Sai Rathakrishna, Co-Editor-in-Chief
While COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges to keeping active, it has also given people plenty of time to explore new hobbies. New hobbies are being picked up, culinary creations are going viral, and plenty of passion projects are dusted off and given the attention that is much deserved.
Unfortunately for me, I spent that time getting comfortable with some of my laziest, most introverted pastimes including binge-watching new TV shows on Netflix, scrolling endlessly through my social media feeds, and doing the virtual equivalent of window shopping. But, through those somewhat aimless activities, I found an exercise that allowed me to learn more about myself in a way that I never expected.
Lately, I have been keeping track of the advertisements that I encounter on social media accounts, browsing sites via Google, news sites and various apps. I take screenshots of the ads I see and combine them to create a collage of advertisements. What you get is a fairly comprehensive visual that shows you how you fit into the systems, institutions and networks that comprise the culture in which you participate. Essentially, you are left with a representation of who you are and who you want to be.
Whenever I watch a show or film on Netflix, I occasionally pause during scenes that stand out to me. I like to do “close readings” of what is being depicted and try to extract any cultural meaning or relevance from it. We are trained to do it in English and in related fields of study and it becomes a very thrilling experience outside the classroom as well. But how often do we take a moment to critically engage with the advertisements that we see? To me, an ad sometimes offers a benign, convenient way to access the Aritzia site and drool over the grossly overpriced items that have been sitting in my shopping cart for weeks. At other times, they seem to fade into the margins in which they’re placed; they are simply “there”.
There are many explanations for why ads don’t often inspire close readings. The ubiquity of advertisements is one of them: ads are present everywhere we breathe, in private and public spaces, conveyed through varying mediums and platforms. Advertising is naturalized and implicit in our culture to the extent that we aren’t always sensitive to their presence. There also doesn’t seem to be much to analyze in the ads you find online anyways. They communicate their intent in a direct manner; words are kept to a couple sentences at most and there are often phrases like “Shop Now” and “Up to 50% off” that prompt me to click on the ad well before my bank account balance comes to mind. They are designed to evoke impulsive reactions, so perhaps they refuse thoughtful analysis.
These ads may be straightforward, but studying them alongside each other builds a repository of information that can serve as a springboard for deeper evaluations of your values and interests. What’s most exciting about this exercise is that it gives you the opportunity to consider how your values change over time. You can compare your needs and interests pre- and post- COVID-19. Your ads may reflect changing interests from the time before you meet someone, to the present day when you find yourselves in the midst of an exciting friendship. Keeping track of the ads that appear over months and years can facilitate your learning about yourself in a unique way.
Take the TIME magazine ad, for instance. Focusing on this ad brings to mind the coverage of the Jan.20 U.S. presidential inauguration that gave me tremendous hope about the future. TIME isn’t selling me a magazine subscription; TIME is selling me the pride that arises from being able to witness this historical moment. Ads are similar to Netflix shows in that they are effective in triggering the imagination. The result is that the ad supplements my memory of that event with a product that will help me find even more ways to feel good about, and relate to, that moment in time. I look forward to more equally captivating moments in time which I could compare to the feelings generated from the TIME ad. Perhaps one day I’ll feel nostalgic enough to purchase a subscription.
Ads do more than validate current interests. The ad for Ryerson University’s Graduate Studies promises that you can “realize your future” if you invest in their service. With one click, you can open yourself up to a range of academic pathways which may open up career paths and so forth. Reflecting on this ad, I feel comforted knowing that my worries about my future career are recognized, and that this institution has a solution for me. It seems that ads don’t just try to appeal to confirmed feelings. They also attempt to validate and capitalize on insecurities, then try to persuade the consumer that they are making the right choice by investing in their product. An illusion of agency is upheld long enough for the consumer to take further action.
Advertisements are often discussed as deceptive and distracting. It’s also tough to digest the fact that a lot of the ads shown to us online are based on our browser histories. However, we can appreciate them for what they lay bare to us about ourselves. It’s possible to find some agency in our overwhelming exposure to advertising. It’s possible to add more connotations to the concept of advertising overall.