Freud, Systems of Meaning, and Modern Day Advertising



Arguably,  Freud’s picture of the human mind has been one of the most influential factors in the creation of modern consumer culture. In his Lectures, Freud presents an argument  that “our mental activity is directed towards achieving pleasure and avoiding unpleasure”(Lectures 443), that which is known as the pleasure principle. Basically, most consumers want things that offer this pleasure without having to endure any pain or sacrifice (unpleasure). In contrast, the opposite of the pleasure principle is the reality principle, which “at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished”(Lectures 444). This involves putting off seeking gratification until the reality of someone’s circumstances dictates that it is beneficial to do so. These two principles constitute a system of meaning that dictates our behavior.

The advertizing industry takes into account these two differing principles. The goal is to find ways to prevent the reality principle from overriding the pleasure principle, altering the system of meaning in order to increase consumption. Advertisers capitalize on the notion that human behavior is driven by the pursuit of pleasure, and attempt to manipulate human behavior without their even realizing it. They want to present products in a manner that drives a consumer to make an impulse shopping decision, based on this need to attain pleasure in some way, without thinking twice about the reality of what they’re doing.

According to Freud, people are at heart irrational. They are characterized by a divided self; on one hand waking judgement is influenced by the invocation of social norms (ethics, aesthetics, social values), and on the other by “the desire for pleasure–the libido… those which contradict all the requirements of moral restraint”(Lecture 175). As it happens, the driving forces generated by this “unbridled” ego (libido) are sex, power, and security rather than reason. Society attempts to control these innate desires, so that humans can coexist in a rational, productive manner.  However, these desires drive individual decisions and actions. Thus, advertising appeals to these emotions; the goal is to disregard the rational, conscious parts of the mind and rather to engage where people are inherently the most vulnerable, the unconscious.



Advertisers exploit the conscious and unconscious processes in people’s minds in order to sell their services or products. People make unconscious associations that advertisers can take advantage of. Often times, sex appeal or sexuality are used to associate feelings of desire with the products that are being advertised. While the marketing can be subtle (coke ad) it is frequently more blatant (dolce & gabbana ad). Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.33.42 AM




For example, in the coke advertisement, the very subtle outline of an attractive female figure subliminally appeals to the sex drive and appeal in a person. Some other advertisements, like the dolce and gabbana, flagrantly play up sexuality and give people the idea that if they buy or use the product, they too will be sexy and desirable.

Product placement is used to remind consumers of products and be appealing so that consumers purchase them. For example, in the film Ted, the scene of Ted eating Doritos (paid for by the chip company) is staged in such a way that the logo is front and center, but is not the main focus of the scene. The purpose of this technique is to prime moviegoers to crave Doritos without making it obvious that they are the target of advertising.


This same technique can be done more subtly, and is called product allusion, as seen in this screencap from a children’s TV show.

clip_icarlyBoth of these techniques, associating products with desire and being exposed to a product without knowing it, can be explained by Freud’s theory of the mind. He asserts that the self consists of not just conscious thought, but unconscious processes of which we are not aware. This explains why when we see a attractive people in suggestive positions wearing a certain brand, we then feel compelled to buy the brand, and why seeing things over and over again, even without processing that we are seeing them, makes us like them more. Being bombarded by these ads alters the way we see the world and think about consumer products. When it is exceptionally effective, it changes the way we perceive ourselves and our own lives, making our personalities and perceived happiness dependant on consumer products. If an advertiser can achieve this, they have changed the system of meaning by which we understand our world in such a way that benefits them.


Today, there is an entire industry catering to people who wish to enhance their sex lives. Sex toys, accessories, pornographic media, and even different types of clothing are all designed to bring people sexual pleasure in a way that is not necessarily focused on reproduction, or involves one male and one female. Freud would describe our era’s plethora of socially acceptable sexual acts, objects, and accessories as the result of our unsatisfied libidos changing the way we see sex.  “People fall ill of a neurosis if they are deprived of the possibility of satisfying their libido-that they fall ill owing to ‘frustration’, as I put it-and that their symptoms are precisely a substitute for their frustrated satisfaction.” (Lectures 428) While these kinds of sex are not categorized as “neuroses”, they are considered “deviant” in Freud’s time, and he would have considered them the result of ‘frustration.’ He would say that we are not getting pleasure from “normal” sex, so we are turning to masturbation, fetishizing of different body parts and objects, altering the narrower system of meaning that has informed the way we think about sex in the past. Corporations know this (if not in these exact terms), and are learning to capitalize on the human libido. Because it must be satisfied (else, according to Freud, we may develop neurosis) it provides a great target for modern day advertisements to appeal to. The libido makes our thinking more susceptible to manipulation by these advertisements.









However, Freud might not have seen this as a bad thing. He says in his lectures that the job of a psychoanalyst is to help a patient know themselves and live their fullest life, not to force them to conform to society’s system of categorizing and understanding the world. This is done by helping the patient gain knowledge about themselves and their internal systems of meaning.  “We tell ourselves that anyone who has succeeded in educating himself to truth about himself is permanently defended against the danger of immorality, even though his standard of morality may differ in some respect from that which is customary in society.” (Lectures, 540) Essentially, so long as people are true to their own system of meaning, they will not develop illnesses. If using sexuality in advertising makes us more accepting of our own sexuality, perhaps it is a good thing. If the distribution of various sex toys and services brings us more sexual satisfaction, it will prevent us from developing neuroses. It is quite possible that Freud would look with approval upon our collective sexual awakening and the expanding realm of acceptance that has begun to include more “deviant” forms of sex and means of obtaining sexual pleasure. Perhaps, were he alive today, we might find Freud sending his patients to sex stores to experiment and learn more about themselves.


-Amritha, Melissa, Jasmine



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