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Advertising. Ewen’s “Captains of Consciousness”

Ever since man engaged himself in the business of mass production of products and commodities, the practice of advertising has increasingly taken a central position in informing the lifestyles of people. In our daily endeavors, we are greatly influenced by the advertisements we view on the television or read in the papers. Professionally put, advertising entails a form of communication that characteristically endeavors to influence potential consumers to consume or purchase more of a specific product, brand, or service (Rothenberg, 1997). A more classical perspective viewed advertising as a tool of a social order whose sole purpose was to nullify the ages-old customs held by people, thereby effectively breaking down the obstructions of individual habits. In the process of destroying individual habits, new ways of thinking that were bound to influence consumers to buy into the ideas of the advertisers and their new products were created (Ewen, 1976). In this perspective, this paper will rely on The Captains of Consciousness by Stuart Ewen to evaluate if advertising is really as effective as Ewen presupposes and how its effectiveness has changed over the years.

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To give a brief history of the concept, Ewen (1976) argues that the media, specifically print advertisements have been used in this era of consumer culture to help instill demand for freshly mass-produced products. In the nineteenth century, various industries were only producing commodities for the upper-class and middle-class market segments. But with the revolution in production, consumption needs had to be completely revolutionalized if the industries were to survive. For the mechanism of mass production to perform efficiently, markets had to be more dynamic, growing vertically, horizontally, as well as ideally. Markets for consumer products had to grow nationally as well as within the various social classes in society. The media was especially used to persuade individuals to respond positively to the demands of mass production, hence the origin of advertising. Accordingly, Ewen suggests that advertising has been effective in bringing about a new social structure that gives privilege to the consumption of mass-produced commodities.

To date, advertisements have been effective in bringing about what industrialists termed an urgent need to change the attitudes and value systems of the masses so that they could continually purchase the commodities that were being developed. According to Ewen (1976), advertisers used the nature of human motivation to try and convince the masses to purchase the commodities. This is a concept used to date by stakeholders in the advertising industry to make it effective. By understanding the things that motivate individuals, advertising is effective in changing the attitudes and perceptions of individuals people the commodities being advertised. To date, advertising is known to persuade consumers into buying particular products through understanding their human instincts. Advertising has been effective in instilling a habitual desire on the part of consumers to involve themselves in the marketplace and extract some form of social meaning. This reinforces the thoughts of Ewen that advertisements dwell on peoples’ motivations to influence their attitudes towards certain products in the market.

Advertisements according to Ewen (1976) were also to be used to make people comprehend their social selves, other individuals, society, and the culture at large. They were to be used as the substance that influences the cultural dreams of the masses, thereby maximizing the social control of the “Captains” or the business community engaged in the business (p.81). In this perspective, advertisements can be said to have succeeded in the function of making individuals realize their social selves and the social and lifestyle differences that exist between them and others. For example, advertisements in modern society target specific individuals in the consumer culture with distinct lifestyles and values that they hold dear to them. Such advertisements have been effective in penetrating specific market segments. However, the practice of advertising has progressively fragmented society along lines of class, sex, and race rather than be viewed as a single mass market that is predictably and routinely assembled around a discrete set of entertainment and information sources. In a marked departure from traditional advertising, marketers and advertisers are now being compelled to develop advertisements that encourage individuals to disconnect themselves into more and more specialized entities, in the process developing habits and urges that stress the differences between their particular groups and others (Rothenberg, 1997).

The project of social control initiated by the “captains” was eventually accomplished through the presentation of semi-truths that were produced and depicted through a form of art named commercialized expression (advertisements). According to Ewen, the artists utilized the sensitivities of human weaknesses to manipulate the consumers into buying the commodities (Ewen, 1976, pp. 65-66). The imagery that was reproduced by these artists depicted the mass-production industry as a compassionate fatherly figure that was effective in holding society together. This form of imagery is still used to date and has quite been effective in informing consumer habits even though some of the imagery used does not rely on factual information and hence is artificial. The advertisements rely on half-truths to communicate with the consumers and thereby influencing their attitudes and consumption habits. Though illusionary, this advertising tactic seems to be effective in informing the decisions that people make towards various products offered in the market. To date, half-truth advertisements are still effective in influencing individuals’ thought processes, purchasing decisions, and unthinking habits into buying the various commodities produced by the mass market. In short, half-truth artistic expressions aired on our broadcasting channels and written in our papers have been effective in manipulating the patterns of our everyday lives. Ewen in fact argues that the images produced by our artists in form of advertisements have been effective in depicting society as rescinding in perfect harmony and balance.

According to Ewen, advertisements were introduced in the 1920s to pacify a mass industrial labor force with the message that consumption was synonymous with freedom. The reasoning by the “captains” was that the consumption of commodities made free individuals realize their identity and freedom. Accordingly, “a self-conscious change in the psychic economy” that bordered on capitalism was introduced through the indulgence of psychological insights into human nature (Ewen, 1976). This tied up the masses to a point that they could no longer recognize their own lack of freedom which was embroiled in their own misery. This made advertising to be effective according to Ewen. To date, advertisers utilize the reinforced belief that consumption of certain products guarantees individual freedom. Consumers have fallen prey to this false reinforcement and have henceforth contributed immensely to the growth of the mass-production market. We have seen cases of individuals who buy commodities based on what they see in the advertisements about how such commodities guarantee the independence of consumers. In fact, the majority of the advertisements we come across do contain a phrase on guaranteeing freedom.

Though they may have guaranteed freedom in the past, advertisements today are increasingly holding their victims hostage, while at the same time increasing their misery. They have been able to sustain the economic structure of the capitalists to the detriment of the consumers. Accordingly, advertising can be viewed as a game of the mind. The hidden persuaders have been effective in probing into the psychological indentations of the mind, effectively constructing advertisement campaigns that exploit the independence of individuals in the social world to get them to buy the commodities. In that respect, advertisements have been effective in redirecting commands into the subliminal minds of unsuspecting consumers just like Ewen presupposed. According to Ewen (1976), priorities now demand an average worker to spend his leisure time and wages on the consumer market in the quest for independence, reinforced in various advertisement campaigns.

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According to Ewen (1976), advertisements help to keep the consumers disgruntled with their way of life, thereby influencing their choices to participate in the consumption of mass-produced commodities. To date, this feature is still effective as media professionals and artists use commercialized expressions in the form of advertisements to instill a sense of disgruntlement and inadequacy on the part of consumers so as to make them purchase the various commodities offered in the market. Advertising, especially on Television, Billboards, and Newspapers, is often packaged with the most appealing imagery and an aura of freshness. A consumer viewing such an advertisement would often feel dissatisfied with the ‘ugly’ things around him and would do anything possible to secure the product that such an individual sees on the Television or reads in the papers. Due to the discontent, consumers would end up spending money on things they rarely need to satisfy their ego and self-worthiness, thereby benefiting the advertisers. To the thinking of advertisers, a discontented customer is more profitable than a satisfied customer, and thus imagery and design are used in the advertising industry to elicit feelings of discontent among consumers. This has proved effective in influencing consumers to purchase commodities from the mass-production market.

Ewen (1976) argued that advertising was basically an attempt to create a national homogeneity by heightening peoples’ dissatisfactions with their lives in relation to what is contained in the other world promised by the advertisements. This brought a mass-production system aimed at fulfilling the urges of the consumers, thereby stifling cultural and political uniformity as the twentieth century evolved, and was effective in sustaining the economic structure of the capitalists to the detriment of consumers. In modern times, this feature of individual vulnerability is still used by advertising firms to make their advertisements much more effective. But instead of creating a national homogeneity as proposed by Ewen, advertisements today have been effective in creating an obvious breakdown of social cohesion as people compete to fulfill their raw desires to own commodities they see been advertised on various advertisement mediums around the world. Accordingly, advertising has made society to be progressively fragmented along lines of class, sex, and race rather than be viewed as a single mass market that is predictably and routinely assembled around a discrete set of entertainment and information sources (Hewitt, 2007). In a marked departure from traditional advertising, marketers and advertisers are now being compelled to develop advertisements that encourage individuals to disconnect themselves into more and more specialized entities, in the process developing habits and urges that stress the differences between their particular groups and others.

The effectiveness of advertisement has also changed through the introduction of the financial interests of the consumer economy, coupled with new media and research-based distribution technologies. This has brought more social division in society. According to Turow, such advertising strategies in the new world are non-effective to the extent that they discourage the development of a central media-meeting place where individuals could meet to sample the views, entertainment, and news of each other (Rothenberg, 1997).

Modern advertising has increased its effectiveness by also moving the media and advertisers into creating tailor-made advertisements. Advertisers are creating and distributing content that is aimed at specific groups or individuals. An example is selective binding which permits publishers to tailor-make a magazine’s editorial content and advertising to fit the description of specific groups of subscribers. Such a practice has a multi-prier effect in that not only does it lure the preferred audience segments but it also excludes individuals who do not fit the desired profile. Proponents would argue that such a practice has indeed made advertising effective by concentrating the audience rather than treating the consumers as a bulk commodity. But the exclusionary schemes are enough reasons to worry for any individual interested in the dynamics of society. According to Ewen (1976), such distinctive advertising practice has led American citizens to become fragmented in their attitudes towards the desirable pace, tone, and topics of daily life.

In conclusion, it can be argued that advertisers have benefited from using conventional and non-conventional means to make the business of advertising much more effective. They have effectively relied on the psychology of human nature and mind to influence the attitudes and perceptions of the people into buying the various commodities offered in the market. All the strategies that Ewen talked about are still utilized in the advertising industry to sell commodities and products to unsuspecting individuals using the power of advertisement. Undoubtedly, advertising and the media that propels it will continue to inform the bearing of life around the world. As Ewen rightly puts it, advertisement has been used as a tool of a social order whose sole purpose is to nullify the ages-old customs held by people, thereby effectively breaking down the obstructions of individual habits. Advertisements have been effectively used to make individuals feel disgruntled with their way of life while the power of imagery and commercialized expression have also been effectively utilized to confuse the people by hiding the facts from them (Groys, 2008). But for advertisements to be more effective, they must appeal to the power of reason rather than emotion.

References

Ewen, S. (1976). Captains of consciousness: Advertising and the social roots of consumer culture. Mc-Graw-Hill. ISBN: 0465021557.

Groys, B. (2008). The obligation to self-Design. Web.

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Hewitt, J.P. (2007). Self and Society: A symbolic integrationist social psychology. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN: 9780205459612.

Rothenberg, R. (1997). How powerful is advertising in society? Web.

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