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Advertising and Identity through Consumer Culture Essay

Never before in the history of the modern world has advertising become so prevalent, ubiquitous, and an “undeniable essential” to a modern man’s everyday life than that of our century. Advertising images of all sorts, now flood public spaces: from billboards with eroticized images to the blinding electronic billboard, down to the “comfort ads” which oddly stares back in the rest rooms of malls.

Magazines and televisions are also full of products that entice the readers and the audience to buy and patronize a certain brand. Similarly, cultural events cannot be seen without a popular brand nor is a sporting event complete without a corporate ad. Indeed, advertising has become part of today’s culture and has become an inescapable ghost that dominates our media, our road, and our home.

The road towards the advertising era began its transition during the 1880’s to1920’s. It is during this period that ads focused largely on the products themselves. Products took the center stage, using heavy texts to introduce, feature and market the product. “Real” representation of people were absent in advertisements, but rather representation of people who stand for the social values such as  family structure and status differentiation were seen during this stage (Jhally, 1990, p. 228).

With the written material properly explaining visual the visual imagery, ads during this period were instructional. At the same time they were also educational as well as promotional. These ads taught the consumer audience how to read commercial messages. However, by the postwar period, education was replaced for a puzzle of numerous visual messages.

Visual images then took the limelight during the 1950’s. Texts were highly reduced and were then replaced by icons and images to allure the consumer. These visual imageries eventually took over the product. The image, rather than the product, became the main message that is communicated to the consumer audience. The once educational ads were now replaced with a hodge-podge of photos and visuals (Jhally, 1990, p. 229).

As the 21st century ushered in, the idea of “identity” was then marketed to the buying audience, convincing the public that the products they buy represent their identity; identity which can now be brought in the nearest mall and will assure not only satisfaction but happiness as well.

This paper will discuss the contemporary culture in the advertising industry as it permeates and even molds today’s idea of beauty, style, as well as identity. Similarly, it will discuss how people are influenced by this media medium by citing several studies and researches related to the mentioned topic. Apart form this, it will also discuss the benefits and the disadvantages brought about by the culture of advertising.

Ours is an era whose society is in constant struggle to find their true identity. Never before has a mankind been so engrossed in a quest for an identity, life, and beauty only to be directed to the market place. Ads that promote images with identity are prevalent. A popular celebrity endorsing this line of clothing, for instance, will give the audience the message that buying these kinds of clothes will make you happy, beautiful, or popular. Likewise, purchasing this brand of shoes will make you a part of the “cool” or “in” group.

Through these visual representations, consumers desire to be like the image they see on ads, and the consumption of this certain product will help them imagine, create, and sustain their idea of themselves, their image, and their identity.

The idea of beauty is perhaps one of the most capitalized and used advertising ideas. Numerous magazines often represent a beautiful woman as someone who is skinny, blond, tall, and has a porcelain-like skin.  These faces are evidently plastered on every magazine cover. Of course, a brand logo is placed along side the photo of the model as if saying: You can be just like me if you use this brand”. Aside from this, almost every celebrity has the same body type. A small or fat woman would consequently mean that she is not conforming to society’s image of beauty, which therefore automatically makes her ugly.

With all of these images, it is no wonder why millions of girls from different parts of the world accept the idea that in order to be beautiful, one should look like a cover girl or a celebrity. This also means that buying that certain skin care line or wearing the same brand of clothes would automatically transform them as they conform to the idea of beauty as well as their identity.

In a report which studied the consumption patterns of youth, consumers regard consumption not as a mode of cultural activity, but rather as a rationalized process of fulfilling their desires. This means that a number of individuals actually believe that buying a product will fulfill their desire to look a certain way. Since their idea of perfection is duly represented by images of stunning models and celebrities, their pursuit of what is perfect can only be realized by using the same products or items that these models endorse.

Although these ideals of perfection somehow give directions to the consumers, the truth is the images presented are first and foremost unattainable. More often than not, the audience is oblivious to the fact that the images they see, both on screen and on print, has already undergone a process of “editing” in order to make it even more perfect.

The idea of beauty did not used to be boxed up with the idea of being skinny. In fact, during the prehistoric times, women are portrayed not as a wafer thin woman but rather as a full-bodied female with breasts, hips, abdomen, and thighs. The statuette called Venus of Willendorf for instance, has been revered as a goddess of beauty and fertility. Similarly, the statuette Venus of Moravany and Mal’ta are both revered because of their physical attributes.

These images of beauty however, began to change as advertising emphasized the need to fit in a size two dress. This is particularly used by companies who promote diet and weight -lose products. Likewise, other manufacturers and business also saw the need to create slimming pills, slimming tea, and so much more. This eventually led other manufacturers to create clothes that will emphasize a woman’s thin frame.

Apart from a person’s physical attribute, a person’s lifestyle is also used as a handle by the advertising world to create a market-based image. According to the same report, more than half of the young consumers believed that the products they buy represent their identities and lifestyle in some way.

For them, identities are expressed in a variety of products such as shoes, clothes, cosmetics etc. Even seemingly trivial things are supposed to express their lifestyles. For instance, 36 percent of young males answered that their choices of telephone/ mobile equipment represent in some way their identities, and 63 percent of young females think that their choices of hair salon is a representation of their identities (Report on Youth Consumption Trend, 1994, p. 114).

The one hour documentary entitled “Merchants of the Cool” is perhaps one of the most scathing examinations of how popular culture and advertising are entwined together.

Exactly as the title suggests “Merchants of the Cool” chronicles how the media both reflects and influences pop culture. A large amount of money is paid to “cool hunters” in order to find out what is cool and what is hip. This information is then coursed through mediums such as the television. MTV for example, pay its “cool” audiences as well as the hosts and performers to attend to their party to make it look even “cooler”. Behind all these happening, there lies a big logo of a soft drinks brand. Much like how a ventriloquist controls a puppet, it is also the same with how a company and how advertising is behind how the image of “coolness” is presented (Frontline, 2001).

This construction of a sense of identity, according to British sociologist Robert Bocock (1993), can be seen as a process which may make use of items of consumption such as clothing, footwear, popular music or sporting activities, including being a supporter of particular music groups, singers or soccer clubs. Such consumption patterns could be used as a central means of defining who is a member and who is outside a specific group. It is through material items that eventually determine an individual’s social group, which then ultimately gives him or her identity.

A brand is a powerful tool that associates commodities with consumers because it symbolizes various elements of the product so that consumers have relative liberty in finding the association between their identities and commodities. The visual images, even the endorser of the brand also plays a crucial role in alluring the consumer to believe that by purchasing this product, you will become like me or that you will be popular or will have an identity like mine (Bocock, 1993, p. 4).

However, the more important question is how does an individual associate his or her identity through the purchase of a certain brand or a certain product? The research mentioned above illustrates the characteristic mentality of a young consumer. “I do not care about what other people choose. I think of design as an important consideration when I choose things,” and my choices of commodities express a part of my personality.”

This statement underlines the prevalent belief that the freedom of choice of the consumer leads to the expression of his or her identity. In other words, since it is the choice of the individual that made him or her wear this particular pair of shoes, this particular pair then represents the identity of the individual who made the decision. Representative form of their self-identities derives from the individual level; individual consumers make a decision by themselves to buy things in order to express their own identities (Hattori, 1997, p.10).

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