The Advertised Spectacle

© Copyright 2017 Jennifer Elliott, Ryerson University


To start off this exhibition, try to recall every ad you saw or heard today.

You probably cannot. Ads are incredibly prevalent in our daily lives. Step out the door and they line the streets on billboards and bus shelters or clamor for your attention in the subway and your newspaper. Stay in the comfort of your home and they clutter your mailbox (both physically and digitally) or demand 15 seconds of your time before you can watch your Youtube video.

There are so many avenues for advertisements that we as an audience have to adapt to the daily bombardment, usually by tuning out or clicking away.

There is no denying, however, that we are influenced by ads.

As a thinking member of the public, no doubt you’re sitting there scoffing, ‘I’m not influenced! I don’t rush out and buy stuff just because of the ad!’

But, even if you ignore the ad’s message of ‘Buy this product!’, there is an underlying narrative that we passively accept. There are exceptions, but generally we are used to seeing certain products with certain models. It’s normal to see an attractive, done-up woman advertising high fashion.

My research is guided primarily by the work of Guy Debord – a theorist focused on the ‘spectacle’. My project will analyze advertising as a medium of the spectacle and explore how it distorts our perceptions of reality to the point where the spectacle is considered normal and the normal is considered a spectacle.

The Spectacle

What is the spectacle?

According to Guy Debord, we cannot escape the spectacle as it is a concept that pervades every aspect of our society. The spectacle describes a false world focused on appearance and a social relationship between people mediated through images (Debord, 5). It is a lens that distorts what people see and one that alienates us from each other. It reduces our social life and purpose from being into having, and from having into appearing (Debord, 7).

[Basically, our lives are a distorted Capitalist wasteland fueled by acquiring commodities and worrying about our appearances.]

Media are the tools that support the spectacle, but are not the spectacle itself. Advertising’s goals are the selling of things and to make the viewing public’s goal the acquiring of things. It contributes to the spectacle because the advertisement itself is a false reality. The people and situations presented in advertisements are always a distortion of reality, and this waning of the real is harmful.

The distortion is a spectrum. Photoshop can make it absurdly obvious (in the form of a missing limb) or insidiously subtle to the point where viewers internalize the tension of not measuring up to the reality portrayed in the ad.

My Advertisements

My focus was solely on still-image advertisements for my project both for ease of editing and the fact that I think they are still more prevalent than video ads. My medium of choice was Photoshop, the tool companies use to manipulate their own ads. I thought it was the best choice for the critical argument I wanted to present because it is a medium allows its user to create and present whatever reality they choose. However, my use of it is meant to be obvious and not as a means to sell products.

This is not the first project to use Photoshop to critique the advertising industry. There have been several independent projects showing the ‘Before and After’ images of ads to highlight how much the original photograph is changed. Another campaign sent one image around the world to see how it was modified according to each country’s definition of beauty. Mine fits in with these other projects but does things a little differently.

I chose five ads – two are perfume ads (one each for men and women), one is a car ad, one is a makeup ad, and one is a high fashion ad. Each one features a conventionally attractive model who has been polished to ‘perfection’ with digital enhancement.

Other than trying to get you buy things, the underlying narrative that ads peddle to the public is that it is normal for certain products to be associated with certain people. I spliced the ads to disrupt this narrative. For three of the ads I changed the models to unconventional ones but kept the products the same, and for two I changed the products but kept the models the same.

Here is one of the original ads:

OnSugar. “Fiery Lips makeup ad by Sephora.” Pinterest, n/a, Pinterest post. Accessed 3 March 2017.

And my edit:

‘Ad #1’ Jennifer Elliott. Digital photograph edited in Photoshop.

 To see the rest of the images, click here:

The ‘Truth About Advertising’

I Photoshopped some ads and they look absurd. Who cares?

I chose to make the ads absurd and obvious because I wanted to 1.Make you laugh and 2.Make you think about why you laughed.

How come we see ads like the original one and don’t question it but do a double-take when we see Steve Buscemi? How come we see the smooth, Photoshopped muscles of the men in the perfume ads or the airbrushed thighs of the Lexus swimsuit model and don’t really think about it?

We are used to seeing ads like this all the time, which is why it’s so weird to see Steve Buscemi in a makeup ad (which he looks pretty good in, in my opinion) or an old man in a ‘Bad boys gone wild’ perfume ad (based on my Grandpa’s group of friends, this one is not so unrealistic).

Even though we think we can completely ignore ads, they do have some subconscious influence on us. It is impossible to be assaulted daily with persuasive images and not be affected on some level.

However, I was surprised to see how simply changing the model from sexy swimsuit model to no-nonsense grandma completely shattered the illusion the ad was trying to convince me of. Because we are so conditioned to accept certain advertising norms, it is so easy to hijack the emotions the ad is trying to get you to feel and make you question its original intent.

I used a celebrity in one of my edits to highlight the fact that under Debord’s definition, they are considered ‘commodities’ too. However, it was not my original intention to use Steve Buscemi. I first used a stock photo of a woman without makeup and I changed ‘Fiery’ to ‘Natural’. After our class discussion on the Dove ‘No makeup’ campaign, I reconsidered. Why couldn’t, in this day and age, a male be in a makeup advertisement? Why shouldn’t Steve Buscemi advertise fiery lips? Other celebrities endorse products, but they’re always the conventionally attractive ones.

Putting celebrities in advertisements to sell makeup and hygiene products is just another tactic companies use to manipulate viewers in conjunction with other media (after all, celebrities only become celebrities through other mediums like film and television).

The trickiest part other than gathering the various photos was making them fit within the ads. I had to strike the right balance. I did want to alter too much of the ad in order to show how the smallest edits make the originally serious ads look completely ridiculous.

Concluding Thoughts

Tweaking the carefully-crafted narratives of advertisements reveals how fragile they are.

My digital manipulation of the ads allowed me to examine how flimsy the spectacle’s lens can be. I had to simultaneously consider what the original ads were trying to tell me and how I should change those messages with the least amount of changes possible.

I was pleased to see the reactions of the people who viewed my edited versions before they were uploaded online. I think my project serves an a critique of how advertising has changed how we look at the world and ourselves.



Works Cited

Dachris, Adam. “How Advertising Manipulates Your Choices and Spending Habits (and What to Do About It).” lifehacker, 2011. Accessed 5 March 2017.

Danciu, Victor. “Manipulative marketing: persuasion and manipulation of the consumer through advertising.” Theoretical and Applied Economics, 21 (2014):19-34. Web. Accessed 5 March 2017.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, 1994. Print.

Markman, Art. “What does advertising do?” psychologytoday, 2010. Accessed 4 March 2017.

Matthews, Jan D. “An Introduction to the Situationists.” theanarchistlibrary, 2005. Accessed 20 Feb 2017.

Image Credits

“Beano Tablets Home & Away Combo Pack.” maxsupermart. Photograph. Accessed 2 March 2017.

Brookes, Matthew.“Joop! Homme Wild fragrance ad.” b-agency. Photograph. Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.

Mika, Jan. “Portrait of happy shirtless senior man, isolated on white background.” Shutterstock, Stock photograph. Accessed 5 March 2017.

OnSugar. “Fiery Lips makeup ad by Sephora.” Pinterest, n/a, Pinterest post. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Petolea, Catalin. “Full length portrait of a senior woman isolated on white background.” Shutterstock, Stock photograph. Accessed 5 March 2017.

Piggott, Marcus & Alas, Mert.”Reveal fragrance ad by Calvin Klein.”hellomagazine, 15 July 2014, Photograph. Accessed 5 March 2017.

“Steve Buscemi.”emmys, Photograph. Accessed 5 March 2017.

Sundsbø, Sølve.”H&M Matthew Williamson Summer 2009 Ad Campaign.”, 12 April 2009, Photograph. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Team One.”Lexus GS ad.”adweek, 17 Feb. 2012, Photograph. Accessed 5 March 2017.

“Travelan diarrhea medicine.” travelancanada, Digital graphic. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.