a relationship through their increasing need for each other. But what is the nature of that relationship? In this essay we will look at the relationship between consumers and advertisers in an effort to prove that said relationship is an abusive one.
Consumerism is, in today’s society, a necessary evil to maintain the comfort of modern day living. However, according to Jette Benn’s research consumerism has evolved into a movement that unifies the globe through language, race, and social class (Benn 1). This leaves the argument that consumerism has become much larger than anything that the singular consumer can fathom. All around the globe billions of people take part in consumerism because they are the foundation of its ideals. Some scholars would say that without consumers there would be no need for consumerism. So why is it that consumers seem so adamant about maintaining their consumer status?
Research finds that consumers romanticize everyday objects and needs which fuels their desire to spend money on them. The over romanticization of these products in our culture has lead to vast industrialization and consumption of goods over the decades (Benn 3). Part of the romance which became increasingly present in consumers is having an attractive product or a product made to look attractive. When department stores started to pop up in the 1890’s there became a need for aesthetically pleasing displays and information both to draw people to the stores and allow them to fantasize about all of the products that they could own (Benn 4). The consumers were no longer satisfied with the products alone, they needed something to show them the options and tell them exactly what they should buy. After all, how would consumers know what to buy if not for advertising?
Advertising was conceptualized and designed to cater to and have a relationship with consumers. In our modern technology driven world this relationship is strengthened by the many different ways in which advertising presents itself and accesses our lives. Television, computers, and smart phones all present some level of advertising and connect the consumers to the advertisers. Research suggests that as consumers relationships with their products strengthen, so does their relationships with advertising. Due to this demand for advertising, it reaches consumers wherever they go; in the subway, in stores, and even in their own living rooms. The products and services have become familiar and often blur together for consumers (Romaniuk 143). With this deep rooted intimacy advertising struggles to catch the eye of the consumer more and more. Tactics are devised to present advertising for a product or service in a unique way that will stand out from all other advertising or even build upon it (Romaniuk 148). Consumers often learn to recognize these tactics and grow weary of brands that use more deception or less original ideas. For example Coca-Cola ads have been running for 128 years and in that time has become a recognized brand with its own rivalries and tactics. A popular tactic is that of the Santa drinking Coca-Cola. The company has set up a highly personal relationship with young people and attached itself the the representation of the “spirit of christmas”. Through these arguably deceitful tactics and others like them used by several advertising brands and companies, a different relationship has evolved. A relationship that may not be positive for the everyday consumer, one that could be argued as abusive.
Consumers have undoubtedly developed a relationship with advertising through products and ads themselves. Research suggests that this developed relationship shows the signs of abuse in today’s society. Relationship abuse is defined as a pattern of coercive actions used to seize or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Abuse can materialize in several forms; emotional, physical, sexual, or financial. Due to consumers connections to advertising the abuse relationship continues uninterrupted and with much denial (Halligan, Knox, and Brinkley 645). Consumers invited advertising into their lives through their need for vast consumption (Benn 5). They invited a relationship through their romanticization of products and services (Hamlin 4). Advertising has dominated the lives of consumers through tactical deception and has kept its power over the consumer advertising relationship. The most effective advertising use tactics that reach consumers on emotional, physical, sexual, and financial levels. Given this information does it not seem like consumers are being abused by advertising?
“ It’s like a spiral: They keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone.” (Anderson 22)Tactics based on information gathered about individual and collective personality is used to manipulate consumers into a frenzy of desire for a product. A prime example of simplistic advertising used as a tactic is Apple’s MacBook Air commercial which began streaming, showing, and selling in July of 2014 (ispot.tv). In this commercial the audience is shown the flat silver back of a MacBook Air adorned with the Apple logo apple in the center. The video, set to instrumental music, then flashes through picture of different stickers that one could put on their MacBook Air. These stickers range from pop culture references like Snow White and Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg, to city skylines and even a stop motion animation arcade style space battle. The tactic lies in the Apple logo apple remaining the center focus of every sticker (Romaniuk 144). This simplicity suggests room for individual manipulation and therefore personalization, a concept desired by the individualistic society that Apple caters to. Manipulation, as seen in this ad and many more, is a key feature of any abusive relationship.
Abuse partners attack their victims emotionally, physically, sexually, or financially. Advertising possess and often uses tactics that exploit these areas of consumer’s lives whether it be directly or indirectly. From these four key attack points advertising strikes three.
Perhaps the most important of the four attack points– according to scholars from the University of South Carolina– is emotional abuse. Women who come forward as having been victims of emotional abuse say that it is the hardest aspect of the traumatic situation to cope with and move past (Follingstad et al. 108). Advertising affects people on a personal level by producing ads that connect the consumer and the product on an emotional level. For example, if the mother of an active soldier on tour in Iraq were to watch a commercial in which the military is mentioned in a positive light she will be connected by a shared experience. This manipulation of emotions is heavily weighed and factored into advertising for the purpose of hooking consumers to the products (Hill & Mazis 166).
Emotional abuse is often coupled with sexual abuse in unhealthy relationships. Advertising does not directly engage consumers in sexual acts but it does appeal to the sexual nature of consumers and exploits that nature often. What was the last ad for men or for womens perfume that did not prominently feature a pair of breasts, pectorals, or an excessive amount of skin? Sexualization is becoming a selling tactic for most major and minor advertisers. Simply put sex sells. Research proves that an ad with more sexual content is more remembered compared to an ad devoid of sexual content (Blair et al. 109). The controversy ethics of sexual content in advertising gets more heated the more skin is shown in the ad. Scholars argue that the over sexualization of products and people in advertising is harmful to society (Tai 87). Women and men have both increasingly compare themselves to photoshopped models in advertising causing low self esteem, dangerous eating disorders, and an unrealistic idea of cultural beauty (Tai 88). This form of secondhand sexual manipulation through advertising is abusive towards the consumer.
Another, more direct, form of abuse that advertising practices is financial abuse. Advertising’s entire purpose is to get the consumer to spend money on a service or product. Companies who know that their product is not reliable, healthy, or cost effective to own will still put out ads to try and sell their product or service. An example of this type of advertising tactic can be found most recognizably in cigarette ads. Take a look at Marlboro, one of the more culturally well known cigarette brands. Their latest campaign in their 90 years of business entitled ‘Be’ shows simple slogans in red and white, their company colors, and pictures of young attractive (mostly white) people performing exciting tasks. The entire premise of this ethically controversial campaign is ‘do not be a maybe be something by smoking Marlboro’ (Stampler 2). This is to suggest that without Marlboro cigarettes one is insignificant, undefined, and a looser. Since their birth into the advertising world cigarette companies have been selling tobacco with the basic message that cigarettes will make you more socially acceptable. This plays on the consumers wallet because after they are peer and ad pressured into trying that first cigarette the addictive properties set in. Suddenly cigarettes become a financial obligation for the consumer whether they wish to be socially acceptable or not. Financial manipulation is a form or abuse that advertising likes to pivot on.
Physical abuse in the only feature of an abusive relationship that is not directly affected by advertising. Though the physical ads are found daily in consumer life there is no evidence of physical violence committed by advertising. Perhaps a Liberty Mutual Lady Liberty adorned employee has started a violent fight before but these barely constitute physical abuse from advertising to consumers. In a study conducted about physical abuse in a romantic relationship setting, scholars found 59% of the test group reported having experienced some form of physical abuse in a past or current relationship (Jezel et al 69). This is a staggering difference to the amount of reported advertising abuse against consumers which is non existent. Physical abuse is seen to be the most common and provable form of abuse in a romantic relationship. The relationship between consumer and advertising, abusive or otherwise, is not physically harmful for the consumer.
With advertising bombarding the daily lives of consumers, but not affect them physically, the consumer is left with one powerful tactic of their own; ignore the ads. When an advertisement pops up on your computer you can simply click the little ‘x’ typically found in the right hand corner, right? All consumers can do the same with any advertising found in their daily lives. Research has been performed on the population’s reaction and attitude towards advertising. The results of this research suggests that consumers have developed a sort of ad avoidance or ad indifference in which the consumer completely ignores the advertising that he or she encounters (Speck et al 61). With the vast amount of advertising trying to reach consumers every day the ads have faded into background noise. Advertising online can be seen in pop ups, pre-youtube videos, and in the sidebar of most social media sites all of which are clicked out of almost immediately or as soon as is allowed by the advertisement. Due to the sheer volume and consistency of modern advertising consumers are choosing to simply ignore ads in their settings and have therefore taken back the at least some of the power in the relationship.
“Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything” (Anderson 10). In the fiction novel Feed by Matthew Anderson the readers are shown a futeristic world in which everyone has a interactive internet device called the Feed genetically grafted into their bodies. These devices allow those who possess them, which is a majority of the population, to receive advertising wherever they are twenty four hours a day seven days a week. The reach of advertising even extends into the consumer’s dreams. Individualized profiles are created based on interest, previous searches, and previous purchases. As much as Feed is a work of fiction, the novel presents a terrifying possibility for future consumers. Stephen King once said “Fiction is the truth inside lies”. The truth inside the lie of Feed is that consumers are seeing these personality typing advertising tactics in today’s society. In modern day if you were to Google a pair of pants that you’re considering buying and proceed to look at a couple of websites that sell those pants you would later see an advertisement for those pants or websites on your Facebook feed. Thankfully for some internet dabblers, not all searches produce the sidebar advertisements. However, anything that can be sold online that consumers have searched for becomes part of their personalized buyer profile.
“They’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not” (Anderson 10). Many victims of abusive relationships feel a sense of helplessness regarding their situation (Carmen et al 200). However, once informed of some options to seize control of or getting out of their negative situation are revealed the abuse victim typically feels that they can come out of the situation and heal. Consumers have the right to options and information as victims of an abusive relationship with advertising. More research on the subject of abusive advertising is needed to show consumers just how manipulative advertising can be. This research for the consumer is the first step in fixing this problem of advertising taking an excessive amount of power. Advertising avoidance is a successful technique that consumers can use to dissociate themselves from the daily pop up of advertising (Speck et al 62). Or consumers can follow the example set by Violet from Feed by “trying to create a customer profile that’s so screwed, no one can market to it” (Anderson 22). Consumers could call advertising on their manipulation once they recognize it and either refuse to partake or bring attention to others who are unaware of the current situation. As a consumer do not allow advertising to push you into the role of submissive consumer, instead make your own informed decisions about products and services. Once consumers have this information they can move forward towards protecting themselves from emotional, sexual, and financial manipulation at the hands of advertising.
The developed relationship between consumers and advertising is completely unbalanced with advertising on the side of control. While consuming goods is a necessary evil in today’s industrial world, the abuse dealt to consumers is unnecessary feature of the relationship. Research and ad evidence proves that advertising has practices manipulation of consumers emotional, sexual, and financial well being. Apple, Coca-Cola, Marlboro are all different products that are part of a larger monster called advertising that looms over consumers with control pressing down on them with every tv ad, internet pop up, and billboard. If anyone asks what happened to you when they see your marks from advertising do not recite for them the age old excuse of ‘I walked into a door’ or ‘I fell into my TV’. Break up with advertising. You’re too good for it anyways.