Rather than emphasizing the past or the future, western culture increasingly exists in the present. In our media, politics, economy, and so on, there is only a blinkered vision of the here and now. Businesses cannot see beyond the next quarter. With a permanent financial emergency, politics is reduced to tactical fixes without long-term vision. Advertising tells us to ‘make the most of now’, and so on. A new combination of advertising and social media add a new twist to this. We are exhorted to live for the moment while we are endlessly detoured from living in the present.
Advertising shapes how we spend our money. It also subtly influences how we relate to time. Ads always project into the future. They offer us glimpses of a future self that enjoys the prestige created by buying a product. As John Berger put it, advertising is not about products, it is about ‘social relations’. What advertising offers is ‘happiness as judged from the outside by others’. It promises ‘glamour’ or the ‘happiness of being envied’ (1972: 132). Advertising does not, and cannot, offer happiness in the present. It generally works by creating insecurity with our present selves. It can also work, however, by offering us visions of comfort when our future looks bleak.
Since the start of the financial crisis, advertising has turned away from selling the future towards re-imagining the past. Nostalgic advertising builds public confidence in uncertain times using images of an airbrushed past. By depicting their persistence through troubled times, companies aim to make their brands into markers of security and reassurance. This provides the comfort necessary for people to part with potential savings. Helen Powell cites the Hovis ‘Go on lad’ advert. Here, nostalgia transformed Hovis from mere bread into being part of a century of British resilience. The campaign is estimated to have generated 5 times more revenue than it cost to run. When we lack the security to look forward, nostalgic advertising tells us that we have been here before, things will be alright.
For Berger advertisements belong to the moment only ‘in the sense that they must be continually renewed and made up-to-date’. They ‘never speak of the present’ (1972: 130). Advertising cannot speak of the present because it cannot falsify or mythologise it. We live in the present but advertising overlays our experience with visions of better alternatives. These visions never materialize. ‘Really living’ is endlessly deferred.
Advertising aside, our relationship with the present is strained by the pace of modern life. Even beyond work, life can be a series of duties, pleasures and experiences that must be fitted in. This is nothing new. Since industrialisation modern life has been fast and ever accelerating. Making this point, Todd Gitlin cites an example from Nietzsche, written in 1882.
Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one always "might miss out on something.”... Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else (cited in Gitlin 2007: 73)
Industrial society has always overloaded the present and encouraged a sense of nostalgia for a simpler past. Nevertheless, social media, and their dependence on user generated content appear to have added a new level of distraction.
If you think of the amount of phones and cameras held up at most public events, people seem to have a need to record the present. This somehow makes it more real. With social media, there is also a sense that we may hope to ‘own’ and project our experiences to incur the envy of others. (We might be at a gig now but part of us looks forward to looking back and saying ‘I was there’) Like a bus tour we can rush through life and experience its highlights through a viewfinder.
As with advertising, there is a conceit here. Making the most of the moment implies looking forward to a time when ‘now’ will mean, or be worth, something more. To wring the most from life through social media, we are obliged to defer enjoying, and fully inhabiting, the present. There is a new, weird fusion of social media and advertising’s habit of skipping the present and looking to the past or the future. We seem to be looking forward to looking back. We are anticipating nostalgia.
Future nostalgia for the present is now a product. For example, ads for digital cameras, phones and tablet computers no longer talk about taking photographs or shooting video. These products create, store and share ‘memories’. Facebook Timeline explicitly offers the opportunity to look forward to looking back. Mark Zuckerberg launched Timeline proclaiming that it offers the ability to ‘curate the story of your life’. A youtube mashup identified Timeline as a recreation of the Kodak Carousel as promoted by Mad Men’s Don Draper. It is selling us the ability to create an emotive and idealised past.
When Berger wrote Ways of Seeing, advertisers were paid to create idealized images of our future selves. Now, like online banking and self-service restaurants, this creative work has been outsourced to the public. Each of us can now work to create our ideal image, past and future, to garner the envy of others. This unpaid work, however, is not the main source of value. We pay for this opportunity to ‘express ourselves’ with the data traces we leave behind; who we know, where we’ve been, what we like and so on.
Consumer society cannot offer contentment today. Sucking the last out of the symbolic resources of the past and the future, marketers are now reduced to promising a future where we can enjoy the past as a distorted vision of the present.