There are many annoying things about advertising.
How loud and in your face it can be,
The way you are sold a product through an (often highly polished and unrealistic) image of a coveted lifestyle,
And the way women’s heads are periodically removed from their bodies:
But one theme in advertising that has been bothering me lately is this: That to be ordinary – to be anything remotely like anyone else – is unacceptable.
Advertising is something I try not to pay too much attention to, mainly because when I look at most ads the standards they imply through photos such as those above strike me as unfair and unrealistic. Like a strange pseudo-reality, or a fictional narrative in which one has to suspend one’s disbelief to get very far, ads frustrate me from how removed they often are from everyday life.
And yet, as frustrating as they can be, ads are part of everyday life. As Hank Green explains eloquently here, advertising functions on the premise of creating ‘need where no need exists’ – or in other words, on the very ability to get into our daily lives and show us how, in one way or another, we are missing out. And so, I hover between being frustrated by tag lines such as ‘Never Hide’ and ‘Do Not Dress Like Child‘, and interested in the ways in which advertisements can inform us about the cultures in which we are living.
When we look back to vintage ads like these below, we get a glimpse of what the dominant social values were in any particular time and context. Advertising provides us with valuable resources for understanding different times, cultures, and societies, as well as the dominant values, standards, and views of those societies. In this sense, advertising carries immense cultural weight:
Ads reveal what’s perceived as ordinary, or perhaps more interestingly, what should be considered ordinary according to the dominant standards of the day. But as well as this advertising can function also, for better or for worse, as an active cultural force: A feedback loop that reflects, but also sets and shapes the standards for how to live, or how to live ‘well’.
When musing on wealth and advertising in the South of France, Hank Green observes that ‘this is a place where people to go to realise how much they don’t have’. This feeling, however, when applied not only to what people have but also to what people are, becomes a frustrating and even destructive one. Ads that are designed to remind people how much they aren’t contribute to the notion that to be ordinary is not good enough. To be remotely like anyone else is failure.
‘People want other people to know that they are important, and that they matter, and that they are powerful and cool’ continues Green. But there are many serious downside of this, the first being that such thinking makes it easy for us to forget how extraordinary even so called ‘ordinary’ day-to-day life can be. The fact that we can buy what are effectively little heated and air-conditioned rooms on wheels and zoom around to the far corners of the country is actually….pretty insane. Especially when you compare it to when people had to walk everywhere. That we can walk around with bionic metal pieces in different parts of our bodies, that we can buy a ticket to board a flying metal tank that will deposit us and our families safely onto another continent – these things are actually really cool. In the midst of what we take to be ordinary there is actually some pretty amazing stuff happening. Every day.
So whilst browsing through pages and pages of highly polished models and shiny new products, after a while they all started, oddly, to look the same – even when reminding us to ‘be more’, be ‘extraordinary!’
I was reminded of this quote from The Plague by Albert Camus, when the narrator muses on a character called Joseph Grand. Grand is a modest man who joins a team of volunteers who try to combat the plague that sweeps Oran, and not much like a hero by today’s standards. Even as he is working with the volunteers, Grand becomes obsessed with the first sentence of a book he is trying to write. In his spare time he dedicates himself to getting this sentence absolutely, perfectly right, which might seem like a trivial goal to those with their eyes on bigger issues. Yet despite this the narrator tells us that,
…it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
Grand obsesses over what is, in the grand scheme of things, probably an insignificant project. He has also, as the narrator tells us, ‘only a little goodness of heart’. And yet despite this there is something extremely heroic about him and his dedication to his task. There is nothing shameful about his ordinariness, and I think, therefore, that there is much that we can learn from him.
I’m not saying that it’s not great to have new ideas and be different – the world needs people who are willing to challenge dominant standards and ideals. But we are all also, in many ways, very ‘ordinary’, and there is a danger in setting our standards too far above this fact. All of us occasionally miss trains, trip up the stairs, and blurt out awkward things at parties. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, some of the best moments in life arise out of our very ordinariness, and even our imperfections.
How much more impressive is life supposed to get? This is the question that advertising has not a hundred, but a million answers to, and something that I suppose I am trying to encourage a wariness of with this post. In taking a step back from advertising, and in becoming aware of the feeling of manufactured discontent many advertising campaigns try to sell us, we open up our eyes to the world as it actually is, and ourselves as we actually are – as well as all that remains beautiful despite the imperfections. In the words, again, of Hank Green, ‘real happiness doesn’t come from being the biggest fish with the most people tripping over themselves to be like them, it comes from being personally secure in yourself and your life and your values and your future. That has something to do with money, but definitely not everything.