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A busy shopping day on Oxford Street

Advertising had become the key vehicle for shaping and reflecting national values.

In the Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argued that advertising in the twentieth century had a dominant impact on developing a lifestyle of narcissism.

Mass production “required not only the capitalist organization of production but the organization of consumption and leisure as well.”

When capitalism was still tempered by the Protestant ethic, advertising called attention to the product and celebrated its assets. Now it also creates its own product: The consumer, unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored.

Advertising thus serves not so much to promote products as to promote consumption as a way of life:

“It ‘educates’ the masses into forming unappeasable appetites. Not only for goods, but for new experiences and personal fulfilment.” It upholds consumption as the answer to age old discontents. Loneliness, sickness, weariness, and lack of sexual satisfaction.

“At the same time it creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age. It plays on the downsides of industrial civilization.”

“Is your job boring and meaningless? Does it leave you with feelings of futility and fatigue? Is your life empty?”

 

Consumption

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“Consumption promises to fill the chilling void. Hence the attempt to surround commodities with an aura of romance. With allusions to exotic places and vivid experiences, with images of female breasts from which all blessings flow.”

The propaganda of commodities upholds consumption as an alternative to protest. It provides an outlet. Change occurs rapidly in the world of fashion. Thus the discouraged worker, “instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with goods and services.”

This propaganda also turns alienation itself into a commodity.

It addresses itself to the spiritual emptiness of modern life and proposes consumption as the cure. It promises to cure all the old unhappiness to which flesh is heir. And it creates or exacerbates new forms of unhappiness.

Personal insecurity, status anxiety, anxiety in parents about their ability to meet the needs of their young.

Do you look dowdy next to your neighbours? Do you own a car inferior to theirs? Are your children as healthy? As popular? Doing as well in school?

Advertising institutionalizes envy and its attendant anxieties.

 

Anxiety

The motives and affects of advertising cut down the attempts to sugar over the capitalist economic system. To pretend that the system does not affect culture and politics. Nowhere is it clearer than in the appeals of the advertising industry how much capitalism shapes the values of society.

How much the enticement to consume is at odds with people taking control of their lives.

How much it is at odds with people setting priorities for themselves.

 

Winning Image

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Lasch felt that the contemporary narcissist no longer believed work was more important than happiness and had come to see themselves only through others’ eyes. Often choosing celebrity over achievement.

He painted a portrait of a contemporary narcissist vying for a ‘winning image.’ Possessing no concepts of self but a status determined by comparison with others.

 

Great Void

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The great void in the capitalist personality is the total absence of the means to assess either persons or possessions.

Wealth is appraised only in comparison of one moment to another. ‘Growth’ is the key index of virtue in the capitalist system.

People are assessed only compared to other people. The amount of economic power the essential criterion for determining worth and achievement.

 

Not Yet

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American’s and the West are not yet a society of narcissists.

Millions of individuals every day find satisfaction in aiding others and in activities – music, art, sport, schooling – pursued for their own sake, not merely “to get ahead.”

Many honest business persons and entrepreneurs respond to creative challenges without flirting with narcissism.

But these people maintain a sense of value and comradeship in spite of the manipulation of our culture by the economic system. Culture needs to reassert itself against the economic system and insist on performing its central function of providing meaning to peoples lives.

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This essay draws on the work of Christopher Lasch in his best selling book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. click here to learn more.


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