The Illusionists: 'Happy people make bad consumers'

A film still from <i>The Illusionist</i>.

A film still from The Illusionist.

Elena Rossini is familiar with the oft-repeated advertising maxim ‘sex sells’, but she believes companies have realised that it isn’t the ultimate way to market their products.  “Insecurity sells. The message always seems to be you’re not okay just as you are, you need to spend money in order to be beautiful and ultimately to be happy.”

The Italian-born, American-educated, Paris-based filmmaker has been working for the past several years on her feature-length documentary, The Illusionists. The film is an examination of beauty ideals globally and how companies have a vested interest in perpetuating unachievable aesthetics. Rossini has conducted interviews with people from Europe, America, Japan, India and Lebanon to uncover how these advertising messages negatively affect consumers.

One of the most memorable lines in the teaser for the documentary is ‘a person that feels happy and secure isn’t going to be a good consumer’. It addresses the body dissatisfaction that is rife in terms of how necessary it is to keep the wheels of commerce greased. “If you imagine a woman who is 50 years old and she’s perfectly happy with her natural appearance, doesn’t wear any make-up, doesn’t care about clothing, she’s not going to make corporations any money,” says Rossini.  “In order to maintain this endless cycle of consumption, the ideal is unattainable.”

A film still from <i>The Illusionist</i>.

A film still from The Illusionist.

Rossini found that whereas once the most coveted status symbol for buyers might have been a car or an item of clothing, now it is our actual bodies. And to keep consumers spending money advertisers find it necessary to continue inventing fresh areas of discontent, so that people can be sold the supposed solution. “Every year there is some new body part that we were not aware was problematic, like ‘cankles’ or the skin above your knees. I’m really curious to see what will happen five years from now – I’m under the impression we’ve exhausted every single body part, but I’m sure they’re going to come up with something new,” Rossini says with a wry laugh.

She also sees the global ramifications in pushing Western beauty ideals in non-Western countries through trends like the growth of eyelid surgery in Asia or rhinoplasty in the Middle East. “If you keep seeing images hundreds of times a day that look nothing like you, that are a completely different racial make-up, you are going to feel like there is something wrong with your own body.”

Through her research for the film Rossini also found the problem of hyper perfected advertising images is affecting wider swathes of the population. “Women have been targeted for so long, now the new markets are men and children. It’s getting worse across the board to the point that children are getting increasingly self conscious about the way they look. Girls as young as three don’t want to gain any weight, which I find absolutely disturbing.”

Documentary maker Elena Rossini.

Documentary maker Elena Rossini. Photo: Laurence Oluyede

The documentarian has come to the conclusion that these sorts of advertisements are a form of ‘visual pollution’ we are all subjected to. “This relentless propaganda that keeps telling us we have to look a certain way that is really idealised, it’s so toxic. People that I interviewed like Susie Orbach [author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and Bodies] and politician Jo Swinson, they’re trying to get across that this is affecting our health and our self-esteem.”

Rossini suggests that if people are feeling negatively impacted by these marketing messages, she would advise a ‘media diet’ to cut out some of the unrealistic images. She also recommends not supporting companies that trade in these idealised or overly sexualised images and instead voting with your wallet by choosing companies aligned with one’s personal values.

While her documentary might be focused on conventional beauty, but there’s nothing conventional about Rossini’s path to getting the project made. She tried the traditional routes meeting with television stations about backing the project, but due to the popularity of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock found that first-person documentaries were the hot commodity. “I was always told we’re not interested in the experts you want to interview. You should put yourself in the film undergoing beauty treatments, then you’ll have a deal,” says Rossini.

 

Instead she decided to stay true to her own vision of using a variety of voices to examine the issue and in 2011 successfully raised more than $37000 using crowd funding. Rossini is now in the process looking at DIY distribution deals to make the film available to viewers around the world hopefully later this year.

When asked the main message she wants to get across with the The Illusionists Rossini is silent for a moment before answering. “For people to be mindful that the ideal consumer is someone who is unhappy and constantly dissatisfied. When people are feeling pressure to look a certain way, I would want them to keep in mind that it doesn’t just come from them, it’s in the economic interests of many, many corporations. I think that this awareness can help when it comes to self-esteem and truly make a difference in the way we lead our lives.”

 

9 comments

  • Ms. Rossini is doing good and important work with this documentary. I just hope people get it.

    Commenter
    Barry
    Date and time
    May 19, 2014, 7:57AM
    • Honestly, has this not always been obvious? It's basic marketing. Create a perceived need and then fill that need with your clients product. Don't advertise the product, advertise the feelings and lifestyle the product will supposedly fulfil.

      The problem comes from a terrible lack of introspection, created by a lack of comfort with solitude and boredom. We don't consider it a positive character trait nor do we teach people how to do it. So instead of working with the natural urge to assess and improve ourselves, we've outsourced it to corporations. That's the real problem, not marketing which is simply a symptom of our collective failings.

      Commenter
      Swarley
      Date and time
      May 19, 2014, 9:37AM
      • This is not a revelation of any sort. Create a problem, convince people that it is a problem, sell them the solution to said problem is Marketing 101. The only thing that could be considered new is the magnitude.

        And bodies are not a more coveted symbol than a car or certain clothing, they are just the newest addition to an ever increasing list of status symbols. Why only sell body enhancement products when you can sell them those as well as the car and suit?

        Commenter
        Markus
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        May 19, 2014, 10:54AM
        • Sensational article. I know it isn't anything new, but it's amazing how many people still need to buy stuff to feel better about themselves.
          The first thing people need to do is to realise what advertising is trying to do to them.

          Commenter
          Budz
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 19, 2014, 1:25PM
          • A three year old SHOULDN'T be fat. We have to stop looking at fat as a mere aesthetic issue but as a health issue. In our quest to fight what the doco covers we have gone the opposite way, turning on thin bodies as "ill" and praising fat bodies as "healthy".

            Commenter
            missminute
            Date and time
            May 19, 2014, 2:35PM
            • As always it is the balance that is needed, and knowing your own body.

              Some level of fat, especially for young children, is normal - it is the obsession with being fat free that is unhealthy (as is being overweight).

              Either extreme is not healthy is what I took the author to be inferring.

              Commenter
              Wooduck
              Date and time
              May 19, 2014, 9:10PM
            • The article didn't say the three year olds were fat, it said they didn't want to gain any weight...that is a pretty unhealthy stance for a young child barely started along the growth curve.

              The range of normal healthy fatness in young kids is huge, I don't see how you can make the blanket statement that all 3yo kids should be thin. I've had this discussion many times with my own 6yo daughter - she asks if she is fat or thin and I say neither, there is a third category called healthy. She is a fabulously tall, strong, robust girl with huge callouses on her hands from the monkey bars, we go orienteering every weekend, she routinely completes 15km bike rides and hilly 7+km bush walks, she eats like a horse, she's almost never been sick, she reads and plays the violin obsessively. She's a wonderful, lively girl with a BMI in the top end of the healthy range. She is genuinely healthy but you sound like you'd just see a fatty because she isn't built like a stick insect.

              Commenter
              Nick
              Date and time
              May 19, 2014, 11:13PM
          • It has been the way of the powermongers since year dot: "You are a miserable, undeserving, unworthy failure and only through me/us can you be redeemed". Repeat ad infinitum until the poor sod believes it must be true (or they wouldn't be hearing so much of it), to the point where they say "Oh please save me from my own unworthiness". Everyone from the Catholic Church to abusive husbands. Power is the ability to get others to do your will regardless of their own. True power is in convincing others that your will actually is their own. You get this true power by holding the key to their salvation and happiness. The commercial world seeks this power for its very existence - its profitability.

            A wise person once pointed out that the western world attended to its needs longs ago, and keeping economies ticking over requires people satisfying their wants. Since wants are, by definition, discretionary, they have to be continually stoked - they have to be morphed into a perception of need, something now obligatory. As others here have pointed out, it is no surprise that the forces of commerce seek your unhappiness, because it is more likely to get you feeling a need to spend as opposed to merely a desire to spend. Marketing has gone from a kind of bribery - "you will feel good if you spend your money on our product" - to a kind of blackmail - "you will feel bad if you don't spend your money on our product".

            Commenter
            That'sLife
            Location
            Earth
            Date and time
            May 19, 2014, 10:36PM
            • That "first-person" thing of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock worked for bombastic people like them, but I really look forward to seeing Ms Rossini's documentary.

              We know that that the mass media is always at us, but we forget and need to be reminded.

              Commenter
              Ray
              Date and time
              May 20, 2014, 8:11AM
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