bat020 = Anindya Bhattacharyya, writer/activist based in London. philosophy, revolutionary socialism, mathematics, technology, dance music. | @bat020 | | obvious gmail address

Three studies in consumer desire

[originally published on and Lenin’s Tomb]

A peculiar microtrend in consumer advertising has recently caught my attention: a penchant for unexpected dialectical reversals in the normal ideological discourse of consumerism.

Whether this constitutes a symptom of something significant underlying — perhaps mass advertising reaching a certain saturation point, or more prosaically, an impending consumer debt crisis — I’ll leave for you to judge. For now I’ll outline three examples of what I’m talking about.

1: Persil commands you to get dirty

The first example — both in terms of chronology and simplicity — is Persil’s recent Dirt Is Good campaign. The telly adverts feature luvvable kids getting all mucky in a suburban garden, overseen at just the right distance by a wry and knowing Mum figure.

The superficial message is standard feelgood Live Life To The Full fare… but there’s something not quite right. The oddity is that Persil — a brand that we expect to promote the virtues of cleanliness — is instead extolling dirt.

Of course you’re meant to notice this. Consumers are thoroughly resistant to washing powder firms ordering them to be clean(er). So instead Persil orders you to be dirty. Momentarily beguiled, our defences come down, and Persil-qua-signifier ruthlessly lodges itself into our unconscious. Ker-ching.

It’s an ecological commonplace that we in the West consume far more washing powder (and other “cleanliness” products) than could ever be justified in terms of need — which is why firms like Persil embarked on promoting cleanliness-as-ideology in the first place (fast moving consumer goods were pioneers in mass advertising, cf “soap opera”).

What this ad marks is a new departure that draws out the diabolical irrationality of consumer capitalism: we are now consuming so much washing powder that firms have to encourage us to get more dirty in order to sell us any more packets. A milestone of sorts has been passed.

2: Orange commands you to turn your mobile off

The dialectical reversal in the Persil campaign is at the level of discourse — the sales patter switches from Clean to Dirty, but the consumption of the product is unaffected. Persil is not telling us to wash our clothes less, it is telling us to get actively filthier and then wash our clothes more.

The latest adverts for Orange exhibit a deeper level of reversal. They operate through a pair of slogans, one of which is Good Things Happen When Your Phone’s On. This line promotes Orange mobiles through the standard tactic of listing all the “features” that your life is incomplete without. It amounts to nothing more than the missionary position of techno-porn, and need not detain us further.

The second slogan is the crucial one: Good Things Happen When Your Phone’s Off. Yup, that’s right, Orange wants you to buy its phones in order not to use them. The Useful silently and effortlessly flips over into the Useless.

Of course Orange can still make money with your phone switched off, what with all the “value added” messaging services it offers: voicemail, texts, email — all of which is faintly repulsive (diseases get communicated too, y’know). But that’s not really the point here.

What Orange have latched on to is that the greatest enjoyment we get from our mobiles these days is when we switch them off. The delicious guilty pleasure we get from this (doubled for us Londoners, who can also lie about it by pretending we were stuck on the Tube) is worth immeasurably more than any number of idiotic bleating ringtones or affectless digipix.

In an age of 3G gizmos bristling with ever more “features”, our desires inexorably condense around the degree zero of electronic gadgetry, their universal “feature” — an off switch (also, incidentally, one of the most likely components to malfunction).

So: in this case the dialectical reversal is not just at the level of discourse, but penetrates deeper into commodity consumption itself. The mobile phone ceases to be a functional object and instead becomes a pure object of desire — all the better when not used.

3: Ikea commands you to work less

The third and final example penetrates deeper still — beyond the sphere of consumption altogether and into the murky realms of productive labour, capitalism’s dirty little secret. And where the Persil and Orange ads are at best irritating and at worst presumptious, this one is truly obscene.

Ikea’s latest Life Outside Work campaign for its flatpack furniture promotes itself on its allegedly low prices. But it’s not the usual “buy this bargain and spend the spare cash on something else” line — instead it argues that lower prices mean you don’t have to work for so long.

This breaks a tacit taboo in advertising discourse against explicitly referencing the source of all wealth. Rather than flatter us by pretending we’re bourgeois consumers, it rubs our noses in our grubby proletarian status.

As if the concept of the advert wasn’t humiliating enough, the execution goes further still. The telly ad features a white collar office (and it’s not just the collars that are white) with a lone worker suddenly getting up and calmly/heroically walking out of the building early.

And in a grotesque mockery of collective action, the other workers start gormlessly clapping and cheering and singing Negro spirituals all the while remaining firmly in their places as Our Hero flounces out to meet his Perfectly Pretty Wifey. They embrace. We puke. Credits roll.

What makes this so cruel is its illustration of what Marx called absolute surplus value. The simplest and most brutal way that the bourgeoisie can squeeze more labour out of us is by extending the working day. And limiting the working day was one of the first demands and key battles of the 19th century workers movement (as detailed by Marx in Capital).

Fast forward 150 years and we now have the extraordinary spectacle of Ikea urging us to take back our absolute surplus value (on a strictly individual basis, natch). And why? For justice, liberty, solidarity? Nope. So they can get their grubby mitts on a larger slice of our ever decreasing wages.

And all this is happening while the global ruling class is openly discussing plans to prop up its profits by increasing the retirement age to 70 — a move that would represent a truly staggering ratcheting up of absolute surplus value, and a historic setback for the working class. Little wonder that Ikea was set up by a fascist.

“We consume the product through the product itself, but we consume its meaning through advertising. Picture for a moment our modern cities stripped of all signs, their walls blank as an empty consciousness. And imagine that all of a sudden the single word GARAP appears everywhere, written on every wall… Advertising’s true referent is here apparent in its purest form: like GARAP, advertising is mass society itself, using systematic arbitrary signs to arouse emotions and mobilise consciousness, and reconstituting its collective nature in this very process.”

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This entry was posted on 27 October 2005 by in Marxism, Philosophy and tagged .