Hegemony, Subculture, Advertising and the Spectacle

Edward Ames, Julia Reid, and Tim O'Connor.

March 19, 1993
SOAN 370 - American Advertising and the Science of Signs.


Advertising is one of the major institutions of the intellectuals (see Antonio Gramsci) supporting the structural and ideological interests of the ruling class, the dominant cultures of our late capitalist society. Modern society, organized along the lines of capitalist production and expansion, requires advertising to engineer the 'spontaneous' consent to, and participation in, the ideology of mainstream capitalist culture among the masses of people. This essential component serves to create the optimum conditions for capitalist expansion and furthers the elitist businessmen's control of economic production. Stuart Ewen described this nicely in his book on the evolution of modern advertising (as did Lears in his article, though he meant not to). Due to overproduction and underconsumption created by the industrial revolution Ewen states, "It became imperative [for the businessman] to invest the laborer with a financial power and a psychic desire to consume," or in other words to a transform the American Dream from success as an entrepreneur to success as an acquire of goods (Ewen 1976: 25). Laborers learned, with the help of advertisements, to exchange their labor for a wage which was in turn exchangeable for goods that supposedly offered them freedom and signified success and social worth, while in fact it stripped them of true empowerment, a unified identity and "evoked their participation in their own oppression" (Herskovitz, 1979: 182).

The necessity of manufacturing consent, in the masses of the populace, to the political, social and economic directions of society as required by the economic elites is the necessity for maintaining social hegemony by those elites. Due to this requirement, institutions arise that function to maintain the social, political and CULTURAL hegemony of the ruling class, and to further expand this hegemony. The expansion of this hegemony seems to move apace with, and ahead of, the expansion of production controlled by those elites who seek to inspire expanding consumption in the masses.

Some of the institutions which function to maintain and expand the hegemony of the elites include the news media, the entertainment industry, the art world, the publishing industry, the university culture; political parties and governmental institutions; the legal system and the courts; and (not in the least exhausting the list) the ADVERTISING INDUSTRY.

Advertising as an institution subordinate to the interests of the dominant classes, the business elites, functions to create consumers out of producers, to teach the masses of people, through various techniques, to see the consumption of commodities as an integral part of their habits, indeed, of their personalities. Advertising serves to expand the consumption of the commodities produced under the control of the ruling class elites. Through the appropriation of meaning systems held by the mass consumers, and the mythification of those meaning systems along the lines of the commodity form, advertising obtains the participation and collaboration of the mass consumers in the values of consumption necessary for the direction of society's development as desired by the class interests of the business elites. In part it achieves this end through offering a false democracy where the consumer may exercise his/her freedom of choice not in a truly political manner but rather by making any of a number of consumption choices..

The general direction in which a society develops is always in the interests of a ruling class or dominant group of one sort or another. If a society did not move in a direction in the interest of a dominant group then that group would no longer, of course, be the ruling class. Some other fraction would assume power. But society is made up of more than just the dominant group, of more than just the ruling class of the elites. In every society, there are numerous other factions that could be differentiated, whether by class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. And these subordinate groups do not always have the same interests as the dominant class. Each group would like to see the society move in a direction predicated on their own interests.

Through the manufacturing of consent, through intellectual and social hegemony and through political government, the various groups that make up the mass of a society find their interests subordinated and compromised to the interests of the ruling class. Hegemony holds the factions of society together under the elites by seducing and requiring their consent and participation in the regime. In this way the ruling class maintains its status as ideologically dominant over the other classes. To a certain extent, compromises are made in the construction of this dominant class hegemony, so as to evoke the allegiance of the other classes in support of the ruling class's project of control of the means of production, or, at least, just enough to deter the active opposition to the project by the other groups.

The maintenance of hegemony requires the work of numerous specialists, persons trained, consciously or not, to strengthen and expand the ideological penetration and manipulation of the subordinate classes. These intellectual specialists include writers, artists, clergymen, grade-school teachers, university professors, journalists, movie makers, musicians; scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, labor leaders; philosophers, theorists and thinkers; and of course, ADVERTISERS -- all people/institutions involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, ideas, and belief systems. Educational institutions function to create the intellectuals, the specialists who will maintain intellectual and social hegemony of the interests of the other groupings. Students attend these institution to gain greater cultural capital. Cultural capital is illustrated in the following example. In our society there exists an all pervasive and commonly accepted "language" (style, belief system, etc.) The more adept or fluent one is at communicating in this language the greater cultural capital he/she acquires which can in turn be exchanged for a variety of things beneficial to that person. For example, we attend college, and institutions of higher education to master the skills of language and dominant white male ideology (the bulk of the curriculum), to enhance our cultural capital which may be exchanged for a higher paying job. This process ultimately supports and reinforces the extant hegemony through allotting wealth and power to those who uphold and continue the domination.

The individuals who will be trained to specialize in hegemony can often, ironically enough, be drawn from the very groups that the hegemony works to subordinate. This is a base form of appropriation from subculture. Advertisements serve to create an appealing view of the dominant class and desire to become part of this group which teaches one to assume the behaviors, beliefs, ideologies of the dominant paradigm. In addition, they often appropriate the markers of signs of subcultures like hip hop, grunge and recently punk, and incorporate them into fashion which depoliticizes their content. The ironic fact of drawing from subordinate groups is a measure of the efficiency of hegemony. By drawing away the best and the brightest individuals and styles of other groups, hegemony works to prevent the possibility that those individuals/styles might be attracted to some alternative that might challenge the control of the dominant class.
Yet in a roughly democratic educational system, where attempts are made to extend intellectual training to many sectors of society, and to not keep it confined to the ruling elites, problems for hegemony arise. The system creates a vast number of more-or-less educated individuals whose economic expectations can not be met by a material system under the ever more efficient control of the elites and their ideology. When the economic system can't meet these constructed desires for an ever higher standard of living for all those who have been socialized (through the ideological media of advertising and others) to expect nothing less, a great amount of dissatisfaction is bound to result. The vast majority of those trained to think, (or not to as the case might be) to maintain the hegemony of the ruling class, can never achieve the status of privilege held by those elites. In fact for vast sectors of the college- to high school-educated population will never be able to find an economic situation that is not in some regards alienating. And things are even worse for those who have never been educated in the first place. Institutions of hegemony have so far been able to divert the anomie and frustration felt by many to behavior that is not threatening to the hegemony, and in fact in some cases, as with consumerism, reinforce the economic control of corporate capitalism. The hegemonic ideology prevents most from ever realizing the reality of their material situation, or from doing anything active about it. As you, Prof. Goldman, have suggested, the tight control on ideological hegemony by dominant culture institutions, means that openings for alternatives to the status quo hegemony might have to come from crises in the material system of the current regime.