In the cities in which we live, all of us see hundreds of publicity images every day of our lives. No other kind of image confronts us so frequently. In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.
These words were written in 1972. Their author, postmodern critic John Berger, hoped to reveal the incredible psychical power that advertising wielded over his age. Yet, read today, Berger’s statement sounds like an indictment of 2014. All modernized societies now swarm with advertisements—and not hyperbolically. Advertising punctuates websites, television and radio stations and print publications. The world beyond media is a confusion of billboards, flyers, noise pollution, bumper stickers and even litter proclaiming some product or brand. In the reader’s Tumblr feed, this very introduction appears amid, and is perhaps sandwiched between, advertisements.
But to suggest only that late modern culture is inseparable from advertising would be grossly to understate the situation. It is more accurate to say, with Berger, that advertising is our culture, that late modernity does not generate but is generated by advertising. Any attempt to pursue a reality beyond the one enclosed by advertising is immediately devoured by advertising—even used as an advertisement. An encounter with advertising comes to seem as natural and obvious as a breath of air. A step back is necessary. In fact, advertising is the sinister process of commodifying the universe, so that all things become products for purchase by insatiable consumers.