Sunday, November 6, 2011

Teevee

Advertising is essentially the largest mass psychological experiment ever carried out on human society. And it has been done with no oversight, no regulation, no supervision, and absolutely no sense of ethics. If the effects of advertising on society had been observed in a small psychological experiment (depression, malaise, self-loathing, envy, etc.), the experiment would have been terminated on ethical grounds. The destructiveness of advertising on the human mind simply cannot be overstated.

With that in mind, here is a terrific column that ran in The Guardian by George Monbiot about adverting. We tend to think we know who the enemies are that are destroying society - banks, corporations, etc. But we neglect the role that advertising plays in our overconsumption:

George Monbiot: Sucking Our Brains Out Through Our Eyes
Invention is the mother of necessity. To keep their markets growing, companies must keep persuading us that we have unmet needs. In other words, they must encourage us to become dissatisfied with what we have. To be sexy, beautiful, happy, relaxed, we must buy their products. They shove us onto the hedonic treadmill, on which we must run ever faster to escape a growing sense of inadequacy. The problem this causes was identified almost 300 years ago. In Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, the hero remarks, “it put me to reflecting, how little repining there would be among mankind, at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that are worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complainings.” Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves to those we perceive to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate.

But perhaps the most important impact explored by Think of Me As Evil? is the one we discuss the least: the effect it has on our values. Our social identity is shaped by values which psychologists label as either extrinsic or intrinsic. People with a strong set of intrinsic values place most weight on their relationships with family, friends and community. They have a sense of self-acceptance and a concern for other people and the environment. People with largely extrinsic values are driven by a desire for status, wealth and power over others. They tend to be image-conscious, to have a strong desire to conform to social norms and to possess less concern for other people or the planet. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and to report low levels of satisfaction with their lives.

We are not born with our values: they are embedded and normalised by the messages we receive from our social environment. Most advertising appeals to and reinforces extrinsic values. It doesn’t matter what the product is: by celebrating image, beauty, wealth, power and status, it helps create an environment which shifts our value system. Some advertisements appear to promote intrinsic values, associating their products with family life and strong communities. But they also create the impression that these values can be purchased, which demeans and undermines them. Even love is commingled with material aspiration, and those worthy of this love mostly conform to a narrow conception of beauty, lending greater weight to the importance of image.

And economist Jeffrey Sachs looks are our obsessive television watching an sees the destructiveness it has had on society:

A Nation of Vidiots: Jeffrey Sachs
True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average – a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world – though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges – typically related to food, sex, and status – create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.

The same, of course, has happened to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody – and any idea – can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle.

One thing seems certain: society after television is markedly different than society before it. And the results seem to be universally awful. In fact, what Sachs is saying was argued by Jerry Mander in his seminal work: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, a book which had a profound influence on me when I first read it. Mander argues in the book that a. the nature of a technology dictates how it will be used, i.e there is no such thing as a "neutral" technology, and b. Television is too harmful not to be regulated. Until you read the book, you have no idea exactly how much this glowing box has changed our society, our politics, our business, our relationships, and even our inner selves. And yet it's completely invisible.

Here's a review of the book. As relevant today as when it was written (if not moreso).

And speaking of mass psychological experiments, I wonder what would happen if a major country actually decided to follow Mander's argument and ban television outright. The last country in the world to not have television was Bhutan, which allowed in 1999 (mainly because of the World cup finals). I can find surprisingly little coverage of the results (hmmm...). One of the things I did find was this:

Fast Forward Into Trouble (The Guardian)
How quickly their ancient culture is being supplanted by a mish-mash of alien ideas, while their parents loiter for hours at a time in the Welcome Guest House, farmers with their new socks embossed with Fila logos, all glued to David Beckham on Manchester United TV. A local official tells us that in one village so many farmers were watching television that an entire crop failed. It is not just a sedentary lifestyle this official is afraid of. Here, in the Welcome Guest House, farmers' wives ogle adverts for a Mercedes that would cost more than a lifetime's wages. Furniture "you've always desired", accessories "you have always wanted", shoes "you've always dreamed of" - the messages from cable's sponsors come every five minutes, and the audience watching them grows by the day.

There is something depressing about watching a society casting aside its unique character in favour of a Californian beach. Cable TV has created, with acute speed, a nation of hungry consumers from a kingdom that once acted collectively and spiritually.

Bhutan's isolation has made the impact of television all the clearer, even if the government chooses to ignore it. Consider the results of the unofficial impact study. One third of girls now want to look more American (whiter skin, blond hair). A similar proportion have new approaches to relationships (boyfriends not husbands, sex not marriage). More than 35% of parents prefer to watch TV than talk to their children. Almost 50% of the children watch for up to 12 hours a day. Is this how we came to live in our Big Brother society, mesmerised by the fate of minor celebrities fighting in the jungle?

Everyone is as yet too polite to say it, but, like all of us, the Dragon King underestimated the power of TV, perceiving it as a benign and controllable force, allowing it free rein, believing that his kingdom's culture was strong enough to resist its messages. But television is a portal, and in Bhutan it is systematically replacing one culture with another, skewing the notion of Gross National Happiness, persuading a nation of novice Buddhist consumers to become preoccupied with themselves, rather than searching for their self.

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