For the September ASC Window Space, Charlotte Warne Thomas presents willpower, a large-scale poster installation featuring a copy of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002 [England], specifically designed for this site outside ASC’s gallery and studios where smokers congregate, aiming to explore the myths of free will and individual choice as products of neoliberal ideology and the consumer subject.
Co-opting the imagery and rhetoric deployed by the fields of advertising, high fashion, branding, bureaucracy and law, the work seeks to highlight the manipulation of human behaviour for economic advantage, by the institutions which mould our daily lives and perception.
In 1929 Edward Bernays, the founding father of what we now call PR, scored a publicity triumph when
he coined the euphemism ‘torches of freedom’ for cigarettes, thus persuading a generation of American women that tobacco smoking, which had previously been considered unacceptable and unladylike, was
an expression of personal and political liberty. Since that moment, tobacco advertising has remained inextricably linked to the social phenomenon of tobacco addiction.
Rather than appealing to the rational decision-making mind, as the very earliest examples of advertising from the 20th Century illustrate, the adverts of the post-PR era instead sought to stimulate primitive subconscious desires by selling to people an image of how they wanted to be perceived by others. This remains the case, with branding and advertising agencies deploying ever more sophisticated strategies and technologies to appeal to our inner sense of who we are, and who we want to be. The banning of tobacco advertising by the governments of the Western world over the last decades signals an implicit recognition of the far-reaching power of persuasion of advertisements. Yet successive Neo-liberal governments insist that improving one’s own circumstances is solely a matter of individual choice – and they employ advertising agencies to convince us of this. By extension, stopping smoking or abstaining from other vices is seen as a measure of willpower, to be lauded and promoted. The late-capitalist consumer subject is thus immersed in the myth of free will, reassured that she or he can compensate for the power of advertising’s manipulative forces by the strength of her own inner contemplation, and make informed individual choices.
Charlotte Warne Thomas graduated from Goldsmiths’ MFA in 2009, and has since exhibited widely both nationally and internationally, including at the David Roberts Art Foundation and Deptford X in London,
at the Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium and Art Moscow in Russia. Based in London, she works as a tutor and visiting lecturer in HE and adult education, and co-founded Peer Sessions, a post-grad crit group which she continues to run with fellow artist and Goldsmiths graduate Kate Pickering.
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