Each and every day we’re bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands of images that are trying to convince us that we’re not good enough as we are.
You guessed right, I’m talking about advertisements.
The advertising industry has one and only mission: to persuade us into buying stuff with the promise that it’ll bring us happiness. But how exactly does it achieve that?
By first making us feel like shit.
“Look, this shiny, attractive and popular actress is sporting this swimsuit and by purchasing it you’ll feel sexy and successful like her.”
“Look, this handsome and confident businessman is driving this luxurious car and all the babes are begging to sleep with him like crazy. Get it and within moments you’ll get laid with more beautiful women that you could have ever imagined.”
The message implied in advertisements is simple: As you are, you suck, and you need to be different to not suck. Here, get this product and you won’t suck anymore.
Once they convince us that we suck, we do as they tell us, because who in the world wants to be a sucker?
You might be thinking: That’s bullshit! I’m not affected by those stupid ads.
Well, almost everyone I know says the same. I admit, I used to think like that too. But the truth is that we’re all affected, although in most cases we aren’t even aware of it.
Ponder on this: why would companies invest most of their money on advertising, if it wasn’t effective?
Advertising is all about persuasion, and those who are good at it see tremendous financial gains. But for persuasion to work at its best, it needs to happen subconsciously — that is, it needs to bypass conscious reasoning and take place on an emotional level. That’s precisely why we don’t know that it’s influencing us.
Let me offer you an example. When you are exposed to a Coca Cola ad again and again, at some point you become so accustomed to it that you unconsciously associate it with certain positive psychological states (such as love and joy), and so next time you go out to buy a drink, you grab the Coke can without wondering why. You buy it just because you were persuaded to, while you’re under the impression that you did solely out of our own conscious decision.
‘Yes Girl’ – 1946 Cardboard Coca Cola Poster by Haddon Sundblom
I could go off on a tangent about the different tactics the advertising industry is using to manipulate us, but the point is that, as all big marketers know, great advertising is sneaky and its basic objective is to lower your self-esteem (with its ultimate objective being, of course, to sell you some crap in the name of happiness).
Starving for Connection
If you’re feeling shitty, there might be a good reason to blame it on advertising. Yet the advertising industry itself is nothing but a natural outgrowth of our profoundly sick society, where deception and competition are an everyday reality. Indeed, advertising would barely be as effective in a society where people were honest and worked together for the common good. In fact, in such a society advertising as we know it wouldn’t exist at all.
Because of the competitive world we were brought up in and have to endure on a daily basis, most of us feel disconnected from our fellow humans. Of course, when others are constantly trying to maximize their personal gain at your expense, how can you feel a loving connection to them? You can’t. Rather, you feel threatened by their presence. To protect yourself from them, you build big walls around you. And for a while, you feel safe and secure. But eventually you experience the painful consequences: loneliness, anxiety, depression.
As every psychologist knows, humans are highly social beings — that is, we all have an inherent need to connect and share with others. Connection is crucial to our emotional health, and when we don’t find it, we suffer. No wonder in our disconnected society what we deep down crave more than anything else is to open our hearts and connect with other people. We want to feel a sense of belonging to community. We want to feel loved and accepted. We want to feel heard and understood.
Human disconnection is deeply affecting our psyche
But it’s not just that we’re disconnected from people. We’re disconnected from nature. We’re disconnected from creativity. We’re disconnected from play. We’re disconnected from meaningful work. We’re disconnected from a multitude of things that are vital to our well-being.
Now this might sound terribly bad, but from the market’s perspective it’s not bad at all. In fact, to the market that’s the best thing that could ever happen. Here’s why: the more problems you have, the easier you can be emotionally manipulated and financially exploited.
“Do you feel lonely? Don’t worry. Just pay $2000 for this escort and you’ll be in the company of an affectionate being.”
“Do you feel that your life is lacking adventure? This can easily be fixed. Buy these pair of Jordan sneakers for just $199 and you’ll feel like a basketball superstar.”
“Do you feel worried over the meaninglessness of your life? Let us help you. Get this cheap yet immensely effective pill and your mind will be relieved of distressing thoughts in just a matter of seconds.”
We may not be aware of it, but the main reason we keep on buying stuff is to find connection to those things we’ve lost and we emotionally starve for. The cunning ones in the marketing business know this very well, and are trying to exploit our insecurities through deceitful advertising just so they can empty our pockets and fill in theirs. By purchasing this or that product, they make us believe that we’ll feel satisfied and content. Yet no matter how many products we manage to acquire, we always end up feeling sad and unfulfilled.
Substitutes Won’t Help
Shopping can never emotionally satisfy us because it provides us only with substitutes of what we’re longing for. And although it can at times bring us a temporary feeling of completeness and euphoria, that is soon followed by disappointment and a sense of inner emptiness.
Acquiring a fancy car may help attract a lot of eyes on you, and for a while this could make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. You might start thinking that people appreciate you and would love to be in your presence, which in turn might bring you some egotistic gratification. Yet this won’t be enough to satisfy your psychological need to genuinely connect and intimately bond with people who actually embrace you for who you are and not merely for what you have.
Getting a 14-day return ticket to some exotic part of the world and staying there in a 5-star hotel that provides you with all the luxury you desire can help you to forget the painful reality of everyday life, and might even make you feel like your life is filled with adventure and joy. Yet before you realize it you’ll be forced to get back from your happy holidays and face the harsh truth that was there awaiting you all along.
Obtaining clothes from expensive fashion brands in an effort to feel beautiful and special might work as long as you’re in the company of individuals who praise you solely based on your appearance. But when you are on your own or in the presence of people who don’t care about your looks, status and wealth, you won’t help it but feel that old familiar voice creeping in your mind again, whispering that you’re ugly and unworthy of love.
What some call “retail therapy” is actually a symptom of psychological dis-ease
Substitutes offer nothing more than a quick fix — they work for a short while, but eventually they always let us down. Hence, to fill in our emotional void and find lasting contentment, we need to stop foolishly running after things that bring us a fleeting sense of joy, and instead pursue those ones that can truly enrich our lives in the long run. We need to stop collecting material possessions, and instead collect memories from mind-expanding and heart-touching experiences. We need to stop showing off how much stuff we own, and instead openly express our truest thoughts and feelings. We need to stop amassing financial wealth, and instead realize our inner yet long-forgotten wealth. We need to stop searching for the next thing to force us out of our chronic boredom and stress, and instead create a life that’s worth waking up to.
Changing the System
For all the above to happen, it is important that we realize what truly matters to our well-being and act accordingly. However, personal behavioral change alone isn’t enough. No matter how strong our individual efforts to live meaningfully, purposefully and peacefully are, the external pressures of our competitive, materialistic and consumption-driven society will most likely cancel them out. Therefore, if we want to see a lasting change happening for the benefit of ourselves and future generations, we need to focus our attention on transforming the very foundation of our socioeconomic system that is at the root of most problems our civilization is currently faced with.
I’ll try to explain what I mean with an example. A few paragraphs above, I wrote: “The cunning ones in the marketing business [ … ] are trying to exploit our insecurities through deceitful advertising just so they can empty our pockets and fill in theirs.” This might sound as if the professional marketers are some kind of evil people who don’t give a damn about others and care only about their own financial gain. The truth, however, is that they are people like you and me — people who somehow need to “earn a living” or else starve and live on the street. They might actually be quite loving and compassionate, but at the same time they need some kind of a job, and because of the market’s immense competition, it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to find/create one they like and which aligns with their values. They do what they got to do to increase their competitive advantage and keep on surviving in a harsh and unforgiving system, and in most cases that requires cunningness and deceit.
You see, our economic system is a scarcity-based system, since money isn’t enough to go around (if you didn’t know, money is created as interest-bearing debt, which means that there’s always more debt than money in existence). Therefore, we all feel compelled to compete with one another in order to stay in a position of financial security and power, and that feeds the selfish and acquisitive part of our nature. Yet the reality is that we’re living on a planet of abundance where all people’s needs could be easily met, if only we realized that our monetary system is obsolete, and worked together using our technical know-how to equitably distribute resources, instead of toiling day in and day out so as to outsmart others.
Once we stop fighting against each other and join our efforts in order to turn our world into a more beautiful place for all to enjoy, we’ll begin to feel connected again as well as to carry out work that is meaningful. Then we will experience such an emotional satisfaction that we won’t be drawn to the momentary pleasure derived from shopping anymore; rather, we’ll be able to direct our attention on those things that actually matter to our happiness and build our lives around them.