Advertising — the artificial inflation of expectations — makes us unhappy.
This isn’t exactly a hot take. Does anyone think this current implementation of hypercapitalism is truly healthy for humanity?
Criticizing is easy, but let’s spend some time doing it anyway.
I explored some ideas on the future of automation a little while back, and I ended with optimistic views on a post-scarcity world, where people have enough time to be happy with themselves. But would we be happy, I wonder? Would free time and more resources save us from ourselves?
I’ve always been interested in the science of well-being, and for a while I had an uneasy feeling:
I believe that our happiness with some situation or phenomena is largely rooted in our expectations.
If you win the lottery, go to collect your winnings and are told it was only a system error, you’d be rather downhearted.
Nobody really expects to win the lottery — but you’d be delighted if you did, because something better than your expectations occurred. If you thought you’d won but were mistaken, reality falls short or your expectations, and your mood falls with it.
This is also why philosophies like Stoicism have grown more popular these days. Anything that teaches you to manage expectations seems to work where other strategies don’t.
If things go exactly as planned, you might still be quite happy if you worked hard to get there, so the equation goes something like:
Satisfaction = Results - Expectation + Effort
Merchants of Dissatisfaction
I’m a huge fan of this study led by Andrew Oswald. His team sampled 1 million European citizens over 3 decades and 27 nations. They found that increases in national advertising spending precedes large declines in “life satisfaction”, indifferent to confounding factors — individual characterstics, country-specific and economic cycles, etc. Oswald gives a concise interview on the paper:
Their [corporate] line is that advertising is trying to expose the public to new and exciting things to buy, and their task is to simply provide information, and in that way they raise human well-being. But the alternative argument, which goes back to Thorstein Veblen and others, is that exposing people to a lot of advertising raises their aspirations — and makes them feel that their own lives, achievements, belongings, and experiences are inadequate. This study supports the negative view, not the positive one.
Consider the advertiser’s perspective: you want people to Buy Product. To do this, you must persuade them they’d be better off if they Bought Product.
You could just talk about how great Product is, but everyone does that. What if the viewer thinks they don’t need Product? What if they’re content without?
Easy. Convince them they’re not content. Instill in the viewer the idea that they’re not where they want to be, and Product can get them there.
To melt their foolish contentment like fresh snow under a blowtorch, create aspirations, construct yearning. Give them expectations they didn’t have before. Convince them of the gap between their reality and what reality could be, and you’ve created their desire to Buy Product.
Think for a moment about the things about your life you’re unhappy with. Most are pretty concrete, I’d imagine, some are fully justified by your beliefs. If you can identify the source differences (I’m currently this, but I want to be/have that), even better. It’s helpful to understand the expectations you have of yourself that cause your discontent.
Now ask: How many of your expectations were sold to you?
If you think you need a fancier car or a pricier phone, a flashier lifestyle — will those things truly make you happy? Or were those things advertised to you alongside images of happy-looking people?
I won’t argue against resources and well-being; money can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly make room for it (there’s also a very Eurocentric aspect to this entire argument: In places of economic or physical strife, happiness is a lot simpler).
How much of your expectations did you decide? How much were inculcated, absorbed, implanted?
You can certainly reduce this argument to absurdity: we’re all made up of the thoughts and experiences of other people; man in a vacuum is just a lonely ape.
But there’s absolutely aspects of your (un)happiness that you feel are more intrinsic to your soul, and those that feel imported.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
This goes beyond “pure” advertisements, as well: Think about all the movies you’ve seen growing up. I’d like to say we’re all grounded enough to know life isn’t like a movie, but we absorb the media we’re exposed to and integrate it into our subconscious.
Our brains run on pattern recognition, after all, and overexposure to anything will cause certain associations to develop in our minds.
There’s a lot of “save world, get girl” or “knight in shining armor” tropes tossed around for either gender. Movies have a clearly defined plot, with motivating backstories, ‘rock bottom’ moments, training montages and dramatic showdowns.
So a lot of us fall into some degree of “protagonist syndrome”. We’re exposed to these notions of Ideal Stories, the Way Things Work — we develop expectations from what others have shown us. When life inevitably falls short, when the cold water hits our face, we’re left with an awful lot of readjusting to do.
It’s more of a stretch to argue that media narratives, too, are profitable via inculcated expectations. Still, there’s something to be said about the story of “work hard, you’re secretly special, just trust the process and you’ll save the world or something” giving people hope in a profoundly twisted society.
We should consider the “social imperative” of happiness. From an alternate utilitarian perspective, the goal of society should be to maximize the utility (in this case, well-being) of its citizens at large, with some consideration of balance (an economically inequal country with $10bn GDP is worse than an equal one with $2bn GDP).
I’d argue that advertising is essentially an arms race with diminishing returns on profit gained vs. expectations raised; the more saturated the market, the more dissatisfaction you must sell.
If relentless advertising has the power to make us unhappier (all else held equal), is there a moral imperative for more “holistic” advertising? A form of promotion that doesn’t try to make us feel awful to Sell Product?
Maybe, but I doubt it’d help. I don’t foresee any Board of Trustees telling a CEO “Hey, I think we’re selling unhappiness to people, so let’s cut back on that and lose some money”.
This economic machine’s been rolling for over a hundred years, and it’s not stopping until it breaks down entirely or crashes straight into the Fourth Circle of the Inferno.
Now back to my thoughts on automation and future well-being: If we gain endless free time and transcend resource scarcity, will we be happy with our commercial expectations of life?
If everyone can change their lifestyle to look like their dream Instagram influencer’s life — is that enough?
Moreover, if everyone can rest in the lap of luxury, is that luxury as “meaningful” as it was amid scarcity?
Now that’s an interesting thread to explore. These advertised expectations used to be about “keeping up with the Joneses”; to fulfill these expectations, is it enough to merely rise above ourselves, or must we see others beneath us?
I’d put money on the latter. They call it a rat race for a reason: modern economics is inherently competitive, a zero-sum game. You’ll hear of ‘beneficial externalities’, but where shortsighted greed becomes profitable, the mask comes off and we face our worst selves.
Managing Your Own Ideas
Society’s not going to step up and make things easier on us. If anything, as we become more digitized and data-focused, targeted advertising will keep escalating; companies will gleefully build complex expectations based on your unique data to help Sell You Product.
Putting it simply, we’ve got to save ourselves. It takes conscious effort to disconnect the ‘expectation’ and ‘product’ from yourself, but when you start thinking in this reductionist manner, it becomes terribly clear just how shallow these manufactured desires really are.
What do they really know about you? How neatly do you match their commercialized aspirations, when you know all the curiosities you’ve held, the instinctual pulls towards wondrous things in the past?
The things that really bring you bottomless joy, if only for a moment — I’d wager they’re not just Products, but something deeper. An experience, a moment shared with others, the wind and gentle sun on your cheeks.
If you ever decide “I’m happy with this thing, media be damned”, they can’t do anything about it. You’ve won. But you only win if you decide for yourself.