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.”