The title of Professor Sut Jhally's Cultural Life Series lecture was a bit ominous—“Advertising & the End of the World” —but the closing message that he delivered to the students assembled in the Pepsi Forum on JWU's Providence Campus was anything but.
Looking at the world through advertising
“Everyone is sponsored by someone,” Jhally said, speaking to the extensive reach present-day advertising has. “From the sky to the ground, nothing is out of reach.”
He went on to outline how advertising and consumerism have slowly infiltrated and influenced our society and culture, and how popular media is the vehicle they've utilized to reach their target audience. “This discourse is the ground on which we live; it's the lens we use to understand the world around us,” Jhally said.
Throughout the presentation he played various television commercials to illustrate the various emotions he claims advertisers play on. From Chrysler's Drive=Love campaign to Herbal Essence's “urge to herbal” spots, each ad encouraged a relationship of one kind or another with a product.
“Ever since the 1920s advertising has been used to link products to social values,” Jhally said. “We want love and friendship...and advertising points the way to it through objects.”
So what about this “end of the world” business?
Jhally argues that this practice of developing—or being encouraged to develop—relationships with products rather than people has created an individual-focused society. This mentality, he believes, keeps us from discussing topics that need to be addressed collectively, such as poverty, homelessness and climate change. Our inability to ignore advertising's messages and focus on collective fundamental changes worries Jhally, but he's still hopeful.
“The images capitalism uses to sell itself are not what define capitalism,” Jhally said. He went on to explain that the images of families, of strong societal bonds, of racially inclusive communities, of happy couples, that are so dominant in advertising don't accurately depict what capitalism is, but instead are what it needs to use in order to sell its products.
“It [capitalism] uses images of values it doesn't believe in to keep us as consumers,” Jhally said. But the images it does use reflect the values we aspire to, he continued. The fact that these advertising images remain so inclusive and positive reassures Jhally that there's hope for us yet.