What do advertisements really sell? Their effect may be to drive purchase of a given product or service, but what they are often selling is something more nebulous. Contemporary advertising and marketing are in the business of creating and cultivating desire. Car commercials sell not just a vehicle, but a social status. Beverage advertisements promote not a product, but a lifestyle. These texts work to stimulate an appetite for the products – and all they stand for – in the mind and heart of the person who sees them.
What is being sold is not just a given product or service, but the promise of much more: a kind of personhood, sometimes an ethical position, a lifestyle, a status. When we purchase something, we convey to ourselves and those around us that we are the kind of person who can and does buy this kind of thing, whether it be an iPhone, fair trade coffee, a Louis Vuitton bag, or a Vitamix blender. However, although thrilling and satisfying in the moment, the product itself does not fulfill the desire that prompted the purchase. Rather, the desire (for the given status or lifestyle) continues, and now you have in your possession just another object or service.
The philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan developed a theory of ethics that emerges out of his theory of desire. Desire is central to Lacan’s understanding of the human psyche. For Lacan, desire is necessarily always unsatisfied, but nonetheless a motivator. What is actually desired remains always just out of reach. Like a mirage in the desert, it is an unattainable entity that nonetheless structures the journey. Of course, other philosophers such as the Buddha have noted this same tendency for desire to morph endlessly anew and have deemed desire the root of all suffering. For Lacan, though, these shifting desires ought not be denied, for that way lies only repression and potential psychic harm. Rather, he considers desire in the context of movement and change. Desire is in some ways a motor for human actions and choices.
But even as our desires move us to act in specific ways, for Lacan, our desires are never really our own. Rather, they are always intersubjective; that is, our desires link us to other people, to a broader community. For instance, Lacan argues that “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other” (Seminar XI, p. 235). What he means by this is that we triangulate our own desires through the desires of an Other. When our desires are shared by this Other, they recognize us as desiring subjects. In this way, when we desire something that someone else desires, what we seek may not even be the thing itself – but the recognition that comes from the shared desire. For instance, when people wait in line all night long before the release of a new phone or sneaker, they do not do so merely because they want the product, but because by waiting in line, they become a part of a community, and can be recognized as part of that larger community, as a person who desires the latest iPhone or the newest Nike kicks.
The importance of recognition in this context relies on thinking about the subject (versus an object) in Western philosophy. The subject is one who can act. Lacan draws on Hegel’s theory of the subject in his analysis, for whom the subject could never exist in isolation, but required recognition from another in order to become a subject. (For Hegel, this recognition distinguishes the master from the slave.) So, following this tradition of other Western philosophers, individuals become subjects in the moment of their recognition, and for Lacan, (shared) desire is the occasion for this recognition. Provocatively, we might think about this in terms of social media, where a culture of “selfies” is so often interpreted as a signal of increasing narcissism and self-indulgence in today’s youth. Instead, these selfies can be read as cries for recognition, where recognition comes in the form of a “like” on Facebook or Instagram.
For Lacan, the Other is more often than not something that cannot be known: an existential otherness. More simply, he’s talking about the limits of human connection, and the truth that even the deepest connection does not enable a shared consciousness. There are always facets to another person that you can’t fully know. Even after being married for many years, a spouse may do or say something surprising or unexpected. At the same time, the desire to be connected to other individuals, to be recognized by them, is central to Lacan’s understanding of human interaction. Far from being selfish or self-indulgent, desire is, in this framework, always about an Other, even about a community of other individuals. Even selfies are less about the self than about the community that sustains them. And for Lacan, this is where one can find ethics in desire. Following one’s desire is, in the end, not about the self, but about the other – about a connection with another individual or beings, and about seeking transformation, even if it lies always beyond our reach.
If we return now to the world of contemporary advertising and marketing, we know that these media work by inspiring desire. We tend to think of advertisements as appealing to our inner desires, and that satisfying them is an act of some kind of selfishness. Even the purchase of the “ethical” product is appealing in part because it makes us feel good about ourselves and the money we’re spending, because in so spending, we’re helping someone else. But how might advertising be challenged more radically if it were to consider the collective or intersubjective nature of desire? What might advertisements built on the human desire for connection and recognition look like? And how might we harness a collective desire for something more transformative?
Elizabeth Kelley, PhD is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.
Photo: Emily Orpin