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Enslaved By Advertising

Have marketers seized total control of our free-will?


By Ketan Bhatt


Times Square New York
Image courtesy of Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura on Pexels

Human beings cherish autonomy; whether using it to make an uncomplicated decision or a rather complex one, people largely prefer to solve their own riddles in life. One key driving force behind this is the belief that we are comfortably in control of our own choices. Intrinsic to this behaviour is a deep desire to act in a way that separates an individual’s efforts from those of other people, which positively reinforces self-identity. It is therefore intriguing to see how people get so easily convinced to abandon this idea of individualistic distinctiveness by falling prey to advertising campaigns.


Advertising promotes homogeneity. The illusions of ‘exercising choice’ and ‘consumer freedom’ create a false mirage of individual liberty and uniqueness in self-expression. All we end up doing at the population level is to fit-into trends, that are certified ‘in vogue’, by advertising wizardry. Although - to be fair to advertisers - their ability to engineer campaigns aimed at influencing consumers, is directly contingent on the expectations of the clients they service. However, that’s underestimating their potential; as the eventual sales pitch is arrived upon by cooking the client brief in a concoction of psychological manoeuvring, emotional undertones and the bewitching use of colours and sounds.


The whole idea behind advertising is to establish uniqueness, differentiate the product from its competition and manufacture a need that may not necessarily exist. Determining the most appropriate product positioning strategy creates a connection with the target consumers, enabling the product to fly off the shelves. But look closely and it’s not too hard to see how, in the larger scheme of things, we are being tricked into essentially doing the same things as others (albeit with miniscule, superficial differences). We almost universally eat the same junk food, drink the beverages we are ‘made aware of’, wear perfume that is essentially made by sourcing similar ingredients, put on footwear that is unremarkably similar in definition, plug into the same gadgets and devices that differ only in technological performance and aesthetics to some extent, et cetera.


Advertisers feed on aspirations. There are remarkable differences in perspectives and expectations of what one perceives to be aspirational even within a small community of like-minded people. But the sense of self-identity and originality is bartered with a version of aspiration and success driven by control, commerce and social conformity, that may not be aligned with our interests at all. Advertisements, in any form, are designed to repeatedly hammer away a message that gets deposited in our sub-conscious mind strongly enough to feature in future recalls. However, constant exposure to the stimuli (ads) can easily unseat original ideas and rob people of the element of individual self-expression. Surrendering to someone else’s perspectives of fame and success will only get them deeper into the vicious consumerism cartwheel. It is worth contemplating how people would ideally spend their earnings or fortunes in a parallel world, where sellers are not fighting tooth and nail to indoctrinate them.


Sure, advertising serves a purpose. But does it fill a void? It indeed has the potential to disseminate information about commodities unbeknownst to the population and equip people with information to help them make calculated choices. Invariably, exercising a choice itself is an empowering experience but it still is just a measure of how effective an advertising campaign really is. The notion of free will dictating decision-making disappears when choices are manufactured and presented on the back of creatively packaged sales propositions.


There is no easy way to navigate around this issue. A step in the right direction would be adopting conscious decision-making based on needs instead of subscribing to the desire-based, socially constructed version of achievement. Ditching allegiance to ever-present social conformities may not be a practical solution. At the same time, a lifelong indulgence of ‘fitting-in’ would only reduce the powers of the human intellect to making unwarranted choices for acquiring goods that do little to realistically upgrade our sense of self-worth. Why not trust the human instincts and tap into the powers of volition for meaningful decision-making, for a change?


Conscious consumer, arise!

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