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John Berger was an English artist, writer, novelist, and critic whose 1972 TV series and accompanying essay, both entitled Ways of Seeing, became essential reading for students of art and art history.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger, who died earlier this year at the age of 90, draws on another famous essay, “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, by cultural critic and Frankfurt School philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). He is also much influenced by the cultural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009).

Berger presents an analysis of our cultural relationship to art and advertising, arguing that high art is characterized by subliminal themes of male dominance, female objectification, personal property, landowning, and social power.

What’s more, he says, similar themes to these can be identified in a lot of advertising and marketing material. The purpose of product publicity, though, is not to merely to demonstrate and consolidate what somebody already has, as with a landowner depicted in an oil painting, surveying his estate. Rather, its function is to highlight what a consumer putatively lacks, in order to create a sense of shortcoming or inadequacy, which in turn creates desire for a product and all it seems to promise:

“The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.” (Ways of Seeing, p. 134)

Berger’s essay and TV series are in many ways products of their time, and his work was rightly subject to a range of criticisms. While there is insight in the analysis Berger presents, it is also reductive, filtering all art through the lens of Marxist cultural criticism. He does tackle this criticism in the essay, making the point that, even if this cultural story of private property and male dominance is only a part of a painting’s message, it is nevertheless a message that is present (Ways of Seeing, pp. 107-108).

His view of marketing and branding images is similarly reductive, and tends to ignore the fact that the best and most desirable products genuinely do improve people’s lives. Throughout history, technological advances have liberated millions from domestic drudgery: distributed through the mechanisms of commerce, products like washing machines and dishwashers have transformed lives.

Nevertheless, Berger’s deconstruction of how marketing images work, and the kinds of manipulation that advertising is capable of, is still revealing. Although it presents a particular and partial point of view, Berger’s Ways of Seeing can still encourage us as designers to be mindful of the profound effect that our work can have on the material conditions and emotional worlds of those we market to.

This serves both as an ethical warning, and as a source of inspiration: we should use the power of design to work in the interests of our users, and not against them.

The original series from 1972 is available on YouTube. We’ve embedded the videos below, and also included some further reading.

Further reading

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