21 April 2014

The New Time Religion of Advertising

One of North America's foremost media theorists, Sut Jhally is professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and founder and director of the Media Education Foundation. He has written numerous books and articles on advertising, social communications and cultural politics. In the following interview with Kalle Lasn and Nicholas Racz, conducted in the Vancouver offices of 'Adbusters' magazine in 1993, professor Jhally suggests that modern advertising has become a cultural force resembling a religion. He implicates this 'new time religion' in the culture of consumerism threatening to bring about environmental collapse on a planetary scale. The way out of this mess, he suggests, is to mount a 'reformation' in attitudes toward ourselves.

Adbusters Quarterly: You talk a great deal about advertising as religion. Please elaborate on that.

Sut Jhally: Advertising has increasingly come to provide answers to those same questions that religion often raises. How does the world work? Where do I fit in? What is a moral life? But I don't think advertising is a religion in the same way that Catholicism or Islam are religions. The religion of advertising operates at the level of the everyday. It's close to the kind of religious practice called fetishism that existed in West Africa, in which people believed in God but also worshipped magical spirits that populated the ordinary places in which they lived. Those spirits can influence, not the big problems, but the small problems. They can influence the question about how to get better, how to heal yourself and how to enhance your sexual, romantic and family lives. That's where advertising fits in. It creates a world in which goods come to play all kinds of magical roles in our daily interactions. The religion of advertising is based upon a magic in which goods instantly can cure us of all kinds of ailments, instantly make you more attractive or act as a love potion. Buying the right good can act as a sort of passport into a magical world of consumption, a magical world of style.

AQ: Which religion is more powerful?

SJ: I would say it's the religion of advertising. We pay lip service to these other religions, we may go to religious services for an hour or two a week, but they don't dominate our lives. We live in the media culture 24 hours a day. This other vision is pumped at us constantly from all the media. Advertising is so powerful because it recognizes the real things that people want, the things that make people feel: friendship, love, security, some kind of autonomy. Advertisers use our real desires, our need to belong, for identity, for love, for friendship. That's why those images are so powerful.

AQ: But most people don't believe that advertising has that kind of power.

SJ: I think North Americans live in the most powerful and most effective propaganda system in history. Especially in the United States, people really believe that the media are free. A propaganda system only works if people think that they're in a free system. So if you know you're in a propaganda system, it ceases to work, which is why the Soviet Union fell apart overnight.

AQ: You make it feel like an eminently solvable problem, that all we have to do is simply make our propaganda system apparent to more and more people.

SJ: Except that you have to have access to society, and those media channels are already monopolized.

AQ: Did this propaganda system, this new time religion, just creep up on us? How did it happen?

SJ: It happened as a result of struggle - people struggling to see who would control public space, who would control cultural institutions and the public airwaves. There was a battle in the U.S. in 1934, which resulted in the Federal Communications Act in which commercial interests got the best airwaves. The people with other visions of broadcasting - were shunted off into the salt mine. Now that was the the result of a battle, and it's a battle that in Europe still goes on.

AQ: How do we get back on track?

SJ: Through democratization of the media. The big problem we now have is monopoly control of the media. We live in a very sensitive media society where vast corporations control everything. And it's their interests that structure our vision. The way to fight that is to fight for access and argue for diversity. It was one in the 1930s, but we lost.

AQ: Hasn't this battle been fought since 1934?

SJ: No. And it's very difficult to fight in the U.S. because historically, it's tied to another issue, which is anti-communism. Freedom in the U.S. is tied up with the freedom from government. It's a very specific American notion. I've always been struck by that. Americans have a very narrow definition of freedom. They think that if you can be free from government then somehow you're free. There seems to be no way of conceiving that there might be other entities as well that could pose threats to freedom. I think what's required is an enjoining battle over what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution really means. The First Amendment is a very interesting document, because it links up three freedoms - freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom of action. This supposes that when different ideas are expressed, then consensus will automatically develop from this free exchange. That 'Congress shall make no laws...' is no longer enough. We need to realize that there are now other powerful ways to limit free expression and debate.

AQ: In the underground art circles there is already a powerful realization that our mass media, especially television, are not free.

SJ: But it's on the fringes. The key question is how to get this realization from the periphery into the mainstream.

AQ: So how do we do that? How do we see through this religion and catalyze a 'reformation'?

SJ: It's an important question, because I actually believe the survival of the human race is at stake. We're now coming to a stage in human history when that notion of unlimited growth can no longer go unquestioned. The physical limits of the planet are literally bursting at the seams and if we keep producing at this rate, the planet will destroy itself. What we need now is a vision of society that is not based upon ever increasing numbers of goods. The 'reformation' will be a questioning of the very nature of economic growth, the health of our society, what we want it to do and how to organize it. The growth ethic is about consumption. It says happiness is connected to the number of things a society produces and the number of things individuals have. But having said that, I don't know how to do it. We can talk and analyze the situation, but when it comes to constructing that new vision, I don't know how to do that. The advertising vision has mobilized people around a set of social relations in which they ultimately lose, but with which they identify very strongly. It provides answers to questions that they ask. For the first time in human history, huge numbers of individuals are able to experience and explore their own needs and wants. It's not just manipulation, and it's not just a question of showing people that they're being fooled. Unfortunately, what we don't have yet is an alternative vision, an alternative way of thinking about ourselves. I think for the future of the planet, we need to develop that alternative vision and mobilize people around it. That's the challenge.

[The foregoing was originally published as 'An Interview with Sut Jhally' in Adbusters: Journal of the Mental Environment, Vol. 2 No. 3, Winter 1993, pp. 22-25. Portions of the interview were excerpted from Media and Values, No. 57, Winter 1992. More at Sut Jhally's homepage and the Media Education Foundation.]

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