British art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing examined the enduring relationship between fine arts and advertising — often drawing parallels between the techniques used in Renaissance art (subject as hero, objects as symbols, mood, atmosphere) and their continued use today. Oil paintings, for instance, portrayed the lives of subjects as they already were; ads today, in contrast, portray our lives as we would like them to be. Lives that we want to have — suggesting that we can fill this gap with a transformational purchase that will alleviate our perceived inadequacies.
While proponents will explain and prove that advertising ultimately benefits the consumer, every piece of publicity (to use Berger’s word for advertising) confirms and enhances every other to such an extent that it has become a language in itself. “A language that belongs to the moment and is heard in the present tense but speaks only in the future” — a future, ironically, whose achievement it constantly defers.
And it makes the same, general proposal to each of us. It proposes that we transform our lives by buying something more. And it does this by showing us people who have been transformed and are, therefore, enviable. That state of being envied, Berger explains, is what constitutes glamour.
And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.
This is not to say that advertised products and services are not to be enjoyed. What it means is that to have prospects acquire the pleasures it proposes, it must first whet the natural appetite they have for pleasure. And the more convincingly the prospect is “offered an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell, the more likely that image will then make him envious of himself as he might be.”
And what makes the self that he-might-be enviable? The envy of others, of course. Because publicity is about social relations and not objects, its promise is of happiness. Happiness of an enviable alternative to what the prospect currently is. Happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Strangely enough, Berger cautions, being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. Because it depends entirely upon you not sharing your experience with those who envy you. It’s like the celebrity factor: you are observed with interest, but you do not observe back with interest. If you do, you will become less enviable. And it is here that the power of the envied lies — the more impersonal they are and the more distant they seem and the more postcard-perfect they look, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power.
Misquoted purposefully, let’s just say “resignation makes the heart grow fonder.” The power of the glamorous lies in their supposed happiness. Perhaps this explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images that surround us. The rich and the beautiful, after all, don’t look at you. They look over you. In other words, they look out “over and above the looks of envy which sustain them on their pedestal of perfect happiness.”
Yet, Berger enlightens us, glamour cannot exist without personal, social envy being common and widespread. Any democratically inclined (and therefore, equal) society with a capitalist (and therefore, unequal) system is ideal for generating such an emotion. This gap mirrors what publicity actually offers and the future it promises as it corresponds with the gap between what a prospect feels himself to be and what he would like to be.
By manufacturing glamour, publicity bridges such a gap not by action or lived experience, but by invoking the power of the human imagination — by advocating that a life of “quiet desperation” (Thoreau) may be balanced with a fantasy future. A dream that calls out to each one of us who is not yet enviable — yet could be.
And how does it get away with it? Just as surprisingly. Because publicity is essentially eventless, experience is impossible within it. Which is why, Berger explains, it is in its interest to obliterate all other senses except the act of acquiring (in order to lead to happiness) where all hopes are homogenized, commoditized and simplified into an intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable commercial promise.
The credibility of advertising doesn’t lie in its truthfulness, nor by the real or perceived fulfillment of its promises — but by the relevance of its fantasies to the lives of prospects. It succeeds because its application is not to reality but to daydreams — some instantaneous, others prolonged — but always in a constantly deferred future.
Publicity is the life of our modern, capitalist culture. And glamour is its best-selling dream.