Engines of Desire

From “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life” by Luke Burgis

Advertising gurus know that we scrunch our noses when we’re being sold something too hard. They know that they can no longer capture us by simply showing us a beautiful and happy-looking person drinking a particular brand of soda. For the past thirty to forty years at least, advertisers have had to use a different and less on-the-nose tactic: irony. They make fun of themselves to lower our defenses.

A 1985 Pepsi commercial portrays a man pulling up to a beach in a van and broadcasting his lusty gulps of ice-cold Pepsi from speakers mounted on the roof until everybody on the beach follows one another to the van, where the guy proceeds to sell them all bottles of Pepsi. The commercial closes with the words “Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation.” The use of the word “choice” is ironic because the commercial portrays all the people schvitzing on the beach as having little to no choice at all.

The goal is getting people to think, “Oh, those lemming-like, silly people in the commercial.” The moment a person exempts themselves in their own mind from the very thing they see all around them is the moment when they are most vulnerable. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, “Joe Briefcase,” sitting on his couch watching the Pepsi commercial alone, thinks he has transcended the mass of plebeians that Pepsi must be advertising to – and then he goes out and buys more Pepsi, for reasons that he thinks are different.

And if he doesn’t drink more Pepsi, then he will be more likely to drink something else that he feels separates himself from the masses – maybe kombucha. The consumption  can also be of something besides a soft drink, something quite different in type: the latest Netflix Original documentary, say, or podcasts that make him feel smarter than his friends. The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game. 

If a news organization can convince its viewers that its programming is neutral, it disables their defense mechanisms. Big Tech companies do something similar. They  present their technology as agnostic – as just a “platform.” And that’s true, so long as we evaluate it in a materialistic way, as bits and bytes. Yet, on a human level, social media companies have built engines of desire.