Advertising Is Making You Unhappy


"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable." - Nancy Shalek, advertising head of the Shalek Agency

I'm happier today than I've ever been in my adult life. I say this not to brag; more so it surprised me when I reflected on it. There are a number of reasons for this change. For one, I've become eternally grateful for the life I have because I know how fragile it is and how it changes. Suffering awaits all of us. So I try to be present with the joy I feel right now. This is my version of a spiritual life. Also, I work for myself, doing work I absolutely love. That has been a game changer from the grind of the 9-5. 

But there has been another underrated aspect to my newfound happiness: the lack of advertising in my life. Sometime in the last year, I started to watch a lot less television, and it's the point now where I maybe watch 2 hours a week. This doesn't make me better than anyone of course, but I knew I wanted to read and write a lot more, and that watching television would just distract me. 


Also, I'm on social media a lot less too. (I still use twitter too much, though. These Parkland kids have sucked me in! And I don't feel bad about it.)  In addition, I live and work in neighborhoods that are working class or immigrant-dominated or business districts. There is advertising, sure, but it's mostly signs for local businesses. I just don't see the billboards for the hot androgynous CK models or fancy cars I don't own that can be ubiquitous in Manhattan. 

What does this all mean? Well, I think I'm bombarded with far fewer ads than the average New Yorker. 

Change In Mindset

An amazing thing has happened since advertising has become less ubiquitous in my life: I started wanting fewer things. I felt less of a pressure to buy a home or own certain clothes or any other trappings of modern capitalist life. I mostly just want to read, write in my small, shitty apartment, play my throwback Sega Genesis, have drinks with my friends and talk to my girlfriend over a nice meal. There's a nice simplicity to it all. What's the need for more? Am I actually lacking anything?

But that's where advertising gets you: it tells you are not good enough as you are. The epigraph at the top is a morally corrupt but not-untrue quote. Advertising's whole goal is to make you feel insecure about who you are, so you will buy their product. The implicit statement being, our product will make you whole. 


Just look at the CK ad I posted above. It is communicating a lot to both men and women. It gives women a completely unrealistic view of what a women's body should look like. (In reality, to look like that you have to eat very little and work out a lot. And Photoshop helps a lot too). And it's suggesting that people who wear CK are sexy and cool Don't you want to be sexy and cool? And for men, it suggests that this is what beauty looks like, and this is what we should desire. It means that our regular old relationship doe does not live up to that billboard and we should desire more. Maybe buying CK products will help. 

Most of you think that you're probably above being influenced by advertising. I encourage you to examine what it is you desire. The truth is our thoughts are not our own, that they were given to us by the society we live in. The truth is most of us are so disconnected from who we really are and what we really want, that we cannot see that we are living in the default mode of modern consumerism. 

How Do We Counteract Advertising?

To put it simply: we need a society-wide reimagining of values. Getting stuff is all about extrinsic values. You get stuff or get status to look good for the outside world. What's needed is a shift toward intrinsic values.  

What are intrinsic values? Let's start here: what are the things that actually bring you joy? Maybe it's hanging out with a friend or playing an instrument or dancing or watching the Godfather movies for the hundredth times. The commonality between all these? Each of these activities is done just for the joy of doing them. They have intrinsic meaning. For most of us, they are actually what makes for a meaningful life. But most of us, because of the pressures of modern, neoliberalism, think about extrinsic values far more, and it's killing our souls. 

I know talk of intrinsic values comes with a lot of privilege. Mostly because the people who get to pursue their intrinsic values generally have better educations and/or look a certain way. (A single mother without a college degree rarely gets to pursue her intrinsic values obviously.) I don't mean to discount anyone's experience or oppression. But what it tells me is that focusing on intrinsic values is just one step on a wider spectrum to change society. Ideas like narrowing the inequality gap, gun control, and universal basic income are needed to balance the playing field that is the jaded meritocracy of modern neoliberal living.  

I know these are crazy thoughts. Why would any of this change anytime soon? I don't know. But I don't know any other way to think. The only other choice would be to give up. And for me, that means there really isn't a choice at all.