Sunday, September 25, 2016

Thou Shalt Feel Inadequate

Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness.
A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.

—Marshall McLuhan

consumerpowerOne primary engine of the modern world is the selling of things, services and ideas. Enormous problems arise for us when we fail to recognize the insidiousness of the advertisements/messages that are directed at us on a daily basis, relentlessly vying for (and consistently winning) our attention.

In today’s world we are all exceedingly vulnerable to internalizing the thoughts, beliefs and feelings that advertising agencies and marketing departments endeavor to induce into us. Make no mistake—they are a skilled, experienced, hungry, well-organized and well-funded bunch, and the more effective they are, the more money they make. Thus, they have no problem working overtime to ingeniously craft and deliver messages that will cause you to want/believe certain things, or more importantly, to feel insecure, inadequate and defective if you don’t have/believe them. No, I am not a conspiracy theorist; in fact, such ideas about modern consumerist society have been thoroughly researched and well documented by a number of academics and/or writers, including:

Juliet B. Schor “Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture”
Alissa Quart “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers”
Stuart Ewan “Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture”

Fascinating, enlightening and often disturbing stuff.

thou shalt want what we want you to want

Behavioral psychology was by far the dominant school of psychology (in universities and professional scientific journals) throughout the early to mid 20th century, and the father of this movement is generally thought to be John Watson. In 1922, he left his academic research position at Johns Hopkins University to work in advertising, and ended up becoming a vice president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Of course it’s a free country, and he had every right to follow the money. I only wish to highlight that it shocks the mind a bit when you begin to appreciate the sophistication and scientific precision of the methods that have been used over the past 90 years. Used for what? To influence and shape what we want, what we prioritize, what we expect in life, how we see ourselves and how we relate to each other—all from a profit-seeking and competitive (rather than humanistic) perspective.

Sociologists might ask, “What impact has this had on the development of modern society?” As a therapist in NYC helping clients with depression, anxiety, anger management and codependency, I talk to many of them about (1) the culture of perfectionism/shame that the world of marketing/advertising/media often promotes; (2) how those influences get internalized by each of us; (3) how such toxic influences intersect with and get filtered to us via family dynamics (as parents are not immune to such influences); and (4) how to undo and unlearn the self-defeating patterns of thinking and behavior that grow out of this cesspool of perfectionism/shame and how to replace them with healthy habits of thought and action.

thou shalt pursue perfection (via our products)

Unsurprisingly, the so-called beauty and weight loss industry stands out as a particularly pernicious example of this phenomenon. Basically its implicit message is: “You’re not lovable or acceptable, but you could be if you buy these products.” Let’s remember that the daily obsession of any industry is to perpetuate itself, to survive and thrive. To do this, each industry must make itself important and relevant by carving out space in our hearts and minds for its brands, narratives, messages, and of course, its products and services.

For example, when I see “acne-reducing” commercials for “skin-care” products, I get nauseous. This innocuous bodily process has been dramatized and demonized beyond belief and turned into something akin to a plague. The dread and horror that young people (especially young women) are made to feel about developing acne causes untold amounts of unnecessary stress and anguish. Yes, I went through some hell in this regard as a teenager back in the early 80s, but modern teens and young adults have much more to contend with than I did because today’s media is so much more relentless, well-organized, smart and pervasive—and it reaches into every aspect of modern life, 24/7, constantly reminding teens and young adults that they are “less than…unacceptable…not lovable…ugly…fat” and all the other nonsense that vulnerable young people are brainwashed into believing. Really sad.

thou shalt be alone forever (unless you buy our products)

Most images and ads from the beauty and weight loss industry play upon the human need to be accepted and loved. Advertising/marketing theorists are well versed not only in behaviorism but also evolutionary psychology, systematically seeking to capitalize on the unconscious human fear of being cast-out or banished by the tribe, arguably the most primitive and fundamental fear we humans have. Thus, almost all ads can be boiled down to:

“Purchase this product/service and you will be accepted by the tribe (because you’ll be wanted and desired) – or – fail to purchase this product/service and you will be cast out by the tribe (because you’ll remain an unattractive loser). Now choose!”

using mindfulness to deconstruct media

We cannot control at all what messages/narratives the advertising and marketing worlds seek to direct at us. And we have only partial control over how often we are exposed to such messages. But we absolutely do have much control (if we so desire) over what we DO with the media messages that we encounter and what we DO with the automatic reactions (i.e. thoughts and feelings) they produce in us. As the saying goes, “We cannot control what happens to us, but we CAN control how we choose to respond.”

To uncritically ingest and consume the dizzying array of modern media is to lose our souls. Thus it is of the utmost importance that our daily lives include a serious practice of being mindfully aware, as often as we can, of what thoughts and feelings are arising in us in response to modern media. When we see their images and hear their messages, we need to simultaneously be aware of how they impact on us, by pausing and reflecting:

– What thoughts and associations are getting triggered?
– How does that make me feel?
– What behaviors usually grow out of those feelings for me?
– What values/beliefs are they trying to get me to adopt as my own?
– What values/beliefs do I want to embrace and use to guide my daily living?

Self-awareness is key, but it is equally important to grow in awareness and understanding of the world and how it works. Personal learning and growth in these ways sets the foundation for taking responsibility at a new level for creating a mature and conscious relationship with all aspects of our social environments—rather than being passive pawns in (or victims of) other people’s agendas.

Chris Kingman lives with his wife in Park Slope, Brooklyn and has a full-time private therapy practice in Manhattan, NYC where he works with adults and couples. Follow Chris on Twitter or Facebook.

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