Photography and Commodity Culture

3rd October 2013

Commodification of society and culture is something that has been progressing for thousands of years, ever since stone-age man first set up flint knapping ‘factories’ to churn out arrowheads, knives and other necessaries of the day for trade with tribes far distant from their location.  Simple supply and demand for these products made the running of these sites worthwhile and so, probably, the first commodity market came into existence, and the first societies became commodity aware, and controlled.  Certainly controlled, because if you didn’t have the latest in tools and weaponry your tribe, society, was at a disadvantage to other tribes, societies, around you.  Individual members within the tribe could also be controlled by the dominant member, simply by the provision or withholding of the tools and weaponry, an individual’s status would be enhanced or reduced accordingly, societal control with commodities.

Modern commodification began to become really noticeable as the 19th century progressed and the Industrial Revolution gathered pace.  Manufacturers naturally wanted to expand their markets and increase profits and to do so they had to make their wares desirable. Desirable doesn’t necessarily mean needed, wanted or attractive.  Desire for something comes from the potential customer believing that their personal individuality will be improved by its acquisition, and so advertising played up to these desires, not always with the truth in the early days when wild claims of benefits from ownership were made, but as legislation increased to curb the more extravagant advertisements then cleverer and more subtle messages had to be delivered.

The idea of reality, something being tangible, as seen, is a strong motivator in the human psyche, so the more these ideals are met, the more we believe in whatever is presented. This phenomenon also extends itself to the so-called ‘educated’ sector of society as well as those who are considered not to be so well blessed.  It’s not a conscious thing, its something that affects us all at a subliminal level, until such time as the cause and effect are brought to our attention, then the different sectors of society look at this differently, and possibly react differently.  Knowing this is very important however to advertising and marketing companies as it’s a weakness in us all that they exploit to the advantage of the clients.

Taking the desire that most of us have to ‘better’ ourselves, and the fact that we tend to believe what we see, it’s not a great step to take to then find that advertising and marketing are making vast numbers of people believe in, and want, the products that’re being marketed and advertised.  Expand this idea to millions of commodities, including everyday items such as washing powder, breakfast cereal etc and all of a sudden you have whole societies having their decision-making influenced by the commodity marketers and advertisers.  It finally gets to the point where, to paraphrase a quote I read by someone I can’t remember, ‘what appears is good, what is good appears’  and is a mocking reflection on the way we, as the paying public, follow what we are shown in advertisements, and buy.

Photography now plays a very large and integral part is this system, but it’s been building up to the level we have now since the Paris Exhibition of 1855 where exhibitors were given the good advice to hand out photographs of the products so that visitors could continue to look at, and aspire to, owning them after the exhibition was over.  The largest part of all commercial photography on the planet is destined to be used in marketing and advertising, and not just the marketing of goods, but people, ideas, ‘propaganda’, politics, finance and many other areas, turning each and every one of them into a ‘commodity’ to be packaged and marketed to the public, who could now be said to permanently live in, and as, a commodified society.  Control of society can now be exercised to a greater of lesser degree, dependent on the issue at hand, similar to the way Roman Emperors controlled the masses with the games of ancient Rome, but with much more finesse.  For instance, all the televised news footage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, all the footage of what depredations they committed were supplied by Kuwaiti’s to a marketing company in the US, hired and paid for by the same Kuwaiti’s, hoping to influence American public opinion to prompt the US administration to invade and oust the Iraqi’s.  Did it work???

The images that we see, and are influenced by, aren’t necessarily of what we think they are.  Take food advertising; how many advertisements show mouth-watering food, beautifully presented and of such proportions as to make us think they are value for money?  Does what comes out of the packet onto our plate actually resemble what we’ve seen in the advertisement?  This becomes even more familiar as to how we’re led by the nose on such occasions when you walk into a fast-food restaurant and see their wares in pictures right in front of you, and then we accept what they serve up in the polystyrene box, they don’t even look anything alike in my experience, yet we accept this situation.  Does it then follow that we accept things of a far more serious nature because we ‘believe what we see’?  To a greater or lesser extent all advertising and marketing is misleading, but we accept this as we’ve been ‘conditioned’ to by the commodification of society.

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