With the surge in technology, social media and advertising have percolated from the outskirts of our existence to the core. Neither are supplemental to our lifestyles, but rather, the spinal chord, creating entertainment and sustaining consumption. From the grocery store to the bank to the gym to the office there is constant connection to people and ads through the millions of apps that camp out in pockets and handbags. As more and more daily life is lived through the internet via iPhones, Kindles, and Tablets, there is an incessant reminder of not only what can be bought, but also what 1,000 of your closest friends are doing at this very moment.
I was up late the other night, thinking about a blow dryer called the T3 Featherweight. It boasts 63% faster drying time and is actually (and I quote) better than air-drying your hair. I’m not sure if that’s for appearance sake or individual strand/follicle health, but regardless, I’m more than interested. Us curly haired girls would likely move to Mars if it meant controlling frizz, so why was I (literally) tossing and turning over the anticipated purchase of the T3 Featherweight? Two hundred and fifty dollars is clearly cheaper than packing up my belongings and jetting off to a planet that only might support life, so why was I dithering about a one-time purchase that would change the fate of my hair for life – or, at least, until the T4?
The next morning I realized I was in a T3 Featherweight dilemma because, deep down, I knew I couldn’t justify it. It’s an effing blowdryer, for Christ sake. Conair makes a purple one for twenty bucks and yet I was fixated on this white metallic version, clearly made for the gods (and don’t be fooled, the gods would never be seen drying their hair with Conair).
Advertising has this bravura for exploiting sex and beauty and manipulating us eager consumers into thinking happiness is no more complicated than purchasing a better hair dryer. In the course of a pithy 30-second ad I am convinced that whatever I have (no matter how much) is insufficient, insipid, and in serious need of replacement by something superior.
It is with great artifice that Ketel One, for example, convinces the audience that men who drink Ketel One don’t just pick great vodka, they’re also likely good at sex, know exactly what to say to your parents, and would never ever wear a fedora in a restaurant. Similarly, owners of the T3 Featherweight not only have badass hair, they’re also full-lipped, with elite hip-to-waist ratios and never get yeast infections. They take pride in their appearance and are the envy of all wet-haired and dry-haired women alike. How else could you justify spending the equivalent of a plane ticket on a blowdryer?
But the wooing of consumers is not a one-way courtship. Consumers enter the loop of advertisement through social media. Now that every second is a possible stage performance—every outfit, every meal, and every vacation posted before our friends and followers—there is the opportunity for self-advertising via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
There’s a reason it takes so long to take the perfect selfie, why certain components of lunches are left out of instagram photos (anything with a Mcdonalds wrapper is out, but Voss water bottles, vegan anything, and perhaps overpriced greek yogurt in exotic flavors like acai-ginger are in).
Not unlike what advertisements do to consumers, through social media we are able to create a façade. But it is not only ourselves that we showcase – it is a self that is supplemented (re: improved) by the products with the most persuasive advertisements. We are engaged in a symbiotic relationship, a web of delusions built on a foundation of appearances and fantasy.
How does such a web work? It starts with the advertisements, many of which have to do with the price of the product. Advertisements for expensive products feature beautiful men and women with lustrous voice-overs sometimes with Tigers or other exotic creatures (These are quite unlike the Bounty commercials where the mundane is not only okay but celebrated, so long as the product increases convenience). With expensive products it’s as if we can transcend the banality of daily life and enter this new world of ethereal perfection and the ticket is with the purchase.
Worry not if your job sucks (the job that funds your Gucci Fendi Prada), because Fridays after 5pm you get your Mastercard out and Manolo Blahniks will make you forget whatever the week held—walk a mile in those shoes and you’re no longer subject to the mediocrity of the rest of us plebs.
It’s not even about designer brands or luxury goods, it’s just about buying whatever is at the top of the line; be it chocolate, shampoo, or window cleaner. Have you seen those high-end chocolate commercials featuring women with luscious red lips eating chocolate in an orgasmic trance? Or the perfume commercials that are nearly pornographic? Higher end products have advertisements that state clearly that to be desirable, you need their product.
But what use is it to own expensive things or even to be beautiful if no one sees it? I doubt anyone posts Instagram swimsuit pics for their own self-awe. It’s a masquerade for an audience behind their iPhones, fingers poised on the like button. Pictures are taken and posted so that we can sell our lifestyle. We sift through our experiences for the pictures that encapsulate our most enviable persona. We don’t want the whole persona anyway. We want the glitz and the glamour, the ethereal. We want exactly what is projected in advertisements, exactly what isn’t real.
But so what? Does it really make me a terrible person because I want a blow dryer that effectively tames my Einstein frizz to a glossy mane? After all, these activities are fun, and what’s so wrong with fun? Is it a terrible thing to be conspicuously consuming?
Perhaps yes and perhaps no, but to do so blindly is to do ourselves a disservice. What advertisements and social media have both succeeded at is capitalizing on our vulnerability. What we want to feel is worthy, but you can’t sell worthiness the way you can sell sex and beauty. There’s hardly a way to romanticize and play up worthiness -- because what does worthiness even look like? It is far more elusive than seduction and power. Instead we are teased with falsities of how much better our lives could be. We feel envious after seeing advertisements and to reciprocate that feeling we post to social media sites so that others may feel envious of us, to desire to be like us they way we desire to be like the people in the ads.
Social media and advertising share that yearning, the exploitation of our weaknesses. In a day in age where the lower tiers of our hierarchy of needs have been met, worthiness and acceptance become the greatest challenges. As a result it has become crucial to our social status not only what we own (heavily influenced by advertising) but how many people we can get interested in what we own (social media), as this is how to build self-esteem and respect (at least according to advertisements). We feel envy, we spit out envy, we fall victim to the deception, and turn quickly to our iPhones to reciprocate it. We are in a self-perpetuating conundrum where appearance is highly valued, and how we appear fundamentally determines who we are. There is a definitive shift away from any intrinsic component of the self, and instead an extrinsic conformity to what advertisements project and what we assume will be a source of intrigue to our social media friends.
I cannot calculate how many hours of the day I myself am bombarded by advertising– much of which I probably don’t even perceive. Nor do I necessarily perceive the degree to which buying a certain product makes me feel worthy and esteemed. I want to retain my shape in this shiny virtual alternate reality, but fun and entertainment deserve a place in life. It is undoubtedly fun to Tweet and take selfies and shop for a new spring wardrobe based off of what the girl in the Free People ad is wearing. A year or so ago I got rid of Facebook and I felt incredibly out of the loop. I still feel out of the loop because I don’t insta or tweet and my Pinterest was late updated in August. I want to connect with my peers but I don’t want to spend the majority of my day behind a screen, promoting my persona or prowling profile. Such a lifestyle could be the onset of a warped Platonic world, where real-life has become the shadows of forms existent only in social media.