I did it their way: consuming our way to freedom

by Clive Hamilton on February 25, 2014

“I’ll scream”, the priest muttered as he left the funeral, “if I have to listen to ‘I Did It My Way’ one more time.”

What explains the vogue to play the Sinatra anthem at one’s funeral? It’s a fair bet that anyone who makes a posthumous declaration to the world that he did it his way in practice led a life of dull conformity. Extrapolating, while the desire to assert our individuality has never been stronger the citizens of affluent nations like Australia live in the most compliant societies of modern times.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s there were many individuals whose activities constituted a serious threat to the structures of power and the established ways of being. But how does one express one’s freedom in a society that has accepted that there is no alternative to the neoliberal ideal? If capitalism is no longer threatened by socialism, feminism is measured by the number of women on corporate boards, and environmentalism is co-opted into green consumerism and the triple bottom line, being free becomes a purely personal project of self-creation.

The marketers understood this a long time before we did. And so in place of the demand to be free of oppressive social structures, today our claim to autonomy is expressed largely through the brands we buy or through affectations, of which tattoos and cosmetic surgery have become the latest emblems. That which was once forbidden socially became a gold mine economically; transgression was not abolished but tamed.

We now have a whole vocabulary for this faux rebelliousness (“gangsta rap”, “heroin chic”, the word “bad” itself, and so on), much of it invented by marketers in their colonisation of cool. If marketing is at the centre of modern consumer society (as it is in ways that most people do not recognise) then “the establishment” effortlessly adapted itself to the anti-establishment posture of the baby boomer generation, co-opting “cool” to the point where it has come to mean knowing about up-and-coming brands and new gadgets marginally before most others.

So as our lives became more entangled in the market we progressively relinquished our freedom. This is true of both rich and poor. Unlike those who defend the market because it gives us “free choice”, the advertisers and marketers have always been much more sanguine about the way they persuade consumers to do things they do not want to do or never had an urge to do.

In the words of the head of planning at a global advertising agency: “Most people don’t have a sense of self-worth. Buying luxury goods makes us feel special and successful. They make us feel valuable in a world that often tests our sense of self-worth”.

Those who ardently promoted the neoliberal revolution believed they were providing the best conditions for the flourishing of personal freedom. Yet in practice, fraud and deception are essential to the reproduction of today’s marketing societies, societies where pre-teen children are targeted by corporations in an attempt to build lifelong brand loyalty; where teenagers declare that the brands they wear and the mobile phones they wield define ‘who they are’; where popular and classical culture are systematically mined for icons and images that can be used to sell products; where the intimate details of our personal lives are secretly collected and sold to marketing organisations; where sporting, artistic, literary and educational institutions have become the playing fields of advertisers; and where the essential data of our actions are provided overwhelmingly by a handful of media corporations.

The invasion by marketers into every nook and cranny of our private worlds—where the lounge room has become a kindergarten of consumerism and a child typically sees 3,000 advertisements every day—means that we are subject to an unrelenting barrage of manipulation developed by the cleverest graduates of the best psychology schools and neuroscience labs.

Even the chemical functioning of our brains (the mechanics of our thought processes) — perhaps the most private aspect of each of us — is being mapped by marketers so that they might manipulate our responses for commercial benefit. They even have a name for it, neuro-marketing, the kind of advertising that is aimed at exploiting what is believed to be the 95 per cent of all thoughts, emotions, and learning that occur before we are aware of them.

It is for these kinds of reasons that the market does not appeal to our reason but preys on our impulsiveness and psychological weaknesses, in a way that often conflicts with our deeper or “second-order” preferences, those preferences have greater authority because they arise from calm deliberation.

The psychological techniques of modern marketing are a particularly powerful form of coercion because they are designed to leave us, when we succumb to them, believing that we have made a free choice.

Genuine transgression today means opting out of the structures of the market, especially the psychological ones, because all “individuality” expressed in market activity is a product of subtle coercion. The emotional and social costs people endure when they do opt out—by downshifting, for example—testify to its transgressivity.

On the other hand, perhaps our societies have advanced so far that resistance is futile and to conform is the sensible path. But if so we should at least commission a new funeral anthem: “I Did It Their Way”.

Clive Hamilton is the appointed Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, and the founder of The Australia Institute, a progressive think tank. He is the author of Growth Fetish (2003), Affluenza (2005), Silencing Dissent (2007) and The Freedom Paradox (2008) amongst others.

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