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The growth of advertising and the political economy of dissatisfaction

Advertising is no less important in producing and regulating the new spirit of capitalism. It too conducts a subtle game of instrumentalizing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with capitalism as a motivation for consumption. This was witnessed as early as the 1920s, when American marketers targeted a growing collective sense of ennui and alienation from urban-capitalist existence, a feeling that more innocent, dependable relations were being lost. The images used to sell products during the 1920s and 30s were specifically drawn from a social ideal of traditional family and community life that industrial capitalism appeared to be destroying. [15]By the 1960s, advertising was tapping into frustrations with bourgeois and bureaucratic routines, speaking to the counter-culture even as it was first emerging. [16] Advertising, like management theory, is fuelled by a critique of the dominant normative-economic regime within which it sits, facilitating safe acts of micro-rebellion against the macro-social order. It acts as capital’s own trusted moral and artistic critic in order to inspire additional psychological engagement on the part of ordinary worker-consumers. Dissatisfaction is reduced to a psychological tendency to be fed back into processes of production and consumption. As a result, understanding such psychological qualities as impulse, libido and frustration—often in the micro-social context of the ‘focus group’—has been key to the development of advertising since the 1920s.

– Will Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness 

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