I’ve just come across a fascinating idea from a school of thought that describes itself as the psychology of system justification, called the internalisation of inferiority. The short version is that the only way a minority can maintain its oppression of a majority is by instilling in that majority (or the majority self-adopting) a belief in their own inferiority. In other words, oppression can only be sustained if the oppressed can be led to believe that they deserve their fate.
Looking through history, you can see that instilling this idea of inferiority has been a major role for communications across the world. Having visited Budapest’s crazy Memento Park last year, I particularly think of the role of statuary in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe. Two features of Communist statuary stand out: the scale of human beings represented was always oversized, particularly when it was the noble leaders; and the sheer quantity of them. The idea was to continually remind people (a) of their own insignificance, and instil a belief in their unworthiness of better, and (b) to give the impression that someone was always watching.
Incidentally, my favourite was this statue, which was apparently the subject of much subversive jesting, as it was somewhat unfortunately located among bushes near the entrance to a public baths – when seen from a certain angle, instead of a strong fighter, it resembled a pool attendant chasing a punter with his forgotten towel.
So some instances of communication with this purpose in mind have clearly been more successful than others… but the very serious point that struck me when I read about this concept is that I think this could explain an awful lot in our current situation.
Consider this ad, multi-awarded, feted as a prime example of the power of advertising to change the world, listed on TED’s ‘ads worth sharing’, and soon I’m sure to be aped across the world.
At one level, I like it, and I don’t want to be the miserable one who hates everything – that’s not my style at all.
But I can’t help but feel, as the ad reaches its climax, a massive sinking feeling. What is this piece of communication really saying to me except ‘Shh little person, you can’t do anything about the big problems of the world, you’re just a Consumer – just stay in your little box and go shopping’? I’m not saying it’s deliberate, but is the net impact really so different to the massive statue of Lenin on every street corner reminding Hungarians of their insignificance?
I can totally understand why people still in the advertising industry love it. The ‘small changes to what you buy’ story seems to resolve the contradiction in values that so many in the industry feel, knowing as we do that selling more stuff while crises build is deeply inappropriate.
But it has been three decades since Band Aid, three decades since the Body Shop floated on the stock exchange. Is it not time to recognise that there are deeper solutions required than shopping to save the world? And is it really appropriate to create unconscious associations (which after all will be the lasting impact of this work) that people who actually get off their arse and try to do something about the world are pointless losers?
It might make those of us who work in advertising feel better about ourselves for a while. But I don’t think it’s a particularly constructive contribution.