I learned a new word recently, “gaslighting”.  This term was circulating on the internet in the context of the coronavirus.  An article by Julio Vincent Gambuto, entitled Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, published in Forged on April 10, 2020, describes what we consumers should be prepared for as the marketing machine begins to ramp up to make us want to resume our consumption (i.e., buying stuff), post-coronavirus. 

The term originated from the 1938 play (and 1944 film adaptation) Gaslight, where the husband slowly manipulated his wife into believing she’s going mad.  The abusive husband uses persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying to make his wife, the victim, feel unsure of her own sanity in order to disorient her and make her question her own judgement – with the goal of getting her under his control.  He was gaslighting her.

Gambuto uses this manipulative term to describe how the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry is gearing up to counter the trauma we have been experiencing throughout this experience of living with Covid-19.  We’re afraid… for our jobs and economic survival; for our family’s health, particularly our older or more fragile relations; for our children and their future; we’re afraid to go out, to the grocery, pharmacy … certainly to anything entertaining like a movie, play or restaurant … or heaven forbid a party, concert or sports arena event!  And advertisers understand our concerns, and knowing that, Gambuto’s article suggests advertisers will use our fear in order to sell us stuff – to make us feel better and less fearful.  In other words, advertisers understand our problem, and they want to convince us that their products will solve our problem. 

Last December I posted a blog about Our Fashionable Planet focusing on the fashion industry and how that industry manipulates us into thinking that unless we are in the current trend, we’re not cool, or sophisticated, or informed.  In that post, I included a link to a film entitled The Story of StuffThis 20-minute film describes the process of making, buying and disposing “stuff” and the impacts on the environment.  The film also contains a very good discussion of how consumers are manipulated by advertising – into buying “stuff” you may not need but feel compelled to buy, in order to feel good.  You can skip ahead to the 10-minute mark to see the discussion of consumerism and the quote by the economist, Victor Lebow’s from his 1955 book.  This philosophy significantly influenced the basis for our economy in the post-World-War II era.  This philosophy is what is driving our economy today:

Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into spiritual rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption, we need things consumed, burned up, discarded and replaced at an ever increasing rate.  Victor Lebow

As a country, our happiness peaked in the mid-1950s and has been declining ever since. Any coincident with the institutional focus of more consumer spending?   Because that’s what we’re doing: shopping, shopping, shopping.  Consumer spending represents 2/3 of our economy.  Many of the ads we see are designed to make us feel unhappy, or unsatisfied, or inadequate, or “just not with it” –with the “stuff” we have.  And to address these problems, we are told we must buy new “stuff”!  We are exposed to 3,000 ads every day.  We Americans spend most of our “leisure time” watching TV (where we see ads) and shopping. 

With the onset of the coronavirus, all of our regular routines have been interrupted.  The treadmill – being so busy – working, managing your life, dealing with your texts & e-mails, dealing with your family – all the things busy people do every day, including shopping, just came to an abrupt halt!  Full Stop!  No Warning!  Nothing! –THE GREAT PAUSE.  Our initial reaction?  Likely “scary – unsettling – unnatural – and possibly depressing”.  Knowing this, what will advertisers provide? All the comfort you need and want just by “buying our stuff”. 

Advertisers will attempt to erase the images we’ve seen on TV of the drama in hospitals, food banks, for the homeless, and the aging in nursing homes, for the dying everywhere – for the inequality in wealth, in health care, in education – because these are unsettling scenes – and these scenes do not reinforce the need to “shop”.  Advertisers want us to replace those images with happy scenes in which people are happy with the products they want to sell us. 

But we have a choice.  We can remember what a pandemic is like.  We can remember what it is like when 40% of the people do not have adequate access to health care.  What it is like when almost half the people in our country are living from paycheck to paycheck have no safety net when they lose their job, or become sick.  We can remember what inequity is like.  Advertisers don’t want us to remember these scenes – because we might advocate changes to the system instead of buying stuff. 

We have a choice relative to consumerism.  We also have a choice relative to climate change. Excessive consumerism affects our climate. The impact on climate change moves more slowly… like the frog in the pot of water on the fire.  We should know and understand the ultimate impact when we ignore what we need to do to address climate change.  The scientists are all telling us what’s going to happen if we don’t change our ways – but others (like the oil companies stoking the pot with the frog in it) are telling us not to worry, it will be ok… and besides, it’s no fun to sacrifice now. 

Look, we’ve gone through some significant changes in how we operate as a society as a result of this virus.  We’ve changed!  Let’s not forget what we’ve been through – the good and the bad.  Let’s not return to the same old “normal” where we’re on that perpetual treadmill of consume, consume, consume so we’ll be happy, happy, happy, when the overwhelming evidence is that we won’t be.   Let’s not be fooled by the advertisers telling us we must return to the way things were – we can do better.  We can alter the way we spend our evenings – our leisure time – our relationships.  Let’s take advantage of this “Full Pause” and realign our priorities and make our lives more fulfilled, happier, and at the same time, better for our planet.

In early 2019, I decided to stop buying “stuff” – the idea was that to make something required materials, energy, transportation – and that had an ultimate cost to the planet.  (See Too Much Stuff) Exceptions:  things deemed “consumable (e.g., food)” and “essentials (e.g., something breaks and can’t be fixed and is required)”.  My bottom line in that blog: “Less consumption; less demand; less made; and less energy!”

GWheeler Photography

Now we have the opportunity (choice) as to how we emerge from this coronavirus crisis.  Will we return to the same old treadmill, being busy, busy, busy, and shop, shop, shop, or will we take notice of what we’ve experienced and change our habits.  I hope we, as a society, emerge from this coronavirus with a renewed understanding of what is important.  And, we begin to affect the inadequacies of our systems and support changes to make us a better (WE vs. ME) society, including saving our planet from climate change.

4 thoughts on “Gaslighting

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. I was also unaware of the meaning of gaslighting and I agree with you on how advertisers and social media use deception and manipulation to extract profit. I think there is a strong pushback against privacy in this country, from the ‘consumerism’ lobby, because personal information provides the jet fuel for their gaslighting objectives.


    1. Thanks for the comment. Totally agree with the term “jet fuel” regarding personal information — unfortunately, social media has taken this to a new level,


  2. A wonderful and powerful message. We’ve gotta resist falling into the luxury trap! Thanks, TFG.

    Did you watch that movie? Sounds like it’d be good.


    1. Thanks for the comment. No, I haven’t watched the movie but I agree, sounds interesting – like some of the Alfred Hitchcock movies I’ve enjoyed over the years.


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