Jessica Sattell
MIAD asks

Can you design desire?

"Designing Desire" displays advertising from across the decades to expose its influence on the American consumer.

By - Feb 3rd, 2013 04:00 am

“Do products define you?”

Do products define you? Photo by the author.

The question is deceptively simple. It stares back at us, etched into a mirror trapped in a prismatic enclosure that is part-department store sales fixture, part-museum display case. The afternoon sun filters through the basement gallery windows, illuminating every speck of dust on the surface of the words. It’s not often that we are so directly presented with the message that the art on display provokes.

Designing Desire: The Cultural Effects of Marketing in the Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design at MIAD examines how advertising shapes cultural values, political atmospheres, and even our very senses of self. Through a timeline highlighting American advertising history, we come face-to-face with an art form that hits closer to home than we may realize. According to the exhibit copy, in 1990, the average person was exposed to 3,600 “commercial impressions” per day; today the number is closer to around 5000. Undoubtedly, advertising is the most powerful forum for (and shaper of) the pulse of our collective consciousness.

An example of advertising from the exhibition Designing Desire. Photo by the author.

Designing Desire encourages us to examine what we buy and why we buy it. Who is really calling the shots in our day-to-day transactions? What do the products we consume say about our values as individuals, and as a society? The hidden messages prevalent in these advertisements impact our views of ourselves and of others, and this especially comes across in the exhibit’s frank discussion of the historical marketing of preconceived gender and race roles. Curated chronologically, the exhibition begins with a reconstructed 1950s kitchen and living room (statements on gendered spaces of the times) dotted with reproductions of period ads that now seem hilariously over the top. A Del Monte ketchup ad features a pouting housewife asking “You mean a woman can open it?”, while a Schlitz beer ad shows a man comforting his distraught wife after she burns dinner (“Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer!”). The seeds of the art of selling people things they didn’t know they wanted were firmly planted many years ago.

We then progress, by the decade, with examples of how advertisements reflect the cultural zeitgeist—the power of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s, the economic anxiety of the 1970s, the affluence of the 1980s, the anti-capitalist sentiment of the 1990s, and the image-laden sophistication of today—to carve out emerging markets and untapped consumers. Taken out of context, the ads displayed here seem trite, kitschy or even tacky, but only by removing them from the arena of direct marketing do we realize their inherent power to shape consumer desire. When such stellar examples of advertising from decades past are all grouped together, it’s glaringly obvious how much the medium has changed. But ultimately, it’s undeniable that ads have always promoted “traditional” or “mainstream” values and ideals that are inherently fantasy-based.

An installation view of Designing Desire. Photo by the author.

This exhibit will leave you casting a skeptical eye on every bus ad, magazine cover and TV commercial that you see. It’s a playful journey that creatively employs consumer products and a colorful array of ephemera to educate how advertising, though refined for today’s seen-it-all consumer, still produces the same effects it did in the 1950s. Like all strong messages, this one can be a little unsettling at times, but it comes across well, thanks to a multidisciplinary approach by co-curators Katinka Hooyer (PhD candidate in Anthropology at UWM) and Mark Lawson (MIAD director of galleries). The strongest sections here are those that address the most controversial arenas of product advertising — the marketing of pharmaceutical and beauty products — and the interactive gallery that encourages visitors to post their own interpretations of ad messages.

Designing Desire doesn’t exactly set out to make advertisers and marketing executives “the bad guys,” but it does shine a critical light on the cultural values that the industry perpetuates. It encourages us to take a deeper look at what, how, and why we consume…and it leaves us, perhaps ironically, more savvy consumers in the process.

Designing Desire: The Cultural Effects of Marketing continues through February 9 in the Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), 273 E. Erie Street.

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