False Advertisement: Questions Regarding Publicity in Ways of Seeing

I’m going to be quite frank, I don’t really understand Berger’s argument regarding advertisements.  Part of my confusions steam from way in which the ad is portrayed; how, depending on whether the intended audience is either male or female, the purpose of the ad is slightly changed.  When discussing the effect of publicity images, Berger writes, “Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure.  But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms” (132).  But, Berger goes on to state, “This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it….Publicity is always about the future buyer” (132).  Berger argues that the advertisement makes an individual “envious of himself as he might be” by depicting another person, similar to the viewer himself, so that the viewer becomes “envious of himself as he might be” (132).  Therefore, Berger concludes that publicity “is about social relations, not objects” (132).  Yet, two pages later, Berger quits denoting the viewer as “himself” and begins calling the viewer of the ad as a female figure.  Like the male viewer, the female is also supposed to become envious of her future self.  However, unlike the man, the woman, will “imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will justify her loving herself” (134, italics mine).  Here, it seems that the ad aims to objectify women even further.  Although Berger argues that women are objectified by art in the third essay of the book, this statement makes little sense to me.  After all, if an ad really is about social relations and not about objects, how can it still be effective and make a woman into an object at the same time?  (As a quick note, I do realize that Berger is arguing that women are shown as objects throughout art and, as a result, came to asses and value themselves as objects.  But, honestly, I don’t get why a woman would want to further objectify herself.  Doesn’t a women want power, which would allow them to transcend their traditional categorization as objects?)

Near the end of his essay on publicity images, Berger claims that “Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society.  And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world” (149).  Even though what Berger describes does apply to many advertisements, it is not always the case, particularly when it comes to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social enterprises.  Take Lifebuoy, for instance.  In 2013, Lifebuoy launched a campaign called “Help a Child Reach 5”, which was aimed to improve the living conditions in developing countries by reducing the number of deaths resulting from preventable diseases.  As one of the world’s largest health soap brands, Lifebuoy focused on improving the hand washing habits of people to prevent the spread of diseases, such as diarrhoea.  To raise funding for its campaign, Lifebuoy launched an award winning advertisement.

However, in many of the countries in which Lifebuoy’s video was shown–such as Canada–did not sell Lifebuoy’s product.  Thus, the purpose of this advertising campaign was not to increase sales or make a person feel envious of their future self, but to raise public awareness of a global issue.  Thus, it seems that Berger has not accounted for NGOs and social enterprises in his argument, despite the fact that they make up a considerable potion of the business world.  Hence, I am wondering if there is, perhaps, a way in which operations like NGOs and social enterprises can be included in Berger’s argument?  And if so, how?


2 thoughts on “False Advertisement: Questions Regarding Publicity in Ways of Seeing”

  1. Very good questions here! As I mentioned in your small group in seminar, I think Berger’s point about ads not being about objects but social relations still fits with the claim that ads encourage women to view themselves as objects of envy for others. And actually, I think Berger’s argument applies to men too–the way he talk about envy and wanting to be the object of envy still applies to the way he talks about men in advertisements. So I’m not sure why he switches over to talking about women in that sentence. But at any rate, my thought is that the claim that ads are not about objects is that they’re not really about the object being sold but more about how people think of themselves in relation to other people. And thinking of oneself as an object of envy is still about that. But perhaps that’s not really addressing your question?

    The question about why women would want to see themselves as objects is a complicated one. I think in your small group someone mentioned that it probably has to do with how they’re raised, how they’re immersed in a social and cultural atmosphere in which that seems normal. And it was so back in the 70s in the UK, I think; it’s certainly less so here and now.

    I hadn’t realized during your presentation that the lifebuoy commercial was popular in countries where those products aren’t sold. In that case, it is quite tricky to try to fit Berger’s analysis with those ads. What was discussed in seminar, that the ads might still be about thinking of oneself as a good person for doing the right thing, and being seen to be such, probably doesn’t apply then. So, good point!

    1. Oh okay, yes, I think that Berger’s point about advertisements not being about objects but social relations makes sense when one considers his earlier argument–which states that women are viewed as objects by themselves and society–as these ads portray a woman’s social standing as an “object”. Personally, I do agree that men are objectified by ads (although they are not always objectified in the same ways women are). However, I am now confused how this would then apply to men, given Berger’s description of the social standing of men in the third essay. Here, Berger writes that “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies….The economic power may be moral physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual–but the object is always exterior to the man” (45). To me, it seems as though Berger is arguing that, in the social conventions of his time, men can never be viewed as objects–that the only objects present in the world are the things that a man exercises control over. Yet, in the essay on publicity, it seems as if ads, by making men envious of what they could be, make men introspective and force them to turn themselves into objects in order to compare themselves to the men in the ads. By doing this, ads make people realize how much better their lives could be and, thus, they become jealous of the people depicted in the ad. But, men are not supposed to be objects, they are supposed to control them, or so Berger says in the third essay. Thus, if ads are like oil paintings, which depict objects, and if men are never objects (even in oil paintings, which Berger argues elsewhere in Ways of Seeing) but are objectified by ads, then how does this make any sense? This is why I think that Berger switches from calling the viewer of an ad a “himself” to a “herself” when he begins discussing how the ad’s viewer will start to believe that they will “transformed by the product into an object of envy for others…” (134), because Berger wants to draw attention away from the fact that men are also objectified by ads (as it does seem to be contradictory to his earlier argument). But, I am very, very confused and, perhaps, I am looking at this all wrong….

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