Wednesday, December 23, 2009


In Britain and indeed Europe, we are consumers. We do what the capitalist system expects and needs us to do - we buy things. Nowhere is this clearer than in the snaking queues at department stores this Christmas.

Trapped in this conformity of action, we turn to images and objects - we are now defined by the objects we own, rather than the deeds we do. We buy objects not for what they are, but for what they seem to be - even the most simple of objects projects a complex brand identity, a kind of appealing hologram; turn it to the light and see it for what it really is. Adverts are the way that companies project an object's identity, exaggerating the product's powers and personifying it, giving the product human characteristics: family-orientated, environmentally concerned, caring, macho, attractive. Every object now has a human face: its brand.

Advertisers are personifying objects here, this is metaphor on a vast scale, only the metaphors are deceptive rather than descriptive. In literature, a metaphor will shed light on the true nature of the object. In design, the ad acts as the product's false face - a mythic mask which seeks to conceal the ordinary, unethical origins of the product, giving it a heroic backstory and alter ego.

Instead of being given real information about the product - where it was made , by whom, under what working conditions - we consumers are given a brand, a name, a 'face' via advertisements - thus we choose the object on the basis of its projected persona, and overlook its inherent value as a product. Through these objects' personae, we seek to define ourselves too: just as we choose friends to reflect well on us, so we choose our brands on the basis of what they say about us.

Yet the only thing they say about 'us', the human race, is that we are easily fooled. An advert is not purely the face of an object; collectively adverts form the cultural surface of our society. They change the way we look, think and talk. They distract us from the reality of the product and the world, and they falsely reassure us. Nescafe, endorsed by G. Clooney, is trusted by consumers who like the actor. Distracted by his catchphrase 'what else?', which suggests that there is little 'else' beyond the realm of this advert and his reassuring smile, consumers forget to ask questions about Nescafe's business dealings with third world coffee growers. We are distracted from the political reality.

Interestingly, people have taken to advertising themselves on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, consciously shaping alter egos and mythic masks, projecting a new flawless version of their identity out to other people. The internet is perfect for this, as its mixture of image, text and sound enables full-scale advertising and content does not have to link to reality in any way: images and sounds can be created on the computer, virtually, without any need to resemble external reality.

Thus with the internet we move towards a virtual world with little need for stable, fixed reference points in reality. We have search engines that can 'read' the internet and programs that can 'draw'. Though the internet was created and interpreted by people in reality, its importance as a cultural phenomenon lies in its capacity to detach from the real world.

Of course, artists and graphic designers have always looked beyond reality during the creative process. I'm not calling for a return to purely realistic art. The world of the imagination and of visual arts is a wonderful place. But it's dangerous that this world is no longer free- that it is being exploited by companies to deceive and brainwash - rather than stimulate and liberate consumers.

(This post was inspired by a lecture at Middlesex University and none of it is particularly original, just a synthesis of ideas I've heard about advertising, hyper-reality and the internet).