As a citizen of Los Angeles, I’m accustomed to being visually accosted by aggressive and often repulsive billboard advertisements. What else is one to look at: the concrete barriers and dilapidated warehouses walling in the freeway?
Countless times have I lamented, or at least whined, to friends and family about the autonomy violation named advertisement. Inherently deceptive, purposefully manipulative and aesthetically nauseating, I complain. They make people want what they can’t have, such as a computer-generated hot bod, and ‘need’ what they can’t afford, like a device with a name like ‘Fab Ab Belt’ that will supposedly spit out the hot bod during Saturday breakfast.
The ads make…? people want. Well, maybe that’s a hasty conclusion.
Since the beginning of July, I have been in various parts of England, traveling and studying. The English, at least at first, seem abysmal at selling things in comparison to the rabid LA market. I could count on one hand how many billboards I’ve seen, and those only in London, not the highways. No blimps to speak of.
No wonder, thought I, that Brits seem less materialistic than us Southern Californians and, in general, metro-Americans. No wonder women wear less makeup, cars are economical and TV shows have more ‘wit’ and less ‘glam’. By hook or crook, they’ve managed to escape our demons of consumer hooks and business crooks! Envy.
Of course, I exaggerate. England has advertisements too, but they are usually subtle. TV ads might have story lines that carry on for years, and the product usually takes a backseat to a joke or interesting interchange. Ads targeting personal appearance insecurities are remarkably infrequent, an alien concept to LA. Ads, in general, are remarkably infrequent, an even more alien concept to LA.
So then, we’ve been doomed and the English are saved. ‘The man’ creates advertisements, and ‘the man’ decided he liked the California climate.
Or maybe it doesn’t work that way. Maybe California decided it like ‘the man’.
Does that imply that SoCalians are naturally lacking some economic integrity to resist ‘billboard culture’ that the English possess?
It doesn’t seem so. We’re just more, well, capitalist, and I’m pretty sure that’s yet to be conclusively determined a vice, no matter what Jerry Brown might imply.
Advertisement research specialist Barbara Phillips, by going back to the seminal period of western advertisement, the Industrial Revolution, demonstrates the relationship between capitalism and ads:
Consumers did not know how goods were made, nor by whom, nor for what purpose. At the same time, individuals had less time to spend seeking information about the increasingly complex goods in the market. Consequently, consumers had a difficult time assigning social meanings to goods. They were unsure what the goods they bought “said” about them… The sweeping social changes described above left individuals clamoring for a source of social guidance, and advertisers were happy to step into the void.
In other words, when we don’t know what we want, we at least want someone to tell us what we want.
Every advertisement and every blinking billboard is a shared text, for better or worse. Each one begs the questions, “What are we missing?” and “What have we left behind?” Maybe it’s time we started talking about billboards and perhaps even attempt to answer their questions.