Looking out the window this morning from the train, I found myself looking at the billboards. I don’t pay much attention to adverts, but I started making a mental note of the implicit messages of each ad. Then I started jotting them down:
- You want to be financially better off.
- You like to be noticed.
- Speed is good.
- You are interested in the Olympics.
- You would like to be somewhere sunnier right now.
- Other people are hard to please.
- Nobody wants to be ordinary.
- You could be more manly than you are.
- You’re feeling a little peckish.
- Everyday life is boring.
Those are the first ten I noticed this morning, just a snapshot of the dozens, hundreds even, of coded messages we receive every day. There are some definite themes: the desire to do things faster and save time; the need to distinguish yourself and stand out from the crowd; and of course the drip-fed insinuation that your life is boring and unsatisfying.
Others are more specific. The London Olympic organising committee seems to have an infinite advertising budget and nothing to say with it. A hand cream advert suggests I should ‘man up’ with their product. The marketeers at the Tunisian tourist board have been checking the British weather reports, and rubbing their hands in anticipation.
It’s worth reading adverts a little closely from time to time, not for what we’re being sold, but to see what advertisers think of us and what they think we want. (The same goes for tabloid headlines, which insist on telling us not only what happened, but how we should feel about it: outrage, shame, envy, pride.)
The assumptions that lie behind advertising are far more important than the specific message of the ad itself. They represent the unspoken expectations of society, a kind of architecture of normality. The more we understand that matrix of social convention, the better equipped we will be to resist the aspects of it that we don’t agree with.