The Consumer Ideology: The Purpose of Ads

This is a short excerpt from Michael Parenti's book Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, a book that explains the ways in which the media influence and manipulate the public's perception of reality. The full text is available in ePub form here.

The obvious purpose of ads and commercials is to sell goods and services, but advertisers do more than that. Over and above any particular product, they sell an entire way of life, a way of experiencing social reality that is compatible with the needs of a mass-production, massconsumption, capitalist society. Today the family and local community are no longer the primary units for production, recreation, and self-definition. Role models and emotional attachments are increasingly sought from those whose specialty is to produce and manipulate images and from the images themselves.

People have always had to consume in order to live, and in every class society, consumption styles have been a measure of one’s status. But modern consumerism is a relatively recent development in which masses of people seek to accumulate things other than what they need and often other than what they can truly enjoy. Consumption is no longer just a means to life but a meaning for life. This is the essence of the consumer ideology. As propagated through mass advertising, the ideology standardizes tastes and legitimizes both the products of the system and the system itself, representing the commodity-ridden life as “the good life” and “the American Way.” The consumer ideology, or consumerism, builds a mass psychology of “moreness” that knows no limit; hence the increase in material abundance ironically also can bring a heightened sense of scarcity and a sense of unfulfilled acquisition.

The consumer ideology not only fabricates false needs, it panders in a false way to real ones. The desire for companionship, love, approval, and pleasure, the need to escape from drudgery and boredom, the search for security for oneself and one’s family, such things are vital human concerns. The consumer ideology does something more pernicious than just activate our urge for conspicuous consumption; like so much else in the media and like other forms of false consciousness, consumerism plays on real human needs in deceptive and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

One of the goals of advertising is to turn the consumer’s critical perception away from the product—and away from the system that produces it—and toward herself or himself.4 Many commercials characterize people as loudmouthed imbeciles whose problems are solved when they encounter the right medication, cosmetic, cleanser, or gadget. In this way industry confines the social imagination and cultural experience of millions, teaching people to define their needs and life styles according to the dictates of the commodity market.

The reader of advertising copy and the viewer of commercials discover that they are not doing right for baby’s needs or hubby’s or wifey’s desires; that they are failing in their careers because of poor appearance or bad breath; that they are not treating their complexion, hair, or nails properly; that they suffer unnecessary cold misery and headache pains; that they don’t know how to make the tastiest coffee, pie, pudding, or chicken dinner; nor, if left to their own devices, would they be able to clean their floors, sinks, and toilets correctly or tend to their lawns, gardens, and automobiles. In order to live well and live properly, consumers need corporate producers to guide them.

The corporate system knows what formulas to feed your infants, what foods to feed your family, what medication to feed your cold, what gas to feed your engine, and how best to please your spouse, your boss, or your peers. Just as the mass market replaced family and community as provider of goods and services, so now corporations replace parents, grandparents, midwives, neighbors, craftspeople, and oneself in knowing what is best. Big business enhances its legitimacy and social hegemony by portraying itself as society’s Grand Provider.

The world of mass advertising teaches us that want and frustration are caused by our own deficiencies. The goods are within easy reach, before our very eyes in dazzling abundance, available not only to the rich but to millions of ordinary citizens. Those who cannot afford to partake of this cornucopia have only themselves to blame goes the implicit message. The failure is yours, not the system’s. The advertisement of consumer wares, then, is also an advertisement for a whole capitalist system, a demonstration that the system can deliver both the goods and the good life to everyone save laggards and incompetents.

This is a short excerpt from Michael Parenti's book Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, a book that explains the ways in which the media influence and manipulate the public's perception of reality. The full text is available in ePub form here.