When I teach my course on the history of consumerism, commodification and advertising, I often like to talk at some point about my favorite paradox about choice and agency in liberal democratic societies. From the last quarter of the 19th Century to the present, advertisers have periodically been assaulted by accusations that they somehow subvert or distort the ability of people to freely make their own choices. The more sophisticated version of this attack followed on Vance Packard’s famous The Hidden Persuaders: an assertion that advertisers had happened upon a technology of human consciousness that allowed them to not only understand but alter the way people thought, change their minds in some way that subverted conscious will. Packard’s reliance on particular forms of psychological thought has faded, but the accusation remains as a kind of substructure of popular culture.
To accusations like Packard’s, which really do run in cycles in most liberal democracies, advertisers habitually reply that they’re just providers of information, that nothing they do can subvert the essential autonomy of people to decide for themselves what they do or do not want. I have to say the advertisers had (and still have) a point: one of the startling things for me in researching the history of children’s television was having to acknowledge that the advertisers often had a vastly more sophisticated understanding of both children’s culture and children’s consciousness than various parental advocates and associated promoters of moral panic.
Still, there’s an amusing paradox here. Every once in a while, manufacturers go through a rather different cycle of skepticism and anxiety in which they ask themselves (and then ask others), “Do we really need advertising? Is there any proof that it really makes a difference, or that particularly good campaigns reliably yield superior results?” To which advertisers usually reply, “Oh, my, yes, you need us. Look, we can prove it: our particular campaigns can make people want your product more than they want the other guy’s product, regardless of whether your product is in any objective sense the better one.”
A modest contradiction. But one really not all that unique to advertisers. I was struck by this reading about the attempts of Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority to restrain alcohol advertisers from implying that getting drunk with their product leads to a greater chance of getting sex. The request of the regulators? Show the sexually attractive “Lambrini girls” snagging an old unattractive balding guy rather than a young hunk. Now like many people I suspect that even if you thought advertising illegitimately subverted the will of sovereign individuals, this would merely lead to more ugly old balding guys drinking Lambrini. I’m more interested though in the fundamental incoherence of the idea behind the entire regulatory apparatus.
You start either with an assumption that people are sovereign, consciously choosing individuals or that they’re not. If not, a whole boatload of things fall away: democratic elections, legal contracts, and all advertising, not just some of it. You can chart a bit of a middle course by talking about transparency, that sovereign choice can be compromised by the lack of information. But there’s no respect in which an advert with a young guy being caught by young women is more parsimonious in informational content than an advert with an old, fat, balding guy (except maybe that the second ad is a more accurate portrayal of how powerful senior men secure sexual services entirely without the aid of alcohol). You can only sustain this regulatory gesture by arguing that young men are systematically less able to exercise sovereign individual judgement than old men, and cannot read themselves out of a visual representation, that they are helpless before it.
This all has a lot to do with why I absolutely loathe George Lakoff’s crippling talk about “framing”. It’s a fatal dalliance for the Democrats, an invitation to think that the only reason they’ve lost elections is that they don’t subvert the will of the proles as effectively as the Republicans. This is fatal partly because it feeds into some of the subsurface elitism of some Democrats, and invites them to destructively Olympian and vanguardist attitudes. But it’s also fatal as a more general conception of politics: you can’t believe in the ability of people to choose (with whatever provisos and limits you want to put on that) while also preaching corrosively that it’s just a matter of slickly framing things to divergent communities’ prerational and ahistorical way of being in and seeing the world. Now I happen to think and hope that this will someday also be the downfall of the Republicans, that eventually some of their voting base will see that they’re being played. But if I want to understand why that hasn’t happened yet, I need to be just as interested in what it is that the voters see from within their social and personal worlds as I am in the kinds of rhetoric and appeals that is connecting with their vision. I need to assume that somehow a genuine connection has been made even if it’s one that is not in the ultimate interests of many Republican voters.
The same way that anybody sensible would concede that if a lad in England assumes getting drunk with women may help him score that weekend, he’s probably right in some respects. Maybe not with the “Lambrini girls”, but the regulators are stupid in assuming that the average lad thinks that in the first place. If you want to say, “Look, I’m not sure that turning your brains into porridge every weekend in order to score is the world’s smartest choice,” you can’t start by “framing” the issue, or by regulating it into nonsense.
Update: I’ve got the sexualized hook (literally as well as figuratively in this case) backwards: the targets of the campaign are women. Lots of other good and persuasive objections to my thoughts here in the comments as well.