Advertising for the better

A Reading Note

Berger connects the art of the Renaissance—in particular, the imagery of possessions and wealth—to advertising in the modern age:

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 139

Whereas the Renaissance tradition of painting was to prove one’s wealth to current and future viewers, advertising inspires daydreams of the wealth the viewer hopes to one day have. The more deferred the daydream, the more effective the advertising.

Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 131

Which brings to mind Bill McKibben’s argument about more and better:

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing inefficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book. It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.

McKibben, Deep Economy, page 3

Related books

Ways of Seeing

John Berger

Based on the BBC documentary, Berger begins with a retelling of Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and concludes with a brilliant analysis of modern day advertising and its roots in Renaissance-era oil painting.

Deep Economy

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben indicts the current economic system for it’s single-minded pursuit of “more” without regard for whether or not it is (or can be) “better.”