I Got No Strings: Pinocchio & Ideology

Pinocchio famously sang that he had no strings. What he did not realize was that, even as a real boy, he was still, in a way, a puppet – open to the persuasions of people like the con man Honest John.

We’ve all got strings. We can all be influenced and persuaded and, here’s the rub, we don’t always know when it’s happening.

This is true in part because persuasion takes place on many levels. Advertising is not the only kind of message we encounter on a regular basis. While commercial messages are highly noticeable, they are just one facet of a far larger communication of values and ideology that we receive almost every day.

Ideology (def.): a cultural outlook and value system that informs notions of social good, political virtue and material desirability 

Advertisements can be helpful in proving this point, as it turns out, because ads rely on cultural presumptions of value that go beyond individual products. We can look to shampoo commercials as an example. Shampoo commercials utilize cultural messages about gender norms when they entice men and women to buy one kind of shampoo. For many female-targeted shampoo advertisements, the not-so-subtle promise in the commercial – where the woman with glowing hair and a satisfied smile says that she loves Pantene – is that this hair and this satisfaction “fit” the norm of femininity. This shampoo, in effect, can make you a woman. (She’s not just happy because she’s got no split ends. She’s happy because she now fits the cultural conception of femininity. That is part of the message – and not a small part.)

You may see this commercial and resist the argument that this particular shampoo is for you. You may not feel any impulse toward buying Pantene, but are you also resisting the underlying message about what it means to be a woman? Are you aware of the socio-cultural message being conveyed, the one that presupposes the need for a high-end shampoo in the first place? If you are choosing between several shampoo brands that all essentially present that same message about femininity and shiny hair and you say no to three out of four, are you still saying yes to the fundamental message that defines the social norm?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with high-end shampoo and glossy hair. Glossy hair is great. There is also nothing inherently wrong with a social norm that encourages healthy hair. But we should note a few things here.

Normative Message (Def.): a message that conveys expectations for typical and/or good behavior according to a social group or identity category; a message that implicitly or explicitly describes what is “normal” for a given social group

First, the set of messages being communicated in a single shampoo commercial is often deeper than a straight-forward invitation to purchase a product. Commercials create needs and stoke the fire of pre-existing expectations that come from a variety of sources that range from television shows to kindergarten textbooks.

Also, we should recognize that the essential and normative message displayed across these shampoo commercials can have the effect of defining good hair along ethnic lines. Norms can become exclusionary and can do the work of perpetuating privilege and value-disparity among demographics. As you no doubt know, this kind of implicit value bias generates self-esteem issues, identity conflicts and many other highly personal problems – all as a result of the distinctly impersonal messages that comprise social norms.

Ultimately, norms are not the problem and advertisements are not the problem. There is, perhaps, no problem here at all. What we have instead is a set of questions.

Have you been trained to recognize the ideological content of the messages you encounter at home, at school and at work?

Social norms exist on the level of ideology, which is a term describing the system of values and presumptions that inform a world-view. Ideology is best understood as an impersonal set of beliefs that is characteristic of a society or group. Ideology is learned from the world around us in ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. We are told what to believe, what to desire and what it means to be a man, a woman, an American, a success, etc. For every time we are told these things out loud, we are told a thousand times through embedded messages in books, music, movies and television shows.

Ideological messages are an integral part of any social group and so are inevitable. Ideology is not evil or bad, really, but it can be invisible. Like Pinocchio, you may think you have no strings, but you are being bombarded with messages that shape the way you see the world. Honest John is everywhere and he is constantly pulling your invisible strings.

So, what should you do?

Learn to read the signs. Think critically. Just try to be mindful of where your ideas come from when it comes to social norms. Question your desire for certain products – not because you should not buy those things but because you want to understand the underlying message that you are responding to in making that purchase.

This is not an invitation to paranoia. There is no organized cabal of social, political or commercial puppeteers out there pulling your strings to make you do their dance. Not to be too reductive, but society is the culprit here. Ideology is the RNA of any society, the means by which replication occurs. Ideology is the necessary means to a necessary end – a continuation of a way of life (which is made of outlooks, value systems, social norms, etc.).

As an individual you are free to make up your own mind about anything and everything. In a real way, you’ve got no strings. But in an equally real way, the messages that swirl around you inevitably become the information you use as the basis of any decision. That information is laden with cultural freight. 


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