By Darius Webb
By definition, semiotics is the “study of meaning-making,” or searching for the meaning of both the obvious and hidden signs present all around us. Nowhere in society are signs and symbolisms more present than modern advertising.
Between television, the internet, and social media, ads bombard the average citizen at every waking moment. This barrage of commercials and print ads makes being aware of semiotics more important now than any other time in human history.
Without awareness of the signs and meanings in commercials, one could find themselves head-over-heels in debt trying to “keep up with the joneses” while stuck in a shallow circle of over-consumption.
In these contemporary times, advertising and consumption have become as American as “apple pie.” For that reason, a firm grasp of semiotics and its use and functions are essential.
In the article The Treadmill of Consumption, James A. Roberts states “for every choice you make in the products you buy, from clothing to furniture to cars to electronics and beyond, is a sign, a signal you are sending to the world about yourself.”
This statement sums up the definition of consumerism in contemporary society from a semiotic perspective. Modern society encourages the public to constantly acquire the latest goods and services. Often, they use the latest trend or fad to strengthen that urge.
All over the world, the “American Dream” has been touted for close to a century, but many argue its definition has changed. Originally, this term revolved around the notion that, in the United States, hard work and determination could lead to living an upper middle-class life and provide a comfortable living for your family.
However, in modern times, the “American Dream” is living like a reality television star. This lifestyle revolves around having minimum responsibilities and acquiring the newest and latest fashion, cars, and gadgets.
Programs like “The Glamorous Life of…” and “MTV Cribs” glorified and further pushed the consumerist agenda. Simultaneously, they drove a divide among the economic classes in American society.
In the past, one’s success in life was determined by how well respected they were in their community, as well as their character and ethics. These days, however, one’s place in society is determined by the amount of material possessions someone owns.
Once upon a time, the majority of the working classes’ purchases were based on “needs.” Mindless consumption of luxury items was something only the ruling class could afford. These days though, the rise of credit has given the average person the ability to make “want” purchases
From there, the desire to give the appearance of success leads many to abuse the system. Ultimately, they risk their livelihood to maintain the illusion of belonging to a higher class. Where once consumerism was a part of American life, it seems it now has become “a way of life.”
While consumerism may be the “Batman” of our current economically driven society, we all know that no good superhero is complete without a sidekick. In this case, advertising seems to be the “Robin” of the collaboration.
Advertising used to exist solely in magazine ads or junk-mail that one could easily discard, but the creation of the internet and subsequent emergence of social media has given rise to a more personally tailored, intrusive, marketing strategy.
“In the United States alone, media buying agencies wield more than $170 billion of their clients’ campaign funds,” media scholar Joseph Turow writes. With this type of money available for advertising, competition for ad agencies to provide the most accurate and useful information on potential consumers is intense.
This battle for consumer funds has led to the use of borderline unethical tactics like tracking a person’s browsing history and travel destinations. Even income and family health history are up for grabs for advertisers. This leads to the scenario where, instead of agencies pushing products to consumers, the consumers themselves and their personal information is now the product being pushed.
In Conclusion, while the vast majority of the working class in America still struggles to provide for their families, still striving for that ever elusive “American Dream,” a different picture of our society is being broadcast around the world. This vision revolves around thoughtless consumption and living beyond one’s means.
This constant drive to acquire more has seeped into almost every facet of our society. This includes, but is not limited to, our political processes. It may be true that, at a basic level, a capitalist society can’t function without consumption and advertisement.
However, when it gets to the point that one’s value is determined by their possessions, or lack thereof, then that society’s morality needs to be reevaluated.
Advertising and consumption no longer seem to be just spokes on the wheel but have become the wheel itself that turns our society.