Visual Communication by definition is a creative process that combines the visual arts and technology to communicate ideas to a range of wide and specific audiences. On paper as designers, our job is to take an idea and transform it into a clear thought provoking message by manipulating the visual aspects of colour, type, movement, symbols and image. But in order to communicate a specific message to people, we, as Visual Communicators; are required to look into aspects of ‘making the world a better place’ and producing some thing that will world widely inform, educate, persuade and engage. Focusing only on the visual aspects of work cannot do this, all aspects of interpretation must be considered in order to communicate successfully.
There are many issues and topics that are looked at and focused on in various works of artists and visual communicators. A particularly interesting subject is the theme of growing consumerist culture within modern society. It can be argued that our reliance on consumer goods is unavoidable, due to the capitalist economic system we live in. Our culture over time has developed through social conflict and a materialist basis forcing community into social classes ranked in order of wealth, and ultimately, who is able to consume the most. It seems that people who are placed in the highest social class are looked at as superior to others and we worship the mass consumer, rewarding them with our attention and support. The celebrity cult has become a fundamental part of our society and we crave the knowledge and details of their lives. This is supported by magazine sales and the endless list of reality TV programmes that reoccur series after series because they have become a necessary part of our life routine. When did we begin to admire people for their extravagant life style or vast wealth instead of their talents and aspirations? When did it become acceptable to dictate to people where they should be ranked in society according to how materially decorated their lives are with consumer goods? These are questions that I will be investigating through visual communication, art and design.
The consumer market rely hugely on branding in order for their products to sell. Bright colours, large text and gaudy images make products look modern and interesting and it is often the labels on our famous home brands that we are drawn to rather than the product its self. Companies advertise product after product using the promise that they can improve our exterior appearance; we are constantly told we are inadequate and this all accumulates to our reliance on consumer goods. “Author John Berger believes that advertising robs us of our love for ourselves (by portraying us in an impoverished state) and then gives it back for the price of a purchase. Beauty comes from within… your wallet.” 3 We have become so accustomed to purchasing, and comfortable in multiplex shopping malls that impulse buying has become the norm.
Commercial art is apparent in many aspects of modern society and is used as a tool to manipulate an audience into thinking their product is better than another. Commercialisation started to trend within artistry during the postmodernist movement with the revelation of pop and commercial art, one of the leading artists being Andy Warhol who was most acknowledged as a commercial artist. Works like the ‘Campbell’s’ soup-can (Oil on canvas- 1962), ‘Coffee Label’ (Silkscreen on canvas 1962), Coca-Cola bottles (Silkscreen ink, synthetic polymer paint- 1962) and the Del Monte Box (Silkscreen on wood- 1964) lead him to his main success. As well as these pieces Warhol had an interest in film and the celebrity cult leading to the ideas provided for his Marilyn and Elvis prints.
“Most critics in the early 1960s adopted more generic nomenclature to characterize the commercial imagery and techniques borrowed by Pop-art. A sampling of the critical rubrics chosen to modify the type of “culture” evoked by Pop art would include “the mass”, “signboard,” “commercial,” “popular”, “mass media.” 2 As well as bright, gaudy colours and bold texts repetition was a common technique in commercial art in the 1950/60’s particularly in the works of Warhol. These prints, by Warhol, show American culture from different aspects.
Coca-Cola Bottles 1962 silkscreen ink, synthetic polymer paint
Marilyn Monroe 1962 silkscreen ink, synthetic polymer paint
For example the Coca-Cola bottles are an average daily product and then the Marilyn prints show the glamour and wealth of America, both different spectrums of the consumer scale. Using the same technique for such opposite images almost gives them no differentiation, suggesting that to Warhol embodying Monroe was as achievable as buying a Coca-Cola. Both images are aesthetically interesting to their audience, the focus of the prints are aspects of wealth and were of great excitement to the public. It could be questioned that would they have been equally as successful had the subject been a topic of more world changing events such as the Vietnam war which was evolving at this time. This again raises the question, are we focused on a bigger picture and keeping the ethos of ‘world change’ in mind or are we simply impressed by aesthetics and the symbols of never ending wealth?
“Did you know that Times Square is ‘the only neighbourhood with a zoning ordinance requiring tenants to display bright signs’, its actually illegal for a sign not to be illuminated, or the average person is exposed to 5000 advertising messages per day?”6 This statistic emphasises the height of advertising in our society, the vicious consumer circle of- commercial, price, purchase, consume. The media has become a supporting pillar in our society and they remove any normalcy from day to day life and substitute it with glamour and false image of what our lives should be idealised as. In order for the media to reproduce a story as news the information must be selected, assessed, interpreted, processed and finally broadcasted, this is called ‘gatekeeping’. Journalists allow certain stories to reach readers and viewers but reject many others, yet we still rely on the media as a reliable source. It can also be argued that we have developed an attitude of disinterest to any information that is not negative or at least dramatic. What is worse, readers and viewers become more interested in stories that lead its audience to believe that they are in a better situation than others. As well as the publication of products that will improve our lives the media also publicise individual people in the form of celebrities encouraging the idea that living the same life style, as these effectively random figures will achieve ultimate happiness. A sadistic game is created in order for the media to create these figures of idealism, ‘The Media Game’- these steps consist first, the publication and build-up of a nobody with constant exposure. Secondly, the media gain control and manipulate that person’s actions by constant scrutinizing and commentating. Lastly and finally, destroy that person by his or her own trial of media. Now in modern day we have the influence of ‘trial by media’ but also another twisted version is the example of ‘trial by a jury of your own peers’ where popular TV programmes such as ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and the American alternative ‘Jerry Springer’, where the audience is the general public, who are left to decide what is right and wrong within some one else’s life. A great example of this ‘trial of your own peers’ is the ‘social experiment’ Big Brother, which is simply the recording of the medias previous ‘has-beens’ surviving in a house together, and we as viewers thrive on the conflict and drama this creates, this is supported by the successful TV ratings of the show.
Round the world news about these chosen celebrities is craved as if it is something that is required for the world to progress. We watch and read and accept what is sold to us as happiness in the form of wealth and material goods. Our idols have become personifications of money, as we have eventually become more interested and ultimately impressed by their personal lives and the material side of their careers rather than the talents they possess. We choose to take up interest in those who have a more expensive car or house rather than issues of real substance and impact for example the current problems of rapid climate change or constant war around the world that has effectively stemmed from conflict against who has more power and control over a population that does not concern them. We constantly create competition within our society of who can climb to the highest slot in the ladder of social class, who has the most wealth to consume the latest and most impressive products on the market that are being shoved down our throats through magazine, television and other forms of media. “While purchasing creates great anxiety, it is a necessary public duty, I shop there for I am. We humans no longer prove our existence through thought- cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am- as philosophers have always believed, but evidently do so at the checkout.”3
Christine Hill ‘A Consumers Guide to Times Square Advertising’
Above is the work of Christine Hill who has complied facts and figures about Times Square advertising into an informative and engaging artwork. The wheel illustrates 156 facts about the commercialisation and marketing of the outdoors advertisements in Times Square that reach the public eyes. The wheel shows the statistics- The company slogan, Notable product, Impressions per day, Outdoor rank, Total advertising dollars spent per year, Size of board, Type of board and Outdoor AD dollars spent percentage of company total. Hill teamed with ‘Times Square Alliance’ and the art group ‘Creative Time’ in order to promote her creation. Actors were enlisted and dressed as 1950’s cigarette girls who distributed the pamphlet wheel to shoppers around Times Square. There was no charge for the informative pamphlet wheel. The work consists of two layers, the bottom layer (the wheel) has the company at the top and as you spin the wheel, changing the name of the company, new facts emerge in the top layer where the designed windows are displayed. The art piece was designed with an evoking blinking-neon 1950’s Manhattan theme, 1950’s imagery and typography recalling similar consumer guides of the time. The New York wheel has an aesthetic of the ‘American Dream’ but contrastingly symbolises the message of the impact of branding and advertisement, which in reality is beginning to take over our outside space. Our public areas are simply sold to the highest bidder with no regard to the repercussions of these brain washing illuminated billboards, creating sky rocketing emissions impacting on our global climate and feeding the message of our reliance on consumer brands to the young generation that will then grown up to fall into this never ending cycle of commercial, price, purchase, consume. “This domain formally rejected by many artists, is now embedded in the dialogue of public art due to its presence in every day life.”6
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I Shop There For I Am), 1987. 111×113 in (282×287 cm). Photographic silkscreen/vinyl. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Above is the work of Barbara Kruger, who gives her viewers a subjective approach with this photograph; this is opposite to the objective approach of Christine Hill yet both pieces create awareness for the same appeal. ‘I shop there for I am’ is aesthetically vivid and makes a bold visual statement where as Hill’s work although could be interpreted not as visually strong, has a more informative approach whilst engaging and educating her audience.
Kruger’s work suggests the notion of how we are now programmed due to the molding of our society that purchasing is what gives us the ability to define our identity, we are lead to believe that the types of things that we own slots us into our correct social group and we purchase the things necessary in order to pass through the gates of social acceptance. ‘I shop therefor I am’ as a statement rather than the composed art piece above, suggests that there is no longer any thought in our actions and consumption is just therefor nature, our way of life and survival. We have created a system where our economy relies on our consumption, and although this is causing many problematic repercussions environmentally, mentally, economically and politically we are unable to change our over consuming ways as it could potentially destroy the economy that we are now adjust too.
Adbusters Buy Nothing Day 26th November
Adbusters Consumer Pig
Black Friday is an American tradition where by on the fourth Thursday of the November month major retail stores open obscenely early and offer promotional sales on the majority of their stock, this day is regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping period. We have the equivalent day here in Brittain referred to as the Boxing Sales, whereby we are expected and encouraged to spend as much as we can, maxing our debit and credit cards, adding to the Christmas debt we just accumulated, all while the offers last for that day. Christmas consumption is one of the biggest catch 22’s of our generation, the material goods we buy our loved ones and the mounds of food we purchase in order to make ourselves temporarily happy until the Christmas period is over and the mass majority have to face the realisation of their finances for the upcoming new year. The money we use to support this now consumer based tradition goes back into the ongoing cycle of our consumption reliant economy thus keeping the cycle going and even more difficult to break. Adbusters raised awareness for the occasion ‘Buy Nothing Day’ on the 26th of November as apposed to ‘Black Friday’ as a statement that we do not need to be forced out by the stores into the mad rush of spend, spend, spend. ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is already celebrated in 65 other countries, as is ‘TV Turn Off Week’ (April 24th-30th). This is a week where by we restrain from watching TV for one week decreasing our electricity emissions and increasing our mind stimulation. Adbusters were unable to buy any airtime from television stations MTV, FOX, ABC, NBCC and CBS for their ‘The Consumer Pig’ add, this raises a question of what other advertisements are not granted airtime? It also supports the theory of our society is controlled by media, as we are only able to view what they choose to show us.
After watching and researching some of the work by the Adbusters organisation I discovered from viewing an interview with the Editor and Chief of Adbusters Magazine, Kalle Lasn, that in two generations the worldwide rates of consuming has increased by 300%. Equally increased over the same amount of time are the rates of anxiety, depression and mood disorders. This raises the question, does purchasing market goods that are promised to make us happy actually make us happy or are we just accustomed to spending? Advertising culture force us into guilt and make us believe that it is out of the ordinary to restrain from spending money and consuming material goods that evidently from the statistics given are not making us any happier but actually dragging us further down the spiral of debt and anxiety. “The Rich 1 billion people on the planet consume 86% of all the global goods on the market leaving a lousy 14% for the rest of the 5 billion people on the plant, and then we wonder why it has economical and political problems!” 4
Brook and Goodrick K Foundation Burn A Million Quid
K Foundation caused a lot of controversy in their work similar to the works by Adbusters, and there was particular debate over the act of burning 1 million pounds. It has been argued that this was simply an act of selfishness from a pair of arrogant ex pop stars trying to become artists looking for a publicity stunt. However there is the apposed argument of what is the difference between burning 1 million pounds and spending it? Would there have been an equal amount of disgust had the money of been spent on cars or other material goods? Or would that just have been a normal and worthwhile thing to do with the money? “BD- what resources have we destroyed? What is there less of in the world? Are there fewer loaves of bread or grains of rice in the world because that much paper doesn’t exist anymore? JD- so what are we supposed to do – buy things with it?” 1 It can be argued that burning the money is effectively the same as spending it on unnecessary material goods that we are told and believe will improve the state of our own lives, is this not a selfish act within itself?
It was argued that the burning was an act of disrespect and almost a mockery of those who are not so fortunate that they can afford to burn 1 million pounds of their own money. Many people asked why the money was not given to charity or put to ‘good use’ as there are millions or homeless and penniless people around Britain and millions more round the rest of the world. “MOA- If you’d wanted to make a real statement, you’d have taken what you required and returned it to those people from whom it was taken. We only have more because they have less- its not possible to have more without your returning it.”1
K Foundation proclaimed that the act of burning and the publicity of the footage was to raise the question in peoples minds, what should have been done with 1 million pounds? “BD- we had a lot of different ideas about what we thought… None of the ideas were as strong as just burning it.” 1 This relates to the statement from the Canadian philosopher Marshal McLuhan- ‘The message is in the Medium.’5 K foundation could have portrayed the same message of burning the money through other more traditional forms of art but none would have had the same level of impact as the physical act of burning 1 million pounds and then choosing the medium of film in order to publicise it. People could see 1 millions pounds disintegrating in front if their eyes and although it created great controversy it still created conversation and ultimately thought generation about the piece.
Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse originally made on cartridge paper
Many criticisms where made by the piece of burning 1 million pounds but ultimately the art piece made no profit. Through this K foundation achieved what many artists would wish. An art piece was created that made no profit and although was ambiguous still raised questions about the money. Many artists claim to stand against capitalist and consumer society yet for them to sustain a successful career as an ‘artist’ their work must be sold in order to make profit and live in the society that we have created, ultimately placing them as another pillar in the consumer reliant economic system.
A question stands, are we focused on a bigger picture, keeping the ethos of ‘world change’ in mind, or do file with the rest of society leaving things as they are because in the short term that is the easiest option?
“We designers are the creators of the medium rather than the message. We are the creators of meaning, and more than any other profession we have the power to change the world.”4
- The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid- brook and goodrick
Published by Ellipsis in 1997, Charlotte road London
- A Taste For Pop. Popart, Gender and Consumer Culture- Cecile Whiting
Published by The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge in 1997 (UK)
Printed in the United States
- Essentials of Visual Communication- Bo Bergstrom
Published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd in 2008
City road London UK
Kalle Lasn Motivational Lecture
Marshal McLuhan interview
Christine Hill- A Consumers Guide To Time Square Advertising