A CON­SUMER AF­FAIR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

We all sense that dif­fer­ent na­tions, dif­fer­ent peo­ples, have dis­tinct per­son­al­ity traits, some of which prove re­mark­ably durable over cen­turies. These dif­fer­ences of char­ac­ter, of val­ues and of man­ners came to be called cul­ture when the word ac­quired its mod­ern an­thro­po­log­i­cal mean­ing more than two cen­turies ago.

Cul­tures are formed and trans­mit­ted by the myr­iad voices that sur­round the grow­ing child: those of their par­ents, con­vey­ing care and af­fec­tion but also set­ting lim­its and moral bound­aries; those of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and the tribe, or later the state; and fi­nally those of lit­er­a­ture, art and phi­los­o­phy. Each of these in­flu­ences may com­ple­ment, con­tra­dict or nu­ance oth­ers in an end­less va­ri­ety of per­mu­ta­tions, never pre­dictable be­cause hu­man char­ac­ter is al­ways more than the sum of its in­flu­ences.

This is broadly the process that raises in­di­vid­u­als to be mem­bers of a so­ci­ety, steeped in its shared be­liefs and cus­toms. But it can also be con­sid­ered as the frame­work that helps hu­man be­ings to be sane, to learn to con­trol and limit their ap­pet­i­tive im­pulses, to ac­knowl­edge the re­al­ity of oth­ers, and even to en­vis­age higher moral and spir­i­tual hori­zons be­yond ego­ism.

Un­for­tu­nately cul­tures tend to de­fine them­selves in con­tradis­tinc­tion to other groups, so they rep­re­sent only a min­i­mal form of san­ity; peo­ple who are well-be­haved and even benev­o­lent mem­bers of a group can be filled with ir­ra­tional hos­til­ity to­wards out­siders. That is why phi­los­o­phy and spir­i­tual prac­tices at­tempt to go much fur­ther in lib­er­at­ing the in­di­vid­ual from ir­ra­tional de­sires and fears.

In this re­spect, con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety is in­creas­ingly po­larised. There are, for ex­am­ple, more peo­ple en­gaged in al­ter­na­tive spir­i­tual quests, or even in fun­da­men­tal­ist forms of re­li­gion, at a time when weekly at­ten­dance at churches, once al­most uni­ver­sal and an im­por­tant part of the fab­ric of com­mu­nity, has al­most dis­ap­peared. Among the voices that form the grow­ing child, that of shared re­li­gion, once ab­so­lutely fun­da­men­tal, is now largely miss­ing.

In its place are clam­orous voices from the mass me­dia, en­ter­tain­ment and ad­ver­tis­ing. These voices are not about con­trol­ling the prim­i­tive im­pulses of the mind and body, but about in­dulging them; not en­cour­ag­ing us to recog­nise the re­al­ity of oth­ers, but re­in­forc­ing nar­cis­sis­tic self-ab­sorp­tion; not help­ing us find bal­ance but en­cour­ag­ing the in­sa­tiable ap­petite for con­sumer goods pre­sented as the way to hap­pi­ness. In other words, these per­va­sive in­flu­ences in mod­ern mass cul­ture en­cour­age mis­ery and neu­ro­sis rather than san­ity.

The ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try be­gan in ef­fect with the ap­pear­ance of news­pa­pers in the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury, al­though at first they were only com­mer­cial no­tices of var­i­ous kinds. The Na­tional Li­brary’s ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to ad­ver­tis­ing in Aus­tralia be­gins with sim­ple ad­ver­tise­ments of this kind from the end of the 18th cen­tury, shortly af­ter the foun­da­tion of the colony in Syd­ney. In­deed a print­ing press was brought out with the First Fleet, al­though ap­par­ently not used un­til 1795; from the fol­low­ing year we have Aus­tralia’s old­est sur­viv­ing ad­ver­tise­ment, for a pro­duc­tion at what is al­ready in­trigu­ingly re­ferred to as the Theatre.

More strik­ing is a broad­sheet from 1845, printed in large let­ters un­der a coat of arms to evoke the power of the state, of­fer­ing a re­ward for run­away con­victs, with what ap­pears to be a de­scrip­tion of iden­ti­fy­ing tat­toos on their arms.

Later ad­ver­tise­ments cover all sorts of prod- ucts, from skin cream to tea and sweet bis­cuits, and from travel to do­mes­tic ap­pli­ances and tele­vi­sion sets. A 1960s ad­ver­tise­ment urges us to have a tele­vi­sion in our home: and tele­vi­sion, as we know, was to be the first ve­hi­cle for the un­re­lent­ing de­liv­ery of ad­ver­tis­ing mes­sages to a mass au­di­ence, as well as a force that caused ir­repara­ble dam­age to do­mes­tic and so­cial life. Fam­i­lies stopped talk­ing and sat watch­ing the box, and pi­anos, once played for guests af­ter din­ner, fell silent.

One of the in­ter­est­ing as­pects of this ex­hi­bi­tion is to see how as­sump­tions have changed over the past cen­tury. An early ad­ver­tise­ment for sweet bis­cuits, for ex­am­ple, has a draw­ing by JS MacDon­ald, bet­ter known as a critic and mu­seum di­rec­tor, with the sim­ple as­ser­tion that “Swal­low and Ariell’s bis­cuits are de­li­cious!”

There are ob­vi­ously forms of im­agery that would not be used to­day, in­clud­ing pic­tures of Abo­rig­ines or even of boomerangs, or the In­dian comic book char­ac­ter Chun­der Loo. His ad­ven­tures, drawn by Lionel Lind­say and pop­u­lar at the time, were used to pro­mote Co­bra boot pol­ish.

There are many cases of women be­ing used to mar­ket var­i­ous prod­ucts — in one case men’s shirts — but mostly in a fairly low-key way, in no way com­pa­ra­ble to the ram­pant ex­ploita­tion of sex­ual im­agery that has, per­haps un­ex­pect­edly, flour­ished since the rise of fem­i­nism. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes, to­wards the end, ex­am­ples of the ac­tivist group BUGA-UP’s protests, more than a gen­er­a­tion ago, against un­der­wear ads that now seem amus­ingly tame.

Posters pro­mot­ing beer were once ubiq­ui­tous out­side Aus­tralian pubs, al­though they have largely dis­ap­peared in re­cent years. Two ex­am­ples here re­mind us of the way ad­ver­tis­ers tried to pitch dif­fer­ent prod­ucts at dif­fer­ent age groups, mostly of men: thus one beer is as­so­ci­ated with a cou­ple of youngish and fit men re­turn­ing to the club­house af­ter a game of golf, while an­other shows a dis­tin­guished older gen­tle­man at home read­ing the news­pa­per.

The most in­ter­est­ing case, though, is the pro­mo­tion of to­bacco and smok­ing, par­tic­u­larly when it be­trays a sus­pi­cion, even be­fore med­i­cal proof, that smok­ing might do harm. Thus there is an ad from 1939 in which Irina Baronova, a well-known bal­le­rina at the time, tells us that in her line of work she must al­ways be in per­fect health, and that is why she smokes only Black and White cig­a­rettes, which are sup­pos­edly ex­cep­tion­ally “pure”.

It is a myth that no one knew of the harm­ful ef­fects of to­bacco be­fore the 1960s. In fact, there

A Philips lamps ad­vert (c. 1948), above; the Hills Hoist dilemma (c. 1955), far left; for medic­i­nal pur­poses only from Pen­folds (1933), left

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