While the machine of commerce rumbles on, cynicism towards the smoke and mirrors of modern brand manoeuvrings is never too far from the media, or from everyday conversation. The changing face of advertising undoubtedly plays a part: fifty years ago, it was enough for companies to tie their products to a simple sense of satisfaction. In 1966, the first advertisement for ‘Hamlet’ cigars appeared, dreamed up by the Collett Dickinson Pearce agency: in each brief clip, a man caught in a sticky situation would light up a Hamlet and instantly feel relaxed. While whimsical setups like these are still de rigueur – think of the Tango ads launched in 2019 featuring a wisdom-bearing ‘Tanguru’ saving the day in awkward social mishaps – brands are under a new kind of pressure from consumers. If products can make us feel good, our heads are turned; if they can make us feel like good people, we elbow our way to the till.
When it comes to consumerism, the phenomenon of the ‘Easterlin Paradox’ has come to define how many social commentators connect purchase power and happiness. In 1974, University of Pennsylvania economics professor Richard Easterlin found that income and life satisfaction varied directly in developed and developing countries alike. This expected result, however, came with a hitch. As time went on and incomes continued to climb, happiness stopped increasing. It seemed that money could buy happiness – until you had enough of it. This paradox is often weaponised against rampant consumerism, seemingly proving that accumulating stuff won’t bring us joy. In more recent years, concerns about sustainability (meat-based junk food, fast fashion and plastic pollution among the sticking points) have escalated cultural condemnation of buying things for the sake of it: brands have had to adapt to consumer demand for more ethical-seeming products.
Over the past year, vegan versions of much-loved meaty fast foods have been rolled out nationwide. The way companies tackle the advertising of these new feel-good purchases becomes critical, as they jostle for position in the changing millennial market. At times, the handling of this new pressure can come across as somewhat jarring. Burger King’s advert for their ‘Rebel Whopper’, a plant-based version of their behemoth bestseller, centres around a bemused voiceover breaking character and asking why the chain should ‘bother’ if the vegan version tastes ‘just as good’. A hand leans into shot and spins around a soft drink cup, revealing the word ‘woke’ emblazoned on the side. One wonders how well the wokeness-taunting of a corporate giant responsible for the demise of more than a few cows will go down.
While this advertisement might be a little tongue-in-cheek, far-worse crimes have been committed by brands who’ve flogged the feel-good horse to its very last whinny. It’s news to nobody that Pepsi Max committed the biggest advertising faux-pas of all time in their 2017 ‘Live for Now’ campaign, which sees Kardashian Kendall Jenner fix police brutality by handing a cop a can of pop. The up-and-coming supermodel skulks in a shop door having her photo taken before glimpsing the generic protest (we have no idea what they’re demonstrating against, unless it’s the fact that they live in a dystopia wherein Pepsi-coloured clothes are mandatory), inexplicably snatching her blonde wig and joining the rightful cause, whatever it is. The bitter taste of this promotional misstep was well-documented on social media and in op eds the world over, to the point where Pepsi had to pull the ad within two days.
While the tanking of the campaign was catharsis in itself – and Jenner underwent public embarrassment akin only to opening a well-shaken can – the lingering discomfort of the whole affair lands resolutely at the doorstep of the consumer. Many wondered how the advert made it through several levels of executives to publication; what we should really be asking is why they thought we’d swallow it. If buying things won’t make you happy, feeling good about your purchases might: this has birthed a cynical new trend among lifestyle brands, which sees executives simply marketing our values back to us. What lies behind this increasing thirst for ethical consumerism? Why have even impulse buys become aligned with carefully considered and deeply sober world-views? The answer lies in the psychology of consumerism.
A universal truth of childhoods in late-capitalism is the existence of toy fads. Tamagotchis, Top Trumps and Lol Dolls: everyone remembers begging their parents for an overpriced piece of plastic, then rushing to school the next day to show it off. Then, as now, stuff confers status: psychologists have suggested that brand mentality encourages consumers to identify with the values associated with that brand (perseverance with Nike, or innovativeness with Apple). Seeing others sporting those favoured products makes it easy for us to mark out those that read from the same hymn sheet. While we are encouraged to compete among ourselves in paying extra for the privilege of status-conferring logos, we are vulnerable to the cynical pitching of such brands because we believe they connect us with others, and so form tribes based on apparent like-mindedness. The Caltech philosophy professor Steve Quartz has connected these modern consumer habits with those equivalents among our ancestors: ‘the very first shell necklaces some 70,000 years ago’ might have similarly been worn by particular members of a social group, and therefore have created factions that supposedly related to one another.
Where does this leave us? It’s clear that as time goes on, consumers become increasingly suspicious of advertising which unironically equates products with happiness. Post-financial crash and constantly amid political crises, it seems that big brands telling us to ‘open happiness’ (Coca Cola) or shell out to visit ‘the happiest place on earth’ (Disneyland) won’t fly like they once did. Cynicism towards brand ‘virtue-signalling’ is especially critical among consumers baffled by companies who dodge taxes seemingly without consequence. If brands can successfully remove the sheen of guilt from our consumer complexes by injecting campaigns with forced wokeness – as Pepsi decidedly failed to do – then materialism can, effectively, don a different hat and a pair of glasses and crack on. But it would pay to be wary of the feel-good fantasies increasingly conjured by big corporations. Where once we might have bought our own happiness, we’re now buying bigger dreams – but who really wins?