Can we claim that we are free, when every Inch of our physical reality is part of the advertising machine? can we get a moment of peace? Guess not.

I recently studied the subject of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). It made me aware, even too aware, to language usage around me, mostly on the media. But, because language is not limited to verbal communication, pictures and the physical environment itself catch my attention as well. This made me suffer less when I watch TV because now I find it interesting, not because of the content, but because the way things and notions are delivered, and it is interesting to think about them from a new perspective.

The more I immerse myself in the history of advertisement, the more I get the irritated feeling when I look around me. I start to doubt the notion of freedom. I’m not talking about freedom from a political perspective. I’m referring to something more fundamental, freedom from social institutions that very aggressively try to influence my instincts and conscious, usually the economic institutes. If I’m free, why do I have no choice when choosing or, have a say in the shaping of our physical environment? Most of the noises we encounter in the public sphere, we don’t choose. We cannot choose to see what we want to look at. But more importantly, we cannot decide what NOT to see. As Stuart Even wrote in his book “Captains of consciousness”:

“Today, nearly every moment of human attention is being converted into an occasion for a sales pitch, while notions of the public interest and noncommercial arenas of expression are under assault.” Today this line is even more correct. When we consider pop-ups click baits, social media as an advertiser’s platform, in-app ads and many more instances when our consciousness is being hijacked by people who want us to buy something. When you pay attention, you will see that almost everywhere, when you set your eyes on something, there is information. I’m not talking about information of things that exists, like “this is a tree” or “this is a human being,” I mean information that someone wanted you to understand, to intake and to be aware of. Signs, billboards, slogans, brands, sounds, ads, all those. When I take the subway, train, just walk the street, most of this info has to do with economy, consumption. Someone wants you to know what they sell, and why YOU should buy it. Or at least keep that in mind. We cannot choose to undo it. We cannot force billboards down. Nobody gives us any choice.

During my recent trip to Tokyo, I came across an excellent example of how the whole physical environment is being harnessed into a machine of advertising. Me and my wife went to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo. There we went to Fuji Television’s building. Fuji Television is one of the biggest TV stations in Japan. They have on the 30th (maybe a bit higher) floor an observatory, which gives a lovely view over the whole artificial island and the nearby area. After we paid (of course), and took the elevator, we were welcomed with a very aggressive advertising machine. First, there were three big televisions screens, which continually broadcasted a trailer for the cartoon movie “minions.” Not only that the screens were big, and unavoidable, the sound of the movie trailer was really loud. So the whole room was filled with what they wanted you to hear, the trailer for this movie.

The second thing that they did was to put in the center of the room several stands that created half a circle. They were big and full of merchandise, of course of the “minions.” Even if you just wanted to go to the window to see the view, you had to pass near these stands. They actually force you to prolong the walk to the windows, so you would have to pass by the merchandise and look at it. So again, we could not avoid it. Another thing that they did was to sell food. I don’t have a sense of smell after a surgery I had to undertake, but I’m sure the room was filled with pleasant aroma. The food stands were just under the big screens, and again, we had to walk past them to get to see the view.

After we saw the view, while having to hear the loud noise of the TV screens, I wanted to go to the toilet. They even had Ads inside the bathrooms in places you were most likely to look at. Like above the urinals. We had to go through a maze of ads. Every place I lay my hands, on the walls, on the polls, places that we were most likely to put our eyes on, there was a sticker, something to remind us of the “minions.” Then we went to a “real size” TV studio, of the most popular morning show in Japan. There they just bombarded us with “soon to come” tv programs and dramas, faces of the famous celebs and details about their lives.

My wife doesn’t pay attention to those things because she doesn’t care, and not aware. I, on the other hand, suffered every second of it. It got me angry, not only they charge me with money, they did everything they could to get more money out of my pocket. This is insulting, is this the way they view me? As a target for money extraction? I guess most of the people I come across in my daily life do consider me a target, not as a human being who have free wills that are needed to be considered. But instead as a walking wallet, that my will is something that needs to be changed, bent and manipulated for their profits.

Adults might be more resilient to those attempts, but children are the real targets. They want to stimulate the kids with a likable cartoon, put loud noise to force them to watch the big screen. The big screen moves fast and catches their attention. The smell and candy’s catch their nose and tongue. The kids know that in holidays and trips parents tend to be less stressed over money, so they might buy the kids things they won’t otherwise. So this “special” place with the view and big elevator, might make them understand that if they push their parents hard enough, they might get something, and they tend to try their luck. So, parents buy merchandise not because they think it’s good, but they buy some peace and quiet.

Are we free? Can I choose not to see these images? Can I choose not to hear this noise? No. I can maybe put earphones and hear music, but I cannot go with a blindfold. Look around you when you go in the street, when you drive when you enter somewhere. What information do you get the most? What the people who put this information there, wanted you to think when you read\see? Most of it has to do with you and your wallet. We cannot say that we are free, when considering that words, symbols, and pictures carry political, social values, and notions about the “right” way of life. It is everywhere, and It is impossible to escape it. Why are billboards ok? Why do I have to see them? Because somebody paid money to someone, for the right to catch my attention? Nobody came to me and asked me if I agree. I don’t want to surrender my attention. Can I choose not to look at the billboard? With the right techniques, I’m cannot. I will HAVE to look at it, even for a second, many times this second is enough to make me understand the things that somebody wanted me to understand. Think about years of indoctrination, and the lack of awareness and critical thinking about these issues. That is how we get influenced, meaning we don’t have much of a free choice.

Kids in a dilemma. We tell them that they are special, but we push them into systems of ranking. How can this be? and what does it says?

Dividing people by ranking is part of everyday life. We rank most things, people and places even if we are not aware. But in the age of neo-liberalism that “everybody is special” and “you cannot argue over taste” we end up contradicting ourselves, both as a society, and especially, we give a contradicting massage to our children.

Foucault in his writings talks about power and society. His idea is that every relationship is also a power relationship. There is no real equality among people and organizations. If we look at a classroom, even if all the students are in the same academic year, they have different abilities in different fields. This is the “birthplace” of ranking. It is natural and it is everywhere.

The easiest to detect and think about grades. Arranging the classroom in a hierarchy of grades is easy. We can rank the classroom by their average or into separated subjects. But the students rank themselves into other categories. The broader title will be “social capital.” Who is the funniest? Who is the most “cool”? who is the most popular? Also into physical traits, who is the best in sports, who is the best looking? Of course, it is not just “the most or the best,” it can be on a scale from the least to the most. There is overlap between “social capital” and “physical capital”. The most beautiful girl in class, will likely be popular. The best kid in sports, will be with a lot of confidence which will make him “stand out”, meaning having a lot of Social Capital.

If we look at the way we educate children, we will notice that we give them conflicting messages. While we persistently tell them that they are unique, we also tend to push them into those systems of ranking. These systems deems only certain individuals as special. It starts with the simplest things. Like when a parent might tell his kids to race to the door. There will always be faster kids and slower kids; not everybody can be “special” because only one will get in first place. So when our kids discover that they are not “as special” as they were told, we adults are being confronted with the negative feelings that are produced out of this contradiction. Then, we try to encourage the child, we say things like “you have other things you are good at.” But as my mom used to say to me “there is very little room in the tip of the pyramid.”

So we contradict ourselves and confuse the kids. We say that everybody is special, but we are consistently ranking individuals. Kids also rate themselves. Raking systems seem to come naturally to use humans. It is self-evident in many instances. Usually, this has to do with physical traits; it is easy to detect the tallest kid in class. Kids from very early age use physical power to take other kids toys, to fight for their place on the sofa and so on. Some resort to different strategies like crying, so the adult will intervene because they cannot overpower their “adversary.” I’ve seen kids for more than 20 years straight due to my mom’s occupation; they live in a world of constant conflict, which in many times has to do with ranking and power struggles.

The bigger kid can get what he wants. I remember that when I was a kid, every time that I heard the line “knowledge is power” in class or cartoons, I couldn’t understand it. I contemplated on it, but all I could see that other bigger kid were intimidating, and it had nothing to do with how many facts I know or how smart I am. If they would take something away from me, I couldn’t get it back on my own. So I thought that it is better to be bigger rather than smarter. Though, when I got older I understood the meaning.

The most prominent example of this contradiction is sports. Sport is good for kids. It enhances their coordination; it builds their bodies, it is fun and improves their socialization with other kids. But, there are parts we omit, it teaches them about winners and losers. we omit this part when we say that sports give them self confidence (meaning they get confidence through a raise in rank in a particular area), and that teach them the importance of dedication and hard work (in order to raise in rank in this world of struggles and rankings).

so, in the end, a game has to have “winners” and “losers.” In Israel, many people go to the beach and play “Matkot.” They just pass the ball with a racket that is made out of wood. The goal is to pass the ball without it touching the ground. There are no other rules. No winners no losers, but it seems that even in this situation people compete. Many people consider this as a “national sport” and unique to Israel. It is so popular that you have to dodge the flying balls every time you want to go into the sea. I suck at this game so I don’t play, but through watching it many times, i noticed something. It seems that many people hit the ball quite hard, as if they want to impose on their partner a “tough position.” It seems that in many cases, they are competing each other rather than just passing the ball. Because if the goal is only to pass the ball, you don’t have to hit hard, you don’t have to change the ball’s course or to rotate it. But they often do. So it is also contradicting. Even in a game that has no rules, no winners, no losers, they still compete.

So when we put our kids in sports, which is a system of ranking, we force them to fight for ranking, meaning to win. Because nobody like losing. But when the game is over, and winners are crowned, and losers deemed as inferior, we tell them that “this it’s just sport.” And that the most important thing is not who wins or loses, it is the degree of fun they had and their participation that matters. “As long as you play and have fun, you are the winner.”

Maye, we say that, but we still end up with winners and losers. And when we get consistent winners and consistent losers we affect the kids in other fields. They get “social capital” out of those contests of speed and strength. Many kids idolize professional athletes, so the best kids in their class are “closer” to these idealizations. This is being enhanced due to the fact that in many instances professional sport has the association of “war” and “struggle.” The winners get money, fame, prizes and beautiful women to give him the “trophy”; the losers don’t. So when they watch TV, they don’t see this as a “game” but as something bigger more glamorous. More so, if the player’s fight (exchanging blows like in hockey), play very aggressive (make dirty fouls) or trash talk.

So the idea of “it is just a game” doesn’t follow through.

The ranking is not only about that; it encompasses more and more areas of life.
I’ll elaborate in the next post.