If you have ever tried to find a Snapple or a Coke on campus, you have glimpsed the power of advertising. There's not a Coca-Cola product to be found because Pepsi helps pay for your university career in exchange for your undivided consumer attention. Big business means big money, and big money means anything's for sale--even your university.
But do we even think about it anymore? It's difficult to not become desensitized when there's an ad on every bathroom stall, bus stop, computer screen, T-shirt and coffee cup in sight. In today's world, the line between who you are and what you buy is hazy, and advertisers want to keep it that way. "Advertisers don't have a hidden agenda. They are pretty clear in their purpose. They want to sell their product," said Dr. Greg Fouts, U of C professor and Media Psychologist. Fouts said that advertisers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their quest for the consumer dollar. It's not about what's right, it's about what sells.
"It's not that the industry is insensitive to social issues--they have to produce what we are familiar with, like stereotypes. The mass market doesn't want to be challenged," said Fouts. He said that when the gap between society's actual values and the values presented by the media is too wide, media critics and media literacy groups are formed to offer an alternate view.
With the advent of multinational corporations, the world of advertising has become a lot more complicated. When a corporation is manufacturing or buying products in one part of the world and selling them somewhere else, it has a vested interest in the trade policies and political climate in the countries in which it does business. Suddenly, advertising is not only about selling the product, but also about selling a set of values to the public that will ensure commercial success.
"In a capitalist society, the media is controlled by the wealthy," said Wesley Morgan, a member of the Revolutionary Anarchist Kollective. Groups like RAK and the U of C Development Studies Club criticize the media on a local level.
"By controlling information people get, [the media] can place restrictions upon it," said Morgan. "This sort of resistance has always been there and if it wasn't that would be scary. How far would the corporate agenda be pushed if there was no resistance?"
On a larger scale, media literacy groups like Adbusters challenge the status quo. Adbusters publishes a magazine about advertising media issues and uses venues like billboards and commercial clips to promote values that contrast with the mainstream.
"We believe that the forces corporations have at their disposal, like advertising, are so strong in our society that we need to be there to provide an alternate world view," said Tom Liacas, Campaign Coordinator of Adbusters. The organization engages in what they call "culture-jamming" by using the logos and techniques of the advertising world against itself. It raises issues such as over-consumption, environmental responsibility, and the portrayal of women and minority groups in the mass media.
Despite criticism from grassroots social activist groups that Adbusters is too slick, or that they participate in ad culture with their approach, Liacas insists that being slick is the organization's strength.
"To get people's attention, you have to use iconography and symbols that are already out there." "We get into the living rooms of North America, and have twice the impact because we use the familiar to present a totally different perspective."
Consumerism, and the idea that we choose a certain lifestyle depending on what we buy, has been a hallmark of the late 20th century.
"Consumerism is dehumanizing and promotes alienation because social life is mediated by things," said Morgan. "Consuming is passive."
Liacas believes that advertisers are promoting an unsustainable lifestyle marked by over-consumption that will ultimately lead to environmental and cultural collapse.
"People have taken on the idea of consumption as a validation of lifestyle so strongly that they express it directly," he said, adding that consumerism has become a value to the point that individuals' personal identities are wrapped up in their ability to consume. He pointed to their promotion in the US of Buy Nothing Day, an Adbusters initiative. Promoters were faced with direct anger and hostility from the public and were accused of being unpatriotic and un-American.
These groups espouse a varied set of values, from humanitarian to environmental to socialist, but are similar in their criticism of the accepted mainstream.
"Let's look at what is not being presented in the media, on TV. Where is self-sacrifice and a true connection between people?" said Fouts. "These are the human values we say we hold." Fouts believes these basic human values need to be better represented. "Resistance to consumerism comes from different social perspectives. But it does have an impact. It gets people asking questions. By maintaining a certain level of dissent people will become more sensitized," said Morgan.
Whether this grassroots resistance to the mass media will have a profound social impact is yet to be seen. The environmental movement is one example of an issue that has moved from university sit-ins to the policy tables of the G8 and the United Nations. "I'm optimistic," said Fouts. "We haven't seen a major impact so far, but there are certain times in society when certain ideas take hold. What we need is more education for children to teach them literacy and critical skills." Fouts added that this critical ability is essential in order to choose which cultural messages to accept and which ones to reject. So far, the effect of these groups has been difficult to determine. Social activists cite examples like the international coverage of the World Trade Organization protests as evidence that the movement is gaining momentum.
"I'd like to think that we are on the cusp of major change," said Liacas. "Realistically, our activity probably won't have an impact for ten years, for these ideas to filter down and affect the public's view of the media. But already people are a lot more skeptical of the media in general. We're just enabling certain ideas to come into the public mindset. We want to be the voice of these necessary revelations."