A lot of advertising is oddly like domestic abuse

In 2003 I watched an excellent documentary called The Corporation. Its central assertion was that if companies were people they’d be criminally insane:

Continuing that theme, I think it’s possible to compare much of the world’s advertising to the Modus Operandi of a domestic abuser.

Here are some of the things domestic abusers do:

  • Telling the victim that they can never do anything right
  • Embarrassing or shaming the victim with put-downs
  • Looking at or acting in ways that scare the person they are abusing
  • Dictating how the victim dresses, wears their hair, etc.
  • Stalking the victim or monitoring their victim’s every move (in person or also via the internet and/or other devices such as GPS tracking or the victim’s phone)
  • Preventing the victim from making their own decisions
  • Telling the victim that they are a bad parent.

In addition, many use psychological tricks to keep victims confused. They might be insulting one minute and apologetic the next so the victim never knows where he or she stands.

So how many ads suggest that you’re doing the wrong thing by using Brand X instead of whatever they’re selling? Or implying, through the use of idealised models or lifestyles, that the way you do things simply isn’t good enough? Are you too fat? Too ugly? Poorly dressed? Maybe your hair isn’t shiny enough. Perhaps you could look slimmer on the beach this summer. Does your home need a coat of paint? Are you reading the wrong newspaper? Are you feeding your family properly? Did you buy the right phone?

I’ll just reiterate that not all advertising does this, but plenty does.

People are rarely aware of their identities being influenced, subsumed or removed, poster by poster, Instagram ad by Instagram ad, tweet by tweet, but it’s happening all the time, all over the world.

Why are you going to the gym? Did you feel bad when you couldn’t afford that shirt? Why such a strong urge for a new car?

And what about the stalking? You thought you had some privacy, but no chance: you looked up that pair of shoes just because you were bored. Ten minutes later an ad for those same shoes appeared on Facebook. Did you just Google Amnesty International? That must be why you got a message from them in your Instagram feed.

Has a big corporation made you feel like you’re mean/stupid/uncaring lately? Why do you say ‘throw like a girl’, you heartless bastard? Why didn’t you notice that little girls are strong enough to stand in front of charging bulls? And those poor women who describe themselves as uglier than a random stranger would? That’s all your fault. Even though P&G (LIke a Girl) has been perpetuating gender stereotypes for decades, State Street Global Advisors (Fearless Girl) has been the subject of a class action lawsuit for the contents of securities they sold, and Unilever (Dove Real Beauty Sketches) has for years flogged Lynx by objectifying hundreds of women to an audience of adolescent boys, you’re the bad person. And the reason why they’re pointing this out? To make money, of course. And if you feel bad as a result, well that’s just collateral damage.

And the mixed messages… How do you know where you are? Beautiful women are great! No they aren’t you sexist pig! You should be the kind of fun guy who likes a flutter! But gambling’s so wrong! Hey, why not drown your sorrows in this beer? Because you should be at home feeding your kids a nutritious meal! Then wear these clothes! No not those; these, you tasteless berk!

Positive advertising can persuade you to buy something just by telling you how great it is. Unfortunately, with so much homogeneity in today’s products, most advertising needs to conjure up something more than a simple product demo or message just to stand out. And who suffers as a consequence? About 7-8 billion people, with their figurative fat lips, black eyes and psychological scars, that’s who.

(By the way, I’m fully aware that I may have both created the above kind of advertising in the past, and written positively about it on this blog. Sorry about that.)