Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christopher Lasch on Advertising and Narcissism

Advertising pervades our lives. Almost from the moment we wake up, we are confronted with it. Whether we get our news from an old-fashioned newspaper or from the Internet, the news is paid for by the advertisements on the page. Our daily commute--whether by car, bus, or train--bombards us with advertisements. If we turn on the radio or TV, there it is: more advertisement. If we go to the movies, we are subjected to ads before the movie and product placements in the movie. We seek out diversion, but while we are trying to relax we have to listen to someone tell us, subtly yet insistently, that we need to go out and buy more stuff. Indeed, it could be said, without exaggeration, that the news and entertainment media are nothing more than vehicles for advertising.

This ad-saturation is usually condemned, when it is condemned at all, because it leads to materialism and consumerism. This criticism is certainly true, as far as it goes, but a more accurate explanation of the danger of advertising is that it leads to narcissism:

Society reinforces these [narcissistic] patterns [of behavior in the family] not only through “indulgent education” and general permissiveness but through advertising, demand creation, and the mass culture of hedonism. At first glance, a society based on mass consumption appears to encourage self-indulgence in its most blatant forms. Strictly considered, however, modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones. . .Yet the propaganda of commodities simultaneously makes [contemporary man] acutely unhappy with his lot. By fostering grandiose aspirations, it also fosters self-denigration and self-contempt.

--Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), pp. 180-181

Narcissism, as Lasch uses the term, is more than simply a tendency to daydream about oneself or to look at oneself in the mirror for too long. True narcissism is a way of compensating for “a sense of inner emptiness”; it is characterized by “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence.” The narcissist may often come across to others as “full of himself,” but he actually turns out to be profoundly insecure. The narcissist’s self-deprecating sense of humor is not a sign of modesty, but rather a cover for his general unease. He may seem full of energy and ambition, but what motivates him is not confidence but fear of his inner emptiness. And in contemporary society advertising is the engine that drives many of our decisions, by making us think that we are lacking as individuals and that the only effective way to fill this lack is to buy a certain product. In short, advertising, by encouraging us to fantasize in order to overcome the gnawing emptiness it manipulates us into feeling, brings out any latent narcissism lurking within us.

The specter of a society fueled by narcissism--perhaps not narcissism in the strict clinical sense, but certainly narcissism in a broader sense--is what makes The Culture of Narcissism one of the most frightening books written in America in the past half-century. It is up to every reader to decide whether Lasch succeeded in his attempt to psychoanalyze an entire culture. But, even if only half of Lasch’s diagnosis is correct, it still means that America is emotionally dominated by, and is economically dependent on, narcissism. What hope can there be for such a country?
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