Airplane Advertising And A Homogenous Consumerist Agenda
It seems today, with the economic crisis wreaking havoc on business and increasingly focusing our attention on the immense debt we have all found ourselves under as a country, that advertising is cropping up in places that even two years ago would have been unacceptable to most people. Take for example my recent flight to LA on US Airways. After having negotiated the terminal and what always seems to me a conspicuous consumption wasteland put in place to offset the boredom associated with the inevitable downtime involved in flying, I made it to my seat. I then proceeded to pull out a book I was reading, Sociology on Culture, Hall, Neitz, Battani, unlocked the tray table and let it fall to my lap. As I brought my book up to rest on this retractable surface I was greeted by the advertising punchline, "Droid Does Mexico." Upon further inspection, this advertisement or "Care Cover" (as it was referred to in small type at the upper right hand corner) was provided under the auspices that is was anti-bacterial and had been graciously donated in an effort to increase safety and health on my 6 hour flight to the west coast. While I was unsure if I felt like resting my hands on a surface that used the antimicrobial properties of silver to prevent natural life processes, I simply peeled off the 3 "Care Covers" in my aisle and went along reading. It wasn't' until the flight was nearing its end that I decided to write this post.
"Ladies and gentleman, thank you for flying US Airways. We have a special promotion available to our inflight customers we would like to take the time to tell you about before we land in Los Angeles." A 5 minute pitch was then read by what I assumed was the captain. He explained that Barclays, a company making a name for itself with situational advertising placement, had teamed up with US Airways for an unprecedented Frequent Flyer credit card that simply blew the competition out of the water. Free roundtrip tickets, double miles, triple miles, who the fuck knows. I tuned out as fast as I could and watched a stewardess pace the aisle with informational pamphlets and registration forms. As expected there were only a few takers and most of those seemed only to oblige the stewardess' offer out of kindness and again, boredom.
Ad creep is not a new phenomenon. It has increased at an unprecedented pace over the last decade and a half for a number of reasons. New technologies have made new ad formats possible and decreased the cost of many others, advertising saturation has made it necessary to find alternative ways of advertising which often look new but are simply old ideas placed into new contexts, and lastly it seems ad creep has proliferated as society has come to accept the notion that in a time of fiscal crisis we cant be choosey about where ads are placed because in fact they are a necessity in order to continue to operate our services, (private or public) at levels we have become accustomed to.
While I do not believe this is true, the old arguments against encroaching ads were aesthetic and relied on a sense of taste and respectfulness. The "Care Covers" adorning my tray table would have been offensive not too long ago as peoples sense of duty to advertising was less than their sense of duty to their selves. The addition of advertising to my tray table, while being an aesthetic nuisance was also an affront to me as a customer. I had paid good money for the services provided by US Airways and in turn expected they would treat me not as an impression, but as an intelligent human being. Somewhere along the line this relationship between business and customer, government and citizen, has regressed and increasingly we see large institutions willing to break that code of conduct which kept us safe from a limitless barrage of commercial intrusions.
While this new conduct might highlight a newfound disrespect, I think rather it exemplifies a lassie faire attitude towards public space and ultimately the larger cultural atmosphere that we live in. In our society, the word culture means many things and the United States is not short on variations. It is these variations and the richness of experience that they provide which we as a nation claim as our most distinguishing characteristic. In New York, the melting pot is a term widely used to describe the affluence of cultural differences which makes the city what it is, the cultural capitol of the world. It is then this melting pot which we must respect and brace against oblivion if we are to retain the richness of our lives and experiences.
Culture is not a fixed term, but rather a constantly negotiated system of values which we choose to adhere to as groups. Culture, or cultural beliefs help us negotiate our communities through similarity and difference. Sometimes culture expresses our morality and through stories and social relations unique to certain cultures, that culture's morality is expressed and passed on. In this way culture becomes an important tool with which to reiterate social values and pass on the best, or worst of ourselves. Racism, sexism, antisemitism, and anti gay attitudes are all cultural motifs which many of us would not align ourselves and in doing so we assert our difference from those cultures which might permit such behavior. In this way we see cultural narratives have an immense affect on the trajectory of our society and the communities we live in. For this reason hasidic culture can seem incredibly insular but the fact of the matter is that this insularity is merely a way of preventing other cultures from wearing at the long standing moral values which hasidic culture deems important for a virtuous and fulfilling life.
What then is the culture that commercial advertising pushes and what are the moral values which this culture of commerce comes to identify? This is a question we must all think about very seriously. While "Droid does Mexico" might not seem to express any overt morals, its role in a culture of commerce does begin to speak to the culture that we are living in in America today. The Industrial revolution may have made goods cheaper and therefore spread wealth to all, but the resulting mass market it created has resulted in a culture of consumerism we might want to take a long look at. Consumerist culture is about the individual, the goods and services you purchase reflecting your cultural status. Through consumerism we tend to negotiate our position in a societal hierarchy based on what we own, its value, and increasingly its newness in a constantly updated market of goods.
Advertising, being the engine of the mass market promotes these consumerist ideals to the maximum affect. In fact it is through advertising that we have the most contact with consumerism. You might find yourself in a mall, overwhelmed by the consumption options, or watching a child throw a christmas morning tantrum after not receiving what they wanted from Santa, and witness the bold face of consumerism gone wild, but advertising's ubiquity is surely the most important force reminding us of a consumerist culture and therefore promoting a consumerist morality. While this train cannot be stopped, one could potentially opt out of those vehicles which bring advertising to your door. Television can be DVR'ed, radio can be public, arriving late to the movies you can skip the 20 minutes of commercials (although you might not get a seat). In this way you can deny advertisings appeal to convince you that a consumerist culture is relevant and in doing so object to a morality based around personal fulfillment. The problem I see is the intrusion of advertising on our public spaces, and environments in which we have no option but to consume consumption.
The proliferation of advertising media in public is destructive because it forces consumer culture on an unwitting public, but also because it is so ubiquitous, that it begins to create a single homogenous culture of consumerism. When we are all looking at the same ads, promoting the same consumerist morals, it is not long before we all begin to share a similar consumerist identity. This becomes very difficult for a country intent on keeping its cultural variety intact and a society which prides itself on a plethora of cultures and therefore moral values. While the "Droid Does Mexico" advertisement may not be the harbinger of doom that I have cast it as, it does reflect a phenomena I think we must all pay close attention to as we negotiate our way in the future. What is at stake is the fabric of our society and our commitment to a cultural morality befitting a great nation.