In a recent conversation a friend drew my attention to a crucial aspect of modern day marketing. She asked if I had noticed that almost all advertisements on the internet are fixated on what a majority of the populace already feel they lack. Her views were that if I paused to really think it through, I would find that conventional life advice, all those, always radiate happiness and doubts would flee stuff we hear most times lasers in on our perceived personal shortcomings and goes on to magnify them for someone else’s profit or gain.
After some thoughts on her views, I decided to term this the ‘Deficiency Marketing of Modern Commerce’. You learn about the best ways to make money because you already feel you don’t have enough. You pay for and take dating classes because you feel unlovable. You are told to stand before your mirror and repeat affirmations of your self-worth because you already feel worthless, and you fear to confront head-on why you feel the way you feel.
“I decided to term this the ‘Deficiency Marketing of Modern Commerce’. You learn about the best ways to make money because you already feel you don’t have enough. You pay for and take dating classes because you feel unlovable. You are told to stand before your mirror and repeat affirmations of your self-worth because you already feel worthless, and you fear to confront head-on why you feel the way you feel.”
Everywhere you look; one ad or the other is: prompting you to gain more confidence by whitening your teeth (on the premise that you lack confidence and that you are brown-toothed), or to become happier by shedding belly fat (seeing as you already blame your low self-esteem on your soft round belly), and so on.
Human wants are limitless and naturally insatiable. From our looks to our abilities, from our emotions to our possessions, there is always some aspect of our lives that we feel we can improve. I recognize that this drive to keep improving on our lives makes us who we are, and I see nothing wrong with this. It’s alright to want a set of whiter teeth, a slimmer figure or hard rock abs. I generally find nothing wrong in checking out an ad for slimming Chinese tea if that’s the chosen means of achieving your dream body weight.
My concern sets in when this fixation on only the ‘positive’ and what is ‘superior’ begins to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of all we should have been but fail to be. My concern begins when every TV commercial sells us nicer jobs, nicer clothes, prettier girlfriends or the picture perfect life as the keys to living good lives. We are constantly bombarded with so many things we ‘ought to’ care about- buy a bigger TV set, worry about a better vacation spot today than yesterday, or buy that longer shinier weave- because at the end of the day, not bothering with all these is bad for business.
Nowhere is this form of marketing more prominent than in the beauty and wellness sector where women are often the target consumers. In the words of Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, “whatever is deeply, essentially female—the life in a woman’s expression, the feel of her flesh, the shape of her breasts, the transformations after childbirth of her skin—is being reclassified as ugly, and ugliness as disease.”
This perceived ugliness is, she notes, good for business, because industries like retail and advertising—not to mention salons and plastic surgeons—are “fueled by sexual dissatisfaction.” With this kind of system in place, you cannot win. Your face and figure looks great until you get on the internet. Unless of course, you are comfortable in your own skin, a trend rapidly going out of fashion.
Now according to prominent psychologists, human beings often succumb to irrational choices in the determination of their wants. In fact, according to various studies, most people when blindfolded tasted Pepsi and Coke, and pronounced the former better than the latter. The moment they opened their eyes, they still went ahead and promptly bought bottles of Coke. This has been dubbed the “Pepsi Paradox”. Is it such a surprise then that in every corner of the social media, there is someone overly attached to the superficial, chasing a mirage of happiness or self-worth?
According to media agency consultancy Magna, in 2017, advertisers spent over $209 billion on digital ads. That being said, the deficiency marketing strategy apparently is good for business, but bad for our mental health. It eats at us from the inside out and this obsession with more; buy more, make more, flaunt more, own more, spend more, or look cooler than so and so continues to make us grumpier and greedier than ever.
There are traces of this form of marketing amongst sustainable and ethical brands too. This might sound familiar; an ad tells you how the world is going to shit because of overconsumption. Premised on the notion that you are part of the problem by buying all those things that you buy, it goes on to provide you with all the reasons why perhaps buying the wooden toothbrush on display, handmade in rural Indonesia would set things right. The message here is more subtle and less negative but is there nonetheless, if you know where to look. I know where to look, because it is our job to chip away at these system flaws.
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Now I believe that these methods and antics are unsavory, but frankly, I do not imagine they would cease at the snap of my fingers. My proposition in the meantime is a game plan to better insulate ourselves from the dire consequences of buying into these pitches, hook line and sinker. The second line of defense to this campaign of insecurity is an honest focus of our time and resources on our own lives and issues that really matter to us. We have to make a conscious choice to live above these pressures, and refuse to measure our lives on the yardstick they provide.
The third step is more proactive; we stop clicking on those ads to see because if we don’t buy them, they wouldn’t make them. If we don’t click on them, they would be posted less. I am well aware that these ads are often very intrusive and we users often can’t do much about them. Tools such as Adblock and Crystal do not promise to solve these problems of electronic intrusion, but they can help delimit their effects.
More than all these, the first plan of action though is that we recognize this marketing strategy for what it is. It is no longer enough to ignore their effects, scoff at them or maintain stubbornly that such pressure cannot get to you.
You know they do.
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Title image credit: Spell & The Gypsy Collective