In this issue
Ads under attack
Ads under attack
|John Fanning questions the argument made by author Oliver James that advertising is a bad influence on society|
Oliver James is a British clinical psychologist, the author of a number of popular books on the subject and a TV presenter, newspaper columnist and general man about the media when any subject you care to mention needs a psychological comment; which includes just about any subject you care to mention.
He is in the news because of two recently published books; Affluenza in 2007 and The Selfish Capitalist earlier this year. They are described as ‘companion volumes' with the former a big long sprawling account of a series of interviews with wealthy people worldwide and the latter a more academic attempt to draw the conclusions from the interviews into some form of theoretical conclusion.
The interviews in the first book come to the not entirely startling conclusion that many rich people lead deeply unsatisfying lives. With one bound, James therefore joins forces with one of the hottest publishing bandwagons of our time; the happiness issue, or more accurately the ‘if I'm that well off why amn't I happier'. Economists in Wharton disprove the evidence for hitting a ‘happiness ceiling'.
Although the subject of happiness and the fulfilled life have been discussed ever since man emerged as homo erectus, it has taken on a renewed lease of life since the Nobel Prize for economics was awarded for the first time to a psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, in 2002 for his studies in hedonic psychology and was the subject of British peer Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons From a New Science.
Most of the literature on the subject concentrates on the seeming contradiction between the rise in GDP across the Western and much of the Eastern world and no corresponding rise in reported levels of well-being. Our own ESRI's valiant efforts last year to lead the cheers for Ireland's economic transformation confronted the happiness issue by suggesting that although increases in GDP can go on forever, the environment permitting, increases in happiness invariably hit a ceiling.
They say "there is real doubt as to whether human beings are psychologically hard-wired in such a way as to enable them to sustain highly elevated levels of subjective well-being over a long time". That's not a wildly optimistic conclusion but it's a lot more encouraging than Oliver James's contention.
James believes that increased economic growth is likely to be accompanied by massively increased levels of depression and mental illness. His target is not economic growth per se but the type of economic growth posited by the neo-liberal agenda or the Washington Consensus, ushered in by the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US in the late 1970s.
They created a special type of capitalism, hence ‘selfish capitalism', which was characterised by a severely diminished role for the state, an emphasis on individualism at the expense of community and an enhanced role and freedom for business. His main thesis is that ‘selfish capitalism' has resulted in an ‘affluenza virus' which by placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame result in an orgy of shopping designed to fill the emptiness and loneliness from weakening communal values and replace the need for authentic intimate relationships with increased levels of consumption.
OPPOSED TO ADS
Oliver James, right, author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, with economist David McWilliams at the Marketing Society debate, Affluence v Affluenza. Speaking on Today with Pat Kenny, James called for ads with celebrities and supermodels to be banned as they make women feel inadequate.
James's secondary thesis is that the virus is far more virulent in the Anglo-American world than in continental Europe, especially the Nordic countries and the east. Given that we tend to follow the Anglo-American model, we can expect the worst; increased levels of stress, depression and mental illness. This writer is not entirely convinced by the argument as the statistical evidence is a little weak.
The word ‘stress' has the same effect on me as the word ‘culture' reputedly had on Herr Goebbels.
As far as I'm concerned, stress is more of a human condition rather than a medical one. But in spite of these misgivings, we should pay some attention to these books. Firstly because like most of the output from this genre they are deeply suspicious of advertising and all forms of marketing communications and because even the most neo-liberally minded politician could be tempted to recommend a few advertising bans which will always be electorally popular.
Secondly, the most successful marketing communications are based on the most acute understanding of the ‘spirit of the times' and the current volume of publications on happiness/well being/life satisfaction may well lead people to question their purchasing behaviour and consumption patterns.