Alain de Botton

Adverts would not work so well if they didn’t operate with a very good understanding of what our real needs are; what we really require is to be happy.

Their emotional pull is based on knowing us extremely well. As they recognise, we are creatures that hunger for good family relationships, connections with others, a sense of freedom and joy, a promise of self-development, dignity, calm and the feeling that we are respected. Advertisers understand these needs so very well.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, they – and the corporations that bankroll them – are unwittingly rather cruel to us. For a while they excite us with reminders of our buried longings, they withdraw from doing anything wholehearted about quenching them.

Of course, adverts want to sell us things. Just things that are often incommensurate in relation to the hopes that they have aroused. Certain companies make lovely cologne. Others offer watches that are extremely reliable and beautiful agents of time keeping. But it’s difficult to see how these products are going to help us secure the goods our unconscious believed were on offer. A watch or a bottle of scent, however excellent in their own way, don’t have the answers to the largely psychological needs that may have impelled our purchases.

Business needs to get more ambitious, turning its energies to creating new kinds of ‘products’; in their own way as strange sounding today as a wrist watch would have struck observers in 1500.

The drive of commerce is to get behind filling the world – and our lives – with products that really can help us to thrive, flourish, find contentment and manage our relationships well.

The real crisis of capitalism is that product development lags so far behind the best insights of advertising. Since the 1960s, advertising has worked out just how much we need help with the true challenges of life. It has fathomed how deeply we want to have better careers, stronger relationships, greater confidence. In most adverts, the pain and the hope of our lives have been superbly identified, but the product is almost comically at odds with the problems at hand. Advertisers are hardly to blame. They are, in fact, the victims of an extraordinary problem of modern capitalism. Although we have so many complex needs, we have been putting our highest creative efforts into minimising the size of cameras and speeding up the transmission of data to mobile devices. And so we have nothing better to offer ourselves in the face of our troubles than, perhaps, a slightly larger hand-held screen or a perfume bottle.

Advertising has at least done us the great service of hinting at the future shape of the economy; it already trades on all the right fantasies. The challenge now is to connect up the fantasies with what we spend our lives making and our money buying.

Capitalism has been so extraordinarily fruitful and productive over the past 200 years that it has become easy to think – in the wealthier parts of the world at least – that it must by now have reached a stage of exhausted stagnant maturity, which might explain both relatively high rates of unemployment and low levels of growth. The heroic period that saw the building of factories, warehouses and transport networks and that equipped a mass public in the advanced nations with the basics of food, shelter, hygiene, and entertainment appears to have been brought up against natural limits. We’re in the odd position of having rather too much of everything: shoes, dish cloths, televisions, chocolates, woollen hats. We are in the age of over abundance.

And yet, despite its evident successes, capitalism cannot realistically already be credited for having fulfilled its mission. We can ascertain this via a simple piece of introspection: by asking ourselves if we are still in any way unhappy about anything in our lives. Given the answer, the economy isn’t, on this basis alone, to be counted as in any way mature. It is in fact far too small and desperately undeveloped in relation to what we would truly want from it, once we think about our appetites and needs through a properly ambitious lens.

If we think of ourselves from a psychological point of view, we still have far too little to keep us properly happy. Capitalism is only just getting going; it’s still at the dawn of delivering on its deeper promises which advertising has already identified.

Alain de Botton is a philosopher and author. He also runs the internal engagement consultancy division at www.theschooloflife.com.

  • Jonathan Cahill

    l had never thought of advertising as doing the job of a psychotherapist nor of products being what makes us happy. l think a little more philosophical reflection might be required. This appears facile.