Picture Yourself Happy

Ads with people taking selfies merge fantasies of consumption with fantasies of being consumed

Earlier this summer, I saw a photo on a lifestyle blog of three women by a pool, drinking rosé. They are taking a group selfie — one woman’s arm is extended, holding a black iPhone (you can clearly see the apple embossed on the back), while they cluster together to fit in the frame. They are all wearing sunglasses, but you can tell that their gazes are trained on the image from the self-facing camera. We don’t get to see that image, though; what’s posted is not the selfie but a professional photographer’s capture of the act from the outside. The photo, the professional one, was taken as part of a shoot for a “lookbook” (a sexier term for a catalog) for a collection of swim cover-ups; the women are bloggers who were chosen, and presumably paid, to be the “faces” of the collection.

Not long afterward, I saw a New Hampshire tourism ad on the outside of a bus stop near Copley Square in Boston. The ad shows a group of four, two kids and two adults, taking a selfie in the mountains. They’re a family I suppose, though I didn’t initially grasp them as such — so few of the selfies I see day to day are of families. They’re all wearing backpacks. Green mountains, blue sky. The man is holding the phone with arm extended (this time, there’s no free product placement for Apple); they tip their heads together as if in a photo booth, look into the camera and smile. LIMITLESS SUMMER, the ad copy says. NEW HAMPSHIRE. LIVE FREE. (What happened to the “die” option?)

The ad of the women taking a selfie by the pool is an image of glamor but not a fantastical one, it’s an example of attainable happiness. Rather than “quoting fine art,” the ad quotes Instagram

What were these images of people taking photos of themselves trying to tell me? An image of a woman taking a selfie alone would telegraph confidence: She is thinking, I look good. (In YouTube parlance: I’m feeling myself.) I should document this moment. For example, the brand Make Up For Ever ran an ad in 2011 that claimed to be “the first unretouched makeup ad,” featuring a photo of a woman taking a selfie (with, oddly, a digital camera rather than a phone). Presumably, the “HD Invisible Cover” foundation makes your skin look so good you can go #nofilter. As Rachel Syme writes in her essay “SELFIE,” a woman who takes and posts a self-portrait has declared “that she deserves, in that moment, to be seen.”

But the emotive content of the group selfie, the apparent urge to document, is different. It says, We are having a good time. We’re enjoying ourselves. We’re happy.

I work in marketing, and I recently edited an article by an expert in conversion rate optimization, which is the process of getting more of the people who see your ads to buy your stuff. The article was about a dual approach to advertising imagery: the present- or problem-state approach versus the future- or desired-state approach.

The first approach depicts someone like you, the viewer, suffering some great frustration. You’ve seen infomercials that take the problem-state approach to absurdist extremes — a woman whose closet is so disorganized that shoes tumble all over her when she opens the door. (See also the Mr. ShowBag Hutch” sketch.) These images are meant to remind you of the problems you have that need solving, problems that limit your happiness.

The second approach is a little more subtle, certainly more aspirational. It depicts someone you could be like in the desired state, a state of relative ease and enjoyment. A problem is solved; satisfaction is achieved. The woman gazes into her perfectly organized closet triumphantly, arms akimbo. These images are meant to inspire envy — this could be you but you’re failing.

As John Berger points out in the last chapter of Ways of Seeing, which focuses on “publicity images,” the desired-state approach to advertising is not intended to make us envious of others but of our potential future selves:

Publicity is never a celebration of pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image makes him envious of himself as he might be.

Years ago I read that both heterosexual men and heterosexual women are measurably aroused by looking at pictures of naked women. The first result is not surprising, but why the second? The theory is that women identify with the images; they’re turned on by imagining themselves in the warmth of the male gaze. It seems that advertising works this way regardless of gender — we project ourselves into an ad as though it’s consumerist porn, enjoying both the power of gazing and the glamor of being a gaze-worthy object.

Berger goes on:

Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.

The ads Berger analyzes are from the golden age of glamor in advertising, the late 1960s into the mid ’70s. Ads from this era are often ridiculously indulgent in their celebration of “the good life.” “Morny soap is a pure, fragrant dream” says an ad with a photo of a woman in a Renaissance Faire–esque long white dress, letting her white horse graze in front of a castle. An ad for Gordon’s gin shows a collage of couples sipping drinks on the beach or on a yacht at sunset, riding horses through the woods: “The shape of drinks to come.” “Think of it as an exclusive club for which most men will be ineligible” says an ad for the Skopes Swedish Collection, featuring four serious men in suits in a room with oil paintings on the wall. (Ads at the time, says Berger, tended to “quote” fine art because it signified wealth and taste.) An ad for the Ford Granada, not a particularly luxurious-looking model, shows the car parked in front of a mansion with a giant lawn. In sum, wow — it’s nice to be rich.

These people aren’t posing for a photographer, the selfie ad says; they are posing for themselves. It speaks of two futures: one where you and your family are in the mountains, and another where you prove you were there

This level of overt class signaling hasn’t disappeared from advertising (think of the ads for real estate and jewelry in the New York Times’ T Magazine) but it’s not necessarily the norm. The photo of the women taking a selfie by the pool is an image of glamor but not a fantastical one, like the ad for Armstrong flooring in Ways of Seeing that shows a woman standing proudly in the gaping hall of an Italian villa. Almost anyone can put on a kaftan (or something like it) and hang out near a pool with their friends. The hike in New Hampshire looks even more unassuming by advertising’s standards; you can drive there from Boston in a little over an hour, and some hikes are probably free. These are examples of attainable happiness. Rather than quoting fine art, the new ads quote Instagram.

But it’s not just the activities (hiking, lounging) that seem humble and within reach. The gesture toward the selfie is doubly humbling, in a “Stars: They’re just like us!” way. Taking a selfie is something real people do, not fantasy people played by models. The imposition of a second camera between the subject and the professional photographer de-emphasizes the contrivance of the set. These people aren’t posing for a photographer, the selfie ad says; they are posing for themselves, and for their family and friends who might later see the selfie on social media. Ads “may refer to the past,” says Berger, but “always they speak of the future.” The selfie ad speaks of two futures: the future where you and your family are in the mountains, and the further future, where you prove you were there. We went to the mountains, and a good time was had by all.

A 2014 campaign for a travel agency played on the supposed narcissism of selfies by showing images of people whose self-portraits block the view of the famous landmarks they’re visiting — the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben barely visible in the background. (The campaign’s slogan was “When you travel, there’s nothing more important than yourself.”) In this earlier incarnation of the selfie ad, you see the would-be selfie itself, not a photo from the vantage of a few yards away, which includes the subject’s phone in the frame. The images in these ads are too stylized, however, too high-resolution, to look like actual selfies.

The ads, while cute, are also conceptually inaccurate: When people take a selfie with a landmark or celebrity, they want you to be able to identify the thing of fame. (A selfie-shaming article on the “rules” of Instagram in Vogue declares that “a selfie is only acceptable on a few occasions,” one being “if you are somewhere awesome and there is no one to take your picture (e.g., a chairlift on Mount Kilimanjaro or jury duty with Oprah).”) By being near it, you borrow some of its aura of fame, the moon to its sun. This desire for proof of the fame-touched experience is most of the reason we take the photo. You are not the monument, but your presence at the monument is what you’re buying when you book travel. These ads cleverly include you — and your ability to advertise the trip to your own following — as part of the product being sold.

Photos confirm that we were really there, but more so (or less?), they confirm that we were: Being took place. In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that a portrait, in the days before photography, was meant to confer and confirm status, thus the owner needed only one. With photographic portraits it’s different: “What the photographic record confirms is, more modestly, simply that the subject exists; therefore, one can never have too many.” Photos extend our existence, since they can live on after our deaths like poems or mummy masks. Of course we take selfies, when the barrier to create them is so low. But we don’t just paint self-portraits or take selfies to prove to others we exist. Seeing a photo of myself reinforces my sometimes shaky belief that I exist. Is my existence as it seems? Am I a Boltzmann brain, a character in a simulation, a two-dimensional hologram? Even taking for granted that I’m real and of my time and that other people also exist, do people see me and think of me as I think of myself?

I take selfies for this reason, to confirm to myself that I am who I think I am. (And I only share them, naturally, if they conform to my self-view.) But selfies are never entirely satisfying in this regard. The end result never looks like it did on the screen or like I do in the mirror, but it’s not just that; they’re almost a tautological proof, like telling a joke to myself.

It’s hard to take a selfie with land art, or time art; the travel essay offers “proof” of time spent on site, time in the form of time and time in the form of thought

What works better is seeing a candid or accidental photo, one in which you’re not the subject but part of the background. Yes, you are there — you exist — even when no one is trying to prove it! The self as serendipitous discovery, confirmed in double-blind experiments. It’s like when someone says of God or acupuncture that “it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

This need to see myself from the outside to feel real — it suggests that the ultimate ad would include me, not metaphorically, by way of self-envying projection, but literally, by way of some technology that scans my face and instantaneously constructs a virtual image of me in the world of the ad. This, of course, would be the ultimate exploitation, making me the “face” of the ad, but instead of paying me, asking me to pay for the opportunity.

Within the span of a few days, and without meaning to, I read two different essays about Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s iconic land-art piece in Great Salt Lake. The travel essay as the intellectual’s travel selfie: I went, I saw, I contemplated.

The Heidi Julavits version, “The Art at the End of the World,” is a meditation on time and existence in the Anthropocene; she feels compelled to scare her children for their betterment:

How prepared will they be to handle daily challenges, both banal and catastrophic? How might I help them cultivate their interior landscapes so as to improve their chances of survival — even happiness? … I’ve wondered: Are they enough into their future annihilation? Should they be, as a means to gain present-day control over the frightening and the uncertain, more into it?

Why choose Spiral Jetty as the venue for this project? Because, she writes, “previous visitors had described the landscape as hauntingly spare, as resembling how our planet might appear following a nuclear holocaust.” Also, conveniently, she had always wanted to go there.

The Geoff Dyer version, from his recent collection White Sands, is also concerned with time and space; it’s titled “Time in Space” and appears just after an essay titled “Space in Time,” about Lightning Field in New Mexico.

This dual preoccupation with time makes sense; Smithson conceived the jetty as a comment on ephemerality at epic scales. It was built when the level of Great Salt Lake was unusually low, designed to disappear, which it did within a couple of years. (Not long after that, Smithson died, at 35, in a plane crash.)

In recent years, the water level has fallen, so Spiral Jetty is again visible. The once-black basalt rocks are now white, encrusted in salt. Dyer visits the jetty with his wife, Rebecca Wilson, a curator. Near the end of the essay, he writes:

In uncertain tribute, we stayed longer than we needed to, waiting for any potential increments of the experience to make themselves felt. One or the other of us kept saying, “Shall we go?” and, in this way, our visit was gradually extended. Nothing happened except the slow erosion of urgency and purpose. We were often ready to leave, but every time we thought about leaving we remembered the previous time we had thought about leaving and were glad the urge had not been acted on.

As such, writes Dyer, pilgrimage sites like Spiral Jetty “are always about time, about how long they can detain or hold you.” He also notes that the jetty “looked better in photographs than it did in the rocky flesh.” Not so of Lightning Field, which he calls “almost unphotographable,” being too spread out, not only in space but in time; you go there not to see a place but to experience your own changing experience of the site over 24 hours.

We “curate our contexts” online all the time — curation as a form of manipulation, as constructing a version of truth. In this way curation is also empowering: Better our own version than somebody else’s

It’s hard to take a selfie with land art, or time art; the travel essay offers “proof” of time spent on site, time in the form of time and time in the form of thought. (For writers, solitude is glamor.) But in case there are lingering doubts, photographs offer supporting evidence — the Julavits piece is accompanied by professional photos of her and her family, bundled up in puffy coats against gray weather; the paperback edition of White Sands has a photo of Dyer, seen from the back, at Spiral Jetty, taken by Wilson.

Dyer does not mention seeing other people at the jetty. He describes it as utterly desolate, quiet except for birds and water. Julavits and her family also appear, by the text, to be alone there; her daughter sings a little song to herself whose lyrics are simply “No people. No people. No people. No people.” But there must have been at least one other person there: Ruddy Roye, who is credited with taking the photographs for the article.

I once saw an IMAX documentary about Mount Everest, and think often of the film crew, who were not the stars of the movie but had to climb the mountain just the same. For the crew to be part of the movie, there would have to be another film crew, and so on, an infinite regression. Like a selfie ad, the essay pushes the money people out of frame, hoping you won’t notice their lights and machinations. But the professionalism of the photos works against that. The money finds a way; glamor seeps in at the edges.

In a 2012 GQ profile of Scott Schuman, the photographer behind the street-fashion blog The Sartorialist, writer Alex Pappademas notes that Schuman would spot potential subjects at shows in Milan, then “lead them away from the glossy signage of the trade show buildings and put them up against old, crumbly walls.” Schuman claims this “places them in context.” Pappademas objects: “When I point out that by positioning them so you can’t see they’re at a fashion trade show, he’s actually, technically, obscuring the context, he says, ‘Yes, it’s definitely a curated context.” Of course, we “curate our contexts” online all the time — curation as a form of manipulation, as constructing a version of truth. (In this way curation is also empowering: Better our own version than somebody else’s.)

In another essay from White Sands, Dyer writes about Los Angeles, “the amazing blues, the contemporary blaze of color.” He marvels that it must have been just as picture-perfect when Theodor Adorno lived there, during World War II, and thousands of years ago. By contrast:

We — people in our late 50s or older — tend to remember the weather of our English childhoods as being much better than it was, because back in the 1950s and 1960s people only took pictures if there was “enough light” and so the memory-shaping evidence of photography suggests a permanent light- and heat-wave that has long since receded.

Ditto happiness!, I wrote in the margin. Most of us only take photos of ourselves when there is “enough happiness” to make the moment worth sharing. Curating only happy photos for Facebook and Instagram creates a happier persona, but maybe we’re not just fooling our observers; maybe it actually gives us happier memories. (If we can fool ourselves into believing we’re happy, aren’t we, in fact, happy?) What the selfie ad offers is not exactly happiness — they know we know you can’t buy that — but a context for sale, a curated context for the curated self.

Elisa Gabbert is the author most recently of The Word Pretty. Her next collection, The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, will be out from FSG Originals in August 2020.