Written by Le Ngan Ha Dieu
Long gone are the days when pictures were taken with the purpose of being hung on one’s wall for personal viewing, and occasional appreciation from guests/visitors. The ever-evolving boom of commercial businesses has put in place numerous platforms where pictures can be exhibited. Newspapers, as one of the first to feature photographs, have also seen a rise in visual aid used in the process of marketing and advertising; such purposes have only strengthened the importance of photographs in growing businesses, resulting in more demand for visual-based publicity. Such publicity, from the early era of television and newspaper domination to the explosion of social media, has had fundamental effects on the minds of mankind in terms of social consciousness and emotions resulting from the mass socialization of pictures.
Picture publicity, as Berger illustrated, played a big part in how the consciousness of social situations is internalized, at least in Western society. To Berger, publicity in Western countries symbolized “The Free World” (Berger 2008:131), where businesses are free to produce and trade, customers are free to choose and buy, and the best way to liquidize such processes is through pictures. The flow of businesses is then a flood of pictures, products, and services; the more customers see, the more they are influenced by an image of a new, more modern self whom they imagine to be owning such products. Such imagination grows continuously among the sea of publicity because customers are well aware of their freedom of purchase. In this sense, publicity gives people the taste of reality, where it is a free market, hence should also be beneficial for anyone participating in that market. Pictures not only speak for the products, but also for the state of the present; the more they cover and the more people they exhibit themselves to, the stronger this sense of freedom is promoted, which is exactly what people want to believe about society.
Berger also pointed out another effect of publicity, which is envy. Relating to how publicity makes people imagine the self that owns the advertised products, Berger argued that “Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be” (Berger 2008:131). What is this envy that is created by the flood of publicity? When customers imagine themselves owning the products, they envy their imagined selves because they know how products add to their social status, which then drives them to purchase. The envy for oneself then becomes the need to be the envied/the envy of others. If you are envied, you are standing on higher grounds than those who envy you, and “you are observed with interest” (Berger 2008:133). The desire to be envied makes people dissatisfied with their present selves and yearn for the products that would presumably fulfill such satisfaction. Hence, “the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product” (Berger 2008:134). However, such envy does not manifest itself in the publicity of the late 20th century. Envy now manifests in the virtual world of publicity, where millions of pictures are circulating/circulated on social media, advertising not only products but also people’s lives. Instagram is an example of such media. It is essentially a platform where pictures come first, texts come later; more and more people are publicizing their lives on this platform, making them objects of envy. People are granted the freedom to “follow” anyone on Instagram, choosing how many and what kind of pictures they want to see on their timeline. This freedom comes with the possibility that people are more envious of the “glamor” they see in those they follow. A study in 2015 by Katerina Lup suggested that “at higher levels of strangers followed, greater Instagram use was associated with greater depressive symptoms through social comparison as a mediator” (Lup et al 2015:250-251). Similar to how customers envy the image of themselves owning products of publicity, Instagram users envy the imagined version of themselves that might lead the publicized lives of whom they see on the site. This envy is the “social comparison” that Lup mentioned, where users constantly compare themselves to others due to the excessive amounts of pictures being posted every minute. The effect of such envy now elevates to “depressive symptoms”, where people are no longer satisfied with their lives and are surrounded by insecurity created by such online publicity. Now, the publicity still steals people’s love for themselves, and possibly their lives, and offers it back at the price of psychological disdain that they have to bear on themselves. From my personal experience of social media publicity, such mental effects are affirmative. However, pictures cannot always show every detail of whatever is publicized. Sometimes, there are things that are not clearly shown. For example, no one would have known my own life problems from seeing my colorful traveling pictures. This notion means that publicity now is sometimes only what we aspire/dream of, not entirely representing our reality.
- Berger, John. Ways of seeing. Chapter 7 (129-154). Penguin UK, 2008.
- Lup, Katerina, Leora Trub, and Lisa Rosenthal. “Instagram# instasad?: exploring associations among Instagram use, depressive symptoms, negative social comparison, and strangers followed.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 18.5 (2015): 247-252.
This paper is originally written as an assignment for the course Visual Sociology (2021), offered by Dr. Haruna Miyagawa