It’s January. A new year. Articles have been flooding the internet about New Year’s resolutions to make, and effective ways to keep them for a long amount of time. Companies are putting offers on new diet plans, gym memberships, self-care kits and so much more, so that people can invest money in themselves. People are gearing up for a clean slate, a fresh start. But the industry of making people’s dreams come true is far more insidious than photos of Kayla Itsines body transformations and post-workout smoothie bowls would have you believe.
The market for New Year’s resolutions has commodified the desire for a fresh start through the development of expensive yet enticing products. The pressure to spend money on these products poorly affects us all, but impacts minorities and working class people the most. This is because these products are peddled through advertising campaigns that force people to view themselves as unsatisfied and incomplete without them, often targeting the attributes of minorities. Plus, new ‘progressive’ forms of advertising manipulate minorities into giving their money to seemingly socially aware corporations. And let’s not forget that pressure to spend money on our resolutions negatively impacts the working class who are already stretched thin during the holidays. Happy New Year, hey?
Advertisers sell their products by instilling fear, uncertainty and doubt within consumers. Think the fabrication of beauty in advertising – fair skin, erased wrinkles, enlarged muscles, slimmed waists, flowing hair, airbrushing and photoshopping. These images don’t reflect the reality of our society, and often poorly impact women of colour who are erased altogether, or who are told that their racialised features are ugly and undesirable. Nevertheless, women continue to aspire to these impossible beauty standards. As a result, they experience serious body image problems, poor self-esteem, anxiety and stress. Some develop eating disorders, while others try cosmetic surgery, diet pills and Botox injections. A 2016 study found that one in four people are depressed about their body. Companies want to play to our deep-seeded insecurities and desires for self-growth. They sell us products that are often designed to fail such as expensive diet pills or shakes that lead us into a cycle of losing and gaining weight, or gym memberships that are eventually too expensive to sustain.
The ethics behind mass-inducing a populace to have poor self-esteem is a contested subject. Some would rather believe that advertising doesn’t have the power to strongly manipulate or stimulate people’s choices regarding products and brands. Others think that advertising is only unethical when less autonomous people are targeted or when harmful products are promoted. Nevertheless, the cycles of guilt and shame are a well-accepted part of the fabric of our advertising landscape. It’s an ecosystem that feeds off of the private feelings of shame and inadequacy that we publicly compensate for with gym memberships, clean eating, and self-care products. Jean Kilbourne, an author and media educator, states that “a person who feels happy and secure isn’t going to be a very good consumer.”
And this, unfortunately, is the exact reason why so many marketing campaigns worldwide try to make people feel unhappy with themselves. From matchmaking sites that convince people to they are lonely and incomplete without a romantic partner to alcohol companies that convince men that their masculinity is incomplete without a particular brand of whiskey, advertising almost always seeks to make the viewer feel unhappy with themselves – unless, of course, they buy the magic product that will make them successful and complete. This type of marketing is amped up around the New Year, with companies targeting the main resolutions that people decide to make, including losing weight, eating healthy, and self-care.
These messages often sink in bone deep and cause real emotional damage to consumers. After all, it is not simple peer pressure but rather the mechanisms of a well-oiled machine that knows exactly who to target, how to target them, and when to target them. It is human nature to be tempted by the seductive proposition of an elixir that resolves every mistake you’ve ever made just when you’re looking for a fresh start. For example, skin care companies and make up brands know very well to target brown and black women across Asia and Africa with skin lightening and bleaching products, despite the health risks, because they know the effects colonialism and anti-blackness have left on them will make them susceptible to Eurocentric beauty standards. Conversely, the same companies target white women with tanning creams and sprays that leave them looking ethnically ambiguous because they know whiteness values the fetishisation of racialised features. While people of colour are made to feel inferior for their racialised features such as dark skin, natural kinky hair, wide noses, and eyes with epicanthic folds, white people often like to feel trendy and adopt the same features for social capital. They treat these features as separate to the identities and experiences of people of colour; as objects that they can utilise for their profit. And companies have capitalised on the racist mindset that informs such behaviour.
However for the media literate, this style of marketing doesn’t work and so advertising tactics have changed. Gone are the days of using the word ‘diet’ or the phrase ‘losing weight’. Instead we have ‘eating clean’ and ‘lifestyle changes’ which dress up the same products in euphemisms so they will seem more appealing. This rebranding is essential since the rising popularity of mainstream liberal feminism and messages of empowerment has led to a disillusionment with such products and advertising. Ever since feminism has descended as a fixture in the public conversation, albeit in a milquetoast kind of way, consumers have started to look critically at the products they are consuming. And while white, middle class women are educated enough to see through starving themselves, they are happy to spend money on fit tea weight loss programs because that is in vogue right now.
Subsequently, companies have adapted to the change in atmosphere, and have thus started to sell their products in a way that appeases the changing political views of the public, and especially millennials – the ever-hated generation who seems to be killing almost every industry from diamonds to gambling. Since the millennial generation is not as susceptible to guilt-based advertising as previous generations, what with the presence of AdBlock and the convergence of social media, advertising and marketing companies are now targeting young adults with new rules of engagement. Companies are now advised to look more ‘human’ and have a strong position regarding socioeconomic and political issues. It’s why companies like Wendy’s ‘clap back’ on Twitter just a few days before the New Year, trying to seem more relevant and human. It’s why companies like H&M and Nike that use sweatshops in third world countries put out supposedly empowering and inclusive ads that are praised in think pieces by progressive publications.
The cape of progressivism has been donned by so many different brands across the world that it seems to have lost all meaning. The messages of feminism and resistance have been co-opted freely by corporations to manipulate progressive folks to engage with their products, some of which are utterly nonsensical like this ‘Feminist AF’ t-shirt (because of course feminism involves the cultural appropriation of AAVE) or this shop that has dedicated itself to being ‘woke’. People of colour, LGBT+ folks, disabled folks and other minorities are more likely to buy a product if they feel that they are being seen, their concerns are being heard, and that they can consume the product ethically. In response, corporations are disguising their true intentions with flowery language and ad campaigns that market their products as socially responsible and politically aware while actually changing very little about the way their company functions. And instead of calling out this behaviour, mainstream media has praised these corporations for ‘caring’ about social issues and minorities. Going into the New Year, brands continue to want to seem ethical, progressive and ‘human’ so that consumers will invest in them as a result of their ideological desires.
The pressures of conforming to a certain type of person around the New Year can be especially egregious to the working class who may not be able to afford these expensive products. The holidays are already a stressful time for poor and working class families, many of whom are people of colour. Many already struggle to pay the bills, as well as deal with the financial burden of gifts and holiday preparation. For those living on the minimum wage, simply making ends meet is a constant struggle. And while Australia fares better than most countries when it comes to the minimum wage, we also have a higher cost of living that yet again places poor and working class folks at a disadvantage. The stress of the holidays and of meeting the unrealistic expectations that come with the change of the New Year can lead to severe financial challenges and economic anxiety.
As a result, many poor and working class folks resolve to spend less money. Nonetheless, brands have a way around that, with many pushing big value promotions to ‘help’ customers save money in the New Year. This can involve pushing certain popular items on certain days of the week or limiting the cost of products to an affordable amount such as $10. As a result, customers will continue to feel that they are maintaining their budget and companies will continue to draw in consumers from all walks of life.
At the end of the day, we should all work to be the best versions of ourselves, however it is worthwhile to examine whether the choices we are making towards that goal are a result of our own desires, or due to societal pressure and an induced negative view of ourselves. It is also worthwhile to realise that any major changes we wish to make in our lives do not require a certain time of the year to be implemented. It is imperative that we view the media around us with a critical lens and analyse the messages that we are being delivered.
So in 2018, my new year’s resolutions isn’t to diet or to take care of my skin or to lose weight. It’s to see myself as a whole human being, complete without the aid of any external fads or products. It is to treat myself with the respect that I deserve. It’s to do no harm but take no shit. So here’s wishing all Pelican readers a Happy New Year, and the ability to cut through all the bullshit that corporations are determined to feed us.
Ishita Mathur | @ishitamathur7