The Docilist State: Advertising and Self in America

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A connection made between ego, advertising, and the American insecurity.

Submitted: April 21, 2012

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Submitted: April 21, 2012

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As humans we are considered to be the most self-conscious creatures on Earth. Ironically however, being the most self-conscious creatures, or self-aware, often leads us to question what the ideas of consciousness and self truly mean. In the dictionary the phrase “self-conscious” has two separate definitions. One of them is “conscious of oneself or one’s own being.” Despite this being the original definitive definition, this is placed as the secondary interpretation. The primary definition is: “Excessively aware of being observed by others.” In a rather clear-cut manner, this shows us that we have changed how we define ourselves. When we’re socializing at parties, talking with friends and family, or looking at ourselves in the mirror, we feel “self-conscious” when analyzing our insecurities about appearance or attitude. We have forgotten that what others think of us should come second to how we see ourselves. This change in defining who we are occurred when marketing firms began manipulating consumers self-validation. As it stands today, the grand operation of advertising exploits society on a cultural and individual level by capitalizing on a intrinsic insecurity found in most, if not all, consumers. It’s past the time to recognize that responsibility of the modern market system lays on both the producers and consumers. If nothing is done, America will continue to reside in a docilist state - where consumers are fed who, how, and why they are.

I use the word “docilist” in this paper as an evolved form of the world docile. I use it, and other variations of it, because docile has become a perfect cultural label for Western society, and for the consumers that make up America specifically. America is a docilist state where its consumers have become easily influenced; the American people practice docilism on a cultural and individual level; America is docile. Despite this cultural epidemic, the people of America still have the responsibility of keeping the international bartering system in check.

We do represent a large and influential part of the Western economic structure after all. Nevertheless, advertising agencies and marketing firms have been allowed to infiltrated our opinions, preferences, and ideas - all too easily. It’s a sad fact that the state of American consumerism is in an abysmal place. David Masci in The Consumer Culture reports that an estimated 55-60 million of the 101 million households in America have outstanding credit card debt. That’s more than $500 billion nationwide, or $5,000 per household. The producers, i.e. banking and loan system, have created a trap for consumers in America. Specifically, implementing systems like minimum payments make it easy for companies to lull consumers into a false sense of security, tricking them into buying things they can’t afford. However, sometimes the average consumer knows they can’t afford something, yet they still buy it anyway. This is where advertising, and the distortion of self, comes in.

It’s an idea that you’re not good enough. It’s the idea advertisements place in your head that you need what they are selling because you’ll be better for it (just as importantly, you’re nothing without it). Marketers want you to become practitioners of docilism and accept this notion of lack of self-worth. When seeing an advertisement, most consumers fall into this trap. Once the feeling of vulnerability kicks in, it’s only a matter of time before they pick up the phone and dial the 1-800 number for their new purchase. The consumption process is a direct an fairly fast process. It begins right away with the sensory experience of the ad to the desire for the product. In the middle however, is an overlooked step that is the fundamental of this marketing design scheme. This crucial part of the process creates a strong connection between the consumer and the product being advertised, to a point where the consumer actually needs the product. This step is the exploitation of insecurity. In order to stop this process we need to know more. We have to find out where this insecurity comes from.

Luckily, a man named Morris Berman has some answers. In his book Coming to Our Senses, he describes the process of when children become self-aware, or acquire an ego. Around the age of three in a separation from self, children recognize that they are other people to other people. The implications of this suggest that children begin to see themselves as other people see them, and no longer have a strong sense of self-validation. This is where insecurity is born. Studies described by Berman explain how this developmental process was discovered. French psychologist Henri Wallon experimented by placing children in front of mirrors and analyzing their interactions with images of themselves and others. During the first six months of life he found that the infant interacts with the images as if they were a playmate, with a sense of “socialbility”, and this lasts until around one year of age. At this point, the child registers surprise with moments of self-recognition (where the infant would point to itself and touch the mirror). But these moments of awareness were erratic - nothing is stable until around the age of three. It’s then that children begin to realize that just as they are looking at someone else, someone else is looking at them. (They are looking into the mirror, someone is looking back - in this case, the someone is them). This evolves into a third person perspective of themselves, and they begin to see themselves as others see them.

I realize this may be murky waters, so let me give an example. Before the age of three, children have little to no concept of self, their entire being is an “in the moment” sensory experience. Then at the age of three, an ego is formed (Berman calls this moment of self-awareness “confiscation”) and they begin to live life as if they were watching themselves in a movie. Except instead of watching it from a movie screen, they are seeing it in the way other people look and interact with them. As the children get older and become adolescents and adults, this experience of being looked upon is deepened and entrenched further. As I said before, this is where the insecurity is conceived. Going back to our definition of self-conscious, it’s the transition from being aware of oneself and one’s own being, to being excessively aware of being observed by others. It’s from here that advertisers move on in their process of exploiting vulnerability, using insecurity in their advertisements to create a more docile consumer.

The experience of being advertised to is a similar sensation to that of your therapist selling you all the products he thinks would be good for you. According to world-renowned Professor Sut Jhally in his article ImageBased Culture, advertisements essentially sell you your emotions. They don’t necessarily sell you the product itself, but the desire or feeling that is attached to it, or wrapped inside. He uses the example of the diamond ring. The diamond ring was transformed into a symbol of love during the middle of the 20th century. When buying a diamond ring, you’re aren’t buying a piece of rock, but love itself. Since then, it has become the standard for any engagement and is the epitome of success. For those who are successful the diamond ring is desire for the establishment of their success; And for those who aren’t successful, it is a challenge to prove themselves to be as such. This, in my opinion, is one of the most blatant examples of advertising exploiting the insecurity of it’s consumers, and it has been around for decades. How much has grown from this? What has it lead to?

Research was done on the direct correlation between advertisements and whether or not they induced an increased awareness of self. In the article The Self-Activation Affect of Advertisements a study was done to see if beauty enhancing products in an advertisement would make women become more aware of their self, more-so than if they saw the product in a non-advertisement setting. In the study, 66 women were asked to be a part of two experiments. Unbeknownst to them, they were not separate experiments. The first experiment showed a select group women an eye shadow product in an ad and then to another group of women the same product outside of an ad. The next experiment involved the women reading a short story in Wezwe, a language spoken only in New Guinea. Fifteen words were underlined, which they were told were pronouns, and they were asked to try and identify which pronouns they were. The experiment hoped to show that those who viewed the beauty product in the advertisement would recognize more “I, me, my” pronouns as opposed to those who did not see the product in advertisement setting. It was a success. The women who saw the advertisements identified more “I, me, my” pronouns in the fake language than those who did not see the advertisement. All it took to activate a sense of self-awareness, which we now know is a deep seated insecurity, was a glance at a beauty ad which showed a product that alluded to “making the consumer more beautiful.” This connection of advertisers and their advertisements, to the consumer and the activation of self and desires, is seemingly obvious. That is after all the point of advertisements: to make you want to buy their products. But increasingly with modern times, advertisements have begun to surround us, and we as a society now take them for granted and do not ask why or how we are being taken advantage of. The analytical minds are receding into docile ones and a viscous cycle has been created. A cycle where we rely on others to guide us in our commodity purchases, economical decisions, and personal choices. Just as we had seen with the women in the study, it was not the product itself that instigated the insecurity, but the advertisement. Our insecurity is just a string for the advertisers to pull and use against us. They know this, and they profit from this. We must break this cycle by becoming self-aware - for our own sake.

In this paper I was hesitant to create the idea of cultural docilism. But it’s clear from the way advertisers prey on the instability of their consumers that it’s time to recognize the problem and do something about it - thus providing label to the problem seems appropriate. Responsibility of fair market lays in the hands of both the consumer and producers - when one group slacks, the other takes advantage or falls. By presenting people with their lack of awareness and opening their eyes to the greed of corporate America, we can begin to balance things out again. It starts by setting boundaries on the advertising industry and setting a higher standard for the consumer. Fundamentally, we need to realize that ads and consumer insecurity are both false messages that derive from another false: the current definition of the phrase “self-conscious.” We only need to look further to realize that we are oneself, we are our own being.

Bibliography

Berman, Morris. Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Print.

Jhally, Sut. "ImageBased Culture." The World and I. The World and I Online, July 1990. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Masci, David. "The Consumer Culture." 9.44 (199). CQ Researcher Online. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Trampe, Debra, Diederik A. Stapel, and Frans W. Siero. "The Self Activation Effect of Advertisements." Journal of Consumer Research 37.6 (2011): 1030-045. JSTOR. Web. 5 Feb. 2012.


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