A diatribe on advertising, consumerism and cultural conformity

When trying to judge the potential benefits of any product you see advertised, the first thing to remember is that advertising often promises much and delivers very little. It was Mark Twain who once said, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

The overwhelming majority of advertising exists to create a need where no need exists; to convince you that what you bought yesterday is obsolete today or simply no longer fashionable. It’s the modus operandi of any big, commercially-minded corporation and we all fall for it en masse. We adopt the consumerist mindset and willingly surrender our brains to these people to be manipulated and moved in whatever direction happens to serve their desires to record ever greater numbers on their profit and loss accounts.

“Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it”….. Stephen Leacock

And here’s the strangest paradox of all: fashion can only appeal if a predisposition towards conformity and uniformity exists, but I imagine that most thinking individuals would view these traits, along with the general surrendering of one’s free-thinking faculties, as anything but appealing. Adherence to any fashion becomes an extremely unappealing prospect to a thinking man. In fact, if such adherence were more often greeted with the contempt it deserves then I have no doubt that adherence to fashion would soon become a very unfashionable thing indeed!

But that’s the trick of the advertisers. They’ve managed to make uniformity a fashionable thing in the eyes of the multitude. This is no conspiracy, but rather an easily anticipated evolutionary course for any free market in which ever-growing numbers of people follow fashions and trends in order to keep up with ever-growing numbers of people! It’s desperately important not to feel left out! To feel left out is to feel unnoticed, and to feel unnoticed is to feel insignificant. When a person’s self-worth is wrapped up in what others think, then feeling part of a collective and very much part of the grand scheme is likely to impart a misguided sense of empowerment and pride, even if that grand scheme happens to be the consumer culture. However, it seems to me that feelings of pride, empowerment and self-worth are far more congruous with exclusion from this grand scheme, not inclusion within it!

To reject ‘unthinking’ conformity has to be the first duty of any free-thinking individual. The degree to which you achieve this aim will often be inversely proportional to your social standing and popularity amongst the masses. This means you’re liable to be met with strange looks and incomprehension if you pursue any course in non-conformity. It may help you remain true to your course if you remind yourself that if the vast majority is uncomprehending towards you, then there’s every chance you may be doing something right. After all, ‘popular opinion is the greatest lie in the world’ as Thomas Carlyle once put it.

Despite the undeniable variations in personality which exist from one person to the next, people generally tend to interact with their culture in one of two distinct ways: there are those who unthinkingly abide by culture, and are moulded by it, and then there are those who try to maintain a certain irreverence for all things cultural and conformist. In the final analysis, it may simply turn out the latter is no more than a sophisticated variety of automaton compared with the former. All the same, I can’t help thinking that an individual’s willingness to serve, and be subject to, mass opinion is a shameful waste of a cerebral cortex. To allow oneself to become a mere product of, and plaything for, cultural norms, tradition and convention seems to me forgivable only in one who lacks a frontal lobe. I would suggest then that all our troubles come when we let newspapers, television and mass opinion dictate our thinking.

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible”….. Bertrand Russell

“Television is a medium, so called because it’s neither rare nor well done”….. Ernie Kovacs

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers”….. Thomas Jefferson

“All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”….. Network (1976)

Ok, maybe I’m taking things a little too far with that last quotation from 1970’s film, ‘Network’, which is well worth a watch incidentally, but I think you get the general sentiment I’m trying to convey here.

I gave Mark Twain the first word in this article, and since Twain’s literature is replete with earnest pleas to irreverence and non-conformity, I think it’s only fitting that I give him the final word also:

“Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.”

About Melluvahess

My name is Sean Maguire and I am the founder of Maths Made Elementary. I provide expert one-to-one maths tuition within North London to lower and upper secondary level students studying at Key Stages 3 and 4. For more information about me, and the services I offer, please check out my website www.mathsmadeelementary.co.uk
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