The best defense for the advertising industry is that it licenses our pleasure. It gives us permission to relax and enjoy things. But that assumes that we need such permission, that our instincts lie elsewhere -- possibly with a different sort of pleasure that doesn't revolve around consumption, around possessions. It's not clear whether by pushing its peculiar form of desire, the ad industry isn't undermining other latent modes of pleasure, leading us to neglect them and let them atrophy. When I travel and escape from advertising, it never fails to startle me how much I miss it in subtle ways, how I need guidance about what I should be wanting. The absence of consumerist desire can seem to hurt. The pleasures of travel, such as they are, sometimes fail to compensate.
The difficulty of desire has long been a staple of French social theory. Virtually all of Lacan is about the subject. Baudrillard begins his essay "Concerning the Fulfillment of Desire in Exchange Value" with a memorable anecdote about the difficulty of ridding ourselves of what Bataille called the accursed share: "There was a raid on a U.S. department store several years ago. A group occupied and neutralized the store by surprise, and then invited the crowd by loudspeaker to help themselves. A symbolic action! And the result? Nobody could figure out what to take." The basic idea is that we are strangers in the world our economy has outfitted us with -- we must learn how to be subjects in it, and the adjustment is painful.
Baudrillard claims that "beyond the transparency of economics, where everything is clear because it suffices to 'want something for your money,' man apparently no longer knows what he wants." This is persuasive to me because I often need to see that something is on sale or is a "good deal" in order to permit myself to buy it. (This is why I generally shop at Savers and Goodwill.) I've argued before somewhere (can't find) that ads, as part of their function, promote the market mentality, the neoclassical economist's view of humans as efficient utility calculators for this reason, persuading us we should find pleasure in maximizing utility, in making good deals. In reality, no deals are required for pleasure. It's a free gift that comes with being alive.
The idea that we need external forces urging us to indulge fits well with the findings of market researchers Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy (pdf) about procrastinating pleasure, which John Tierney reports on in the NYT. The researchers claim in the abstract that "the tendency to procrastinate applies not only to aversive tasks but also to positive experiences with immediate benefits." We like deadlines, which make us decisive and prompt us to action. Advertising, marketing, sales -- all these seem to work best when they make it seem like we must "act now!" Maybe the details of the pitch and the dubious emotional associations they cultivate are ultimately irrelevant; maybe only the pressure they put on us forms the real substance of ads. The secret lurking in consumerism may be that we really don't want to spend our time liquidating gift cards and forcing ourselves to the mall -- that this isn't inherently fun, contrary to the pervasive ideology. Free of priming we may find it a hassle to have to want stuff. We postpone consumerist pleasures not out of protestant-ethic guilt but because they actually aren't all that compelling to us when isolated from their marketing.
The assumption that there is something inherently harmful in postponing consumerist pleasure seems a bit dubious to me. There's pleasure in restraint and indulgence both. Tierney sums up the researchers' apparent views this way: "Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be." But doesn't that work both ways -- the longer we wait, the more special the occasion will seem to be when we open it? (Tierney's conclusion sounds the same note.) We can only imagine the nirvana because we are building it around some delay in fulfillment, letting fantasies crystallize around some forestalled moment of truth. Immediate gratification isn't more pleasurable than the circuit of desire, the chase and the capture.