Taming Capitalism’s Desire Machine aka Advertising
By taming the Desire Machine (aka Advertising), we won’t really need to buy all the things that we don’t really need, so super production will not be matched by super-consumption, thus successfully breaking the wasteful cycle. That's the high-level summary of this article.
We cannot solve capitalism's side effects (inequality and climate change) without editing capitalism itself. There are several functions that determine the outputs of the current system. There is the Production Function, the Distribution Function, and Desire Function.
- Production Function — goods and services produced by corporations and individuals under the capitalistic system. This has reached a state of overproduction.
- Distribution Function — this is how goods and services created are distributed across society. Under capitalism, they are distributed in a manner that maximizes the profit function. This function ideally wants to distribute all goods produced but the profit motive puts a limit on it. The contradiction is that some sections of society cannot afford some goods, hence the function has to distribute more to those who already have. The distribution function is in a state of suboptimality.
- The Desire Function — this is simply the advertising and marketing department. Its goal is to capture human desire and channel it towards the consumption of goods produced and distributed. This has reached a state of overproduction too (i.e., too much of it is being produced).
In order to debug capitalism and save the social order and the environment, we have to address these functions. The production function is the hardest one to edit. Governments prefer to address the production function by a combination of the following:
- Trade tariffs
- Carbon credits
- Trade wars
- Production rations
- Emission guidelines
All of these and others seek to edit the production function so that it does not produce in a way that damages the environment and in a way that does not create and sustain huge inequality gaps across regions, countries, areas, etc. Editing the behavior of the production function is hard because the earth is not yet one truly united village. Tough edits in one area only allow capital to leave and migrate to another area by relocating the production function.
The distribution function is also hard to edit. Ideologies such as socialism and communism see this function as the most problematic. They recognize that we produce enough and have enough resources to produce enough, but it's how (firstly) these resources to produce, and (secondly) the goods produced are distributed around that's problematic. The profit motive, they say, captures a lot of value from workers and customers. This function is suboptimal in that it creates extreme inequalities as those who already have obtain more at a faster rate than those who don't have much. The inequalities are a threat to system stability. Attempts to edit the distribution function include the following:
- Price controls
- Embargoes, quotas, tariffs
- Funny Licensing requirements
- Visible Hand of government (social services, social housing, food banks) replacing Adam Smith's Invisible Hand
The Desire Function is at the center of this article. There have been few attempts at editing this function, the most common one being tobacco consumption. Editing the Desire Function results in editing human behavior because human behavior is driven by desire. Capitalism has captured human desire and utilizes it for its own fulfillment of profit and accumulation of that surplus.
Before we dig into Advertising and Desire, let's consider the state of production because it will give context to the current state of the Desire Machine.
Super — Production
Production is good. Super-production is not so good, because it results in wastage and strains the environment unnecessarily. What is super-production? Put simply, this is producing way more than needed.
Where is the evidence that we are in a state of super-production? The evidence is hidden in the wastages, the inventories, and planned obsolescence. The super-produced stuff goes to the landfill (landfill economy). The evidence lies in excessive inventories. The super production element manifests in having to produce and sell the same thing many times to the same client via planned obsolescence as opposed to selling it once in a long period of time.
It has to be noted that super production does not necessarily mean saturation of markets. It doesn't necessarily mean everyone has. Why? Because the distribution function has profit parameters. It only ensures those who have the financial means can have it. Thus, the saturation is within set parameters.
This means it is possible to have both super production and deprivation in the same economy. The haves actually have a lot of it, whilst the have-nots don't have anything at all. Super-produced housing means there will be a lot of empty houses to rent and a lot of homeless people at the same time. These are the internal contradictions that Karl Max foresaw. For some goods, prices don't really go down that much because the production function is not too responsive, hence prices stay up to satisfy profits.
Way too many goods and services are in a state of super production. Food, clothing, electronic gadgets, toys, toys for rich people, accounting services, automobiles, cryptocurrencies, sex work, and most of the goods and services you can think of. To drive home the point, food, for example, is super-produced but is also super-wasted, thus scarcities appear in areas of the world whilst abundance is bountiful in other parts of the world.
To further illustrate super production, think of a world with say only 1 million babies. Let's say a good diaper can hold for 6 hours, thus the baby needs 4 diapers per day. This gives a total of 1.4 billion diapers per year. Improvements in retention could reduce this number. However due to super production, the economy can produce 2 billion diapers, but it cannot distribute them equally to all the million babies. Some of the babies are born to poor families who cannot afford 6 diapers per day. To over-compensate, capitalism tries to distribute way more diapers to those families that are able to buy, pushing their consumption from 6 diapers per day to 10 diapers per day. At the same time, every other company tries to differentiate its diapers with silly differences like scent, branding, and packaging which don't really affect the basic functionality. Some, in order to get the much-needed sales, reduce the basic functionality by say reducing the retention hours from 6 to 3, and then slightly reducing the price, so that they compete on the price. A family now uses 10 inferior quality diapers instead of 6 quality diapers. All these are gimmicks to accommodate super production. They play out at local, regional, national, and global levels.
The fact that super production is hidden doesn't mean it's not there.
Advertising in itself is not bad. Super-advertising is however undesirable. Super advertising pesters us all day, every day, driving us to consume all these things that we don't really need.
We are living in an era of super-advertising. Our biggest corporations are in the advertising business. Most Big Tech business models are built around this. They are a part of this giant Desiring Machine. Facebook is in the advertising industry, and so is Google, Tick Tok, Twitter, etc.
If you don't think we are in an era of super advertising, I got one task for you. Just google any product you can think of (couch, phone, summer jacket). The moment you do that, adverts for that item will follow you wherever you go online. They will be with you until you let the powers that be know that you no longer want the item or that you have purchased it already.
Super advertising is a reality. It's a thing. It's also annoying #af.
The equation has to balance
Super-production results in a lot of goods and services that have to find a home. Super-production has to be equally matched with super-advertising. Without super advertising, super production gets stranded. Goods stay in inventories and services are not rendered.
The desire, to consume, is not always there. It has to be created. It has to be produced, just like how the goods are produced. Some might argue that it is always there lying in an innate state, and it has to be awakened. I think it's the other way round, it's only that capitalism captures our desire so we cannot see how it is the other way around due to capitalistic realism.
Humans are semi-gods. They have a finite desire to consume and an infinite desire to create. Every human being wants to produce something. He/She wants to exercise that creative power as if he is a god/goddess. That creative desire is unlimited. What is limited is the consumptive desire. You can only eat so much food and you are full. You can only live in so many houses and use so many cars and smartphones. Your food intake is limited by your stomach size whereas your creative goals are unlimited, which is why we dream of going to space.
The Desire Machine deployed by capitalism has to capture the desire to create and convert it into a desire to consume. That captured desire is thus a created desire (i.e., more of a converted desire). It is artificial. It is not a natural desire. It’s created by the Desire Machine (aka Advertising) in order to capture your desires and channel them towards the consumption of capitalism’s super-produced goods. Capitalism captures “desire” for its own selfish interests.
For More on Desire
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, address Capitalism and Schizophrenia with a focus on desire. Their definition of the Desiring Machines is encompassing and is based on philosophical arguments against Freud's psychoanalysis and some bits of a critique on capitalism and how it captures desire instead of liberating it. Reading on that provides insights on desire.
The context and meaning of Desire Machines I extract here is limited to that of the advertising and marketing function under capitalism, especially in its super form.
For a detailed explanation of the role of advertising from an Anti-Oedipus perspective, I recommend the video below.
Tobacco and Diamonds — Examples of Gamed Desire
Our civilization has actually tried to actively game desire. We deliberately played around with policies. On diamonds, we consciously artificially created desire. On tobacco, we tamed the Desire Machine.
These two products provide examples of how capitalism plays around desire. The desire to have a diamond ring at a wedding was commercialized by one company, De Beers. They deployed a Desire Machine that made sure the super-production (mining) of diamonds in South Africa was matched by super-consumption in America and the rest of the world.
A diamond is beautiful, yes, but we don't eat it and it serves few real functions in real life other than just looking at it. Did we really have to destroy the environment just to mine these diamonds from the earth? Talk about bloody wars (blood diamonds) and conflicts that have torn countries like Sierra Leone. All done in order to satisfy the desire of someone somewhere, who wants to look at a beautiful stone. From a bird’s eye view of the world, it's total madness. The desire was never supposed to be created, commercialized, and sustained in the first place.
Now that progress is advanced on the creation of diamonds in the lab, there will be way more super-production, which will have to be matched by super-consumption and thus need super advertising. Yet, due to profit constraints, there will be a need to create artificial scarcities to maintain the prestige status.
The article here from the Atlantic provides insights into “How an Ad Campaign Invented the Diamond Engagement Ring”. This is a front-row seat into the dynamics of creating desire. You can see how the Desiring Machine rises to the occasion to match super production.
Tobacco, on the other hand, is a product where several governments and players concerned with health have deliberately decided to curtail the effectiveness of the Desire Machine. Some jurisdictions have outright bans on tobacco advertising and marketing. Some have partial bans with a lot of caveats.
Tobacco is dangerous to health, but for the moment, it provided a nicotine high. There are way too many products that are entirely useless with no real utility at all but are pushed to consumers to buy-buy-buy. The action taken on tobacco was necessary because tobacco was actually killing us. If it wasn't killing us, no action would have been taken.
The number of active smokers has declined over the years and is expected to continue falling.
What we have done here is to restrain capitalism from having unfettered access to create/awaken the desire to smoke. We were forced to react because tobacco was killing us. Yet, we are killing the environment by allowing capitalism to have unfettered access to create/awaken desire. We need to act because killing the environment will kill us all in return.
We take the lessons from tobacco and apply them to many other products.
What will be the Outcomes?
Imagine a world without ads. That doesn't entirely stop production, or entirely eliminate wasteful super production. However, that world goes a long way in reducing excesses. Capital flows will be directed towards needs (where desire is guaranteed) and less towards wants.
There will be enough capital available to solve the essentials. Under-investment in essentials will be a thing of the past. Investments in non-essentials will not be exuberant. Planned obsolescence will be toned down because it will be hard to push those products to consumers in the absence of clever advertising. the economy becomes more authentic. The layer of fakeness gets scrapped away.
We create a sustainable world with a lower toll on the environment.
The goal is to be creative enough to take earthly society beyond scarcity. We cannot live to see Post Scarcity Communism if destroy the earth now. The earth has to survive long enough to give us time to develop past scarcities.
The idea that only unfettered capitalism enables maximum creativity is incorrect and misleading. Humans will still be creative even outside the confines of the profit motive. As we have seen, creativity under capitalism is extremely wasteful and destructive.
Taming Capitalism's Desire Machine means taming the Aggregate Demand Curve. Economists don't like this. But wait, have you had a look inside that Aggregate Demand Curve? What's in there? There is a portion of a real needed economy mixed up with a load of wastage, pointless consumption, planned obsolescence, and a load of rubbish. Senseless consumption finds its way into Aggregate Demand. Surely, this senseless consumption must be pruned so that Aggregate mostly constitutes consumption that is necessary.
The outcome of taming the Desire Machine is that growth becomes mostly real and necessary growth. We strip waste out of it, and we have a chance at becoming a more sustainable civilization.