Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Advertising as way to fuel inefficiency

on 2015 August 9

Humans are omnivores mainly by culture, not in the same innate way that other species are omnivores or carnivores. If you consider the innate desires of puppies and other meat eaters, you see that they get excited about eating their prey, they pounce on it, and tear it apart and eat it raw. Humans don’t have the hunting skills or desire to do any of that. The only way most of us can eat animals is by having them killed by someone else, cut up, and cooked so that the disgust that we would otherwise feel at seeing dead carcasses is as far removed from the dinner table as possible. If we were innate animal eaters, we would not feel disgust – we would feel happy and excited about tearing into living creatures. Yet a lot of people really want to believe that we’re innately omnivores. I believed it for a long time, until I learned otherwise.

The fact that I had always accepted that we were innate omnivores only proves I’m human, the only creature that can be so deluded about what we are by manufacturing beliefs and replicating them on a massive scale. When I think for myself, I find it is more gratifying than just adopting the beliefs transmitted by culture. There is a certain grace in the cessation of stupidity that I occasionally experience: things become so simple; I see them as they are without the imposed lens of culture. But I feel very silly for allowing myself to be deluded by the culture around me for so long on the question of eating animals. What kept me in the dark?

Generally speaking people replicate the beliefs of the people around them, except maybe the autistic, who, to various degrees, do not. I’ve experienced both extremes: thinking like everyone else, and being unable to think like anyone else. Another example is using toothpaste, which I’ve heard is unnecessary, but it never really seemed important enough to find out or even form an opinion one way or the other, so I just found it easier to go along with the toothpaste-using culture that I’m in. So I’ve gone through many tubes of toothpaste and eaten lots of animals because … most people do. On other other hand I’ve reinvented things, and it wasn’t because I was too obstinate to do it the normal way. It was because I couldn’t detect the normal way, or the normal way had so much apparent inconsistency or waste that it didn’t feel adoptable to me. I suppose people who acculturate even less than I do would copy fewer beliefs, and they would end up reinventing more things independently, or just failing to do a bunch of normal things.

The highly inefficient system of converting solar energy to nutrition circuitously via other animals is just one of many industries that thrives on waste and socially constructed needs. A lot of the media, pharmaceuticals, makeup, sports, cars, and sugar are in that same category. These are products that people have no true need for, and therefore do not even want innately. People want these things based on convention, but not innately. We have to learn to want them. Because of our inherited culture, we spend a great deal of our lives in highly wasteful pursuits that don’t actually make us happy or fulfill any true need.

Something has to work to keep us in the dark, and keep the waste going. If there was no force sustaining the waste, it would dwindle over time and we would adopt more efficient ways to meet our needs. We would harness the sun to heat buildings rather than drilling for oil and all the complications that go with that. I mean we would do this out of sheer laziness, not for any ethical reason. If the reason for doing the complicated and inefficient thing were to go away, that habit would extinguish. This is similar to a fundamental point in genetics: If the advantage of a trait goes away, then the trait will gradually extinguish. Nothing sticks around indefinitely for no reason.

My proposition then is that all these inefficiencies are sustained in large part through money and advertising, which are the socially constructed means to keep power imbalanced, and falsehoods alive, respectively.

I’ve wondered a lot about advertising because it doesn’t seem to work on me, and so I’m surprised that it works at all. But when I found out about autism, it started to make sense, because non-autistic people believe things simply because they are repeated so many times. And to some degree I do to (like the idea of being omnivorous) but noticeably less.

Advertising pairs something that people innately want with something that costs money, creating an association. For example, it pairs a field of wildflowers on a spring day (an innate attraction) with an oil company. Or, it pairs sex with a car. The main things appearing in ads are either (1) something you already want, or (2) something they want you to want.

Ads also exist for things that people truly need, like food, shelter, and exercise – and are just claiming that one supplier is better than another. To some extent advertising is just part of the information exchange needed in a market system. But consider a tomato. The tomato gets a starring role in so many food ads, yet it is hardly ever the product being advertised. That’s because it is something we already innately want – so there is no need to push it. Instead it is used as the innate need that pairs with the hamburger or other food being advertised. You see the tomato (an innate attraction) and a hamburger (a culturally constructed, highly inefficient means to meet your needs), and the brain makes an association between them, so with enough repetition, you want the hamburger. When you were very little, you probably didn’t like hamburgers – little kids are often not attracted to meat. If you like them now, it is because your tastes were molded by cultural learning, and importantly, the tomato continues to play a lead role in reinforcing that association. Without a force sustaining the cultural, non-innate, and inefficient habits, they might gradually extinguish.

Here are the top advertisers in the US, starting with the highest spender: Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, Toyota, General Electric, Ford, and Pepsico. Procter and Gamble makes a lot of things, like toothpaste, makeup, razors, detergent, and diapers. The other companies sell cars, communications, pharmaceuticals, media, appliances, and sugar. Other top ad categories are for meat/diary, cleaning products, and alcohol and other drugs. In general the things that are advertised the most are actually needed the least.

I wonder what would happen if those vast concentrations of power could somehow be evaporated. The forces maintaining cultural beliefs in the necessity of all these products would be weakened, and the desire might gradually extinguish. Is it possible that by simply not telling everyone day in and day out to consume sugar, that our taste for it would gradually be forgotten? Would movies fail to entertain us if we weren’t told over and over to watch them?


One response to “Advertising as way to fuel inefficiency

  1. emmajoey says:

    I think it’s very difficult to say what is or is not an innate desire or behaviour, as different people have different innate desires. Surely you would understand that, given your situation. You have described desires you consider to be innate to you which are not those typical for others who share your sex chromosomes or anatomy.

    Plenty of people still seem to possess the ‘innate’ desire for hunting prey, be it human or animal, but these days in ‘civilised’ societies they are expected to sublimate it into sports, computer games or maybe just devising ever more devious business tactics to manipulate others.

    Maybe there is also an ‘innate’ desire for facial self-decoration with makeup, which you don’t happen to share, but others do, even some other people who you wouldn’t expect to share it.

    I doubt that the entire cosmetics industry continues to exist through social pressure and commercial reinforcement alone.

    Perhaps you just happen to have rather fewer innate desires than most other people..
    so you aren’t in a very good position to determine what is or isn’t an innate drive for someone else. If everyone was more autistic maybe we would all stop doing all these ‘wasteful’ things, but the chances are, by that point we would also have stopped caring enough about life to carry on reproducing, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.

    I happen to really like eating hamburgers, and not just because they sometimes come with tomatoes. What you consider wasteful, others may actually enjoy. I didn’t really enjoy working in a meat packing plant, but given enough mental distance from the source of the product I can wholeheartedly enjoy the outcome.

    I believed much the same about beer once, that people don’t actually enjoy drinking it, it’s just a relatively cheap way to acquire and consume alcohol, but it turns out that it’s actually quite popular in it’s own right ;-) People even enjoy alcohol free varieties for some strange reason. People were making it long before there was any advertising, and continued to consume it even when it was illegal to do so. I still prefer alternatives where they are available, but I wouldn’t refuse it outright any more.

    But yes, advertising is a way to tie those innate desires to specific products, images and brands, and the consumerist economy as a whole chews through the planets resources at an alarming rate. It’s very effective but it’s a tool that can be used for good or evil.

    Should you ever get on HRT you might well discover you have a lot more innate desires than you previously believed you had. Being trans often retards normal psycho-sexual development, as your brain doesn’t get the hormones that it needs to function effectively or develop at the usual rate.

    I also have Asperger’s, but this comment is mostly meant to be taken as a joke.
    I’m not that strictly logical in real life, not any more anyway. I grew up a bit, eventually. ;-)

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