In 1978, I took a train from London to Warsaw to visit my then girlfriend who lived in Poland, after a time spent studying in London. The Cold War was still in full throttle, though Solidarity was just breaking out. The train journey took 34 hours and passed through East Germany into West Berlin then back into East Germany and onto Poland. It was a journey I repeated several times (with many stories to tell) but the first trip gave me a special perspective on capitalism and advertising.
It sounds like a cliché, but passing between West and East was like moving from colour to black and white television, and back again. I could not put my finger on the reason to begin with. We had depressing concrete council estates in England too. I was living in one of the most deprived boroughs of Britain at the time, so it was certainly not just a question of poverty, yet the image of drabness endured.
It was not until my girlfriend and I went into a couple of supermarkets on her housing estate in Warsaw, that I suddenly realized what it was. The shelves were not full? No, that wasn’t it. Only one brand of most goods, if they were there at all? No it wasn’t that either. Then the light bulb moment!
The bag of rice on the shelf was literally that, a brown paper bag with ‘Rice’ written on it. Nothing more. There was no image of a happy family, gathered round a full table, smiling away, eating and having family fun in a beautiful kitchen. It was just a brown bag. Packaging was functional not attractive and not geared to stimulate demand or desire. (This was quite lucky as the Polish economy was hopelessly unable to meet existing demand or desire anyway and the last thing they needed was anymore of either.)
Looking round during the rest of my stay I realized how much colour and art advertising adds to our existence in capitalist societies, from billboards to packaging. Being a student, intellectual type I had always assumed I was too smart to be lured by advertising or packaging but in Poland, it was easy to walk round a supermarket and only buy what you wanted to buy (if they had it). In London, I would feel my hand being drawn toward things I had not intended to buy when I went shopping.
It made me hyper aware of how we are all affected subconsciously by both advertising and packaging. It’s only logical of course, why else would there be massive industries around design and promotion otherwise? However, it’s not until you go somewhere without it, that you really appreciate its impact on your psyche and how we are all seduced to consume. On the flip side, one also appreciates how much colour it adds to everyday existence. Perhaps that’s one of the good things about graffiti art, it adds colour without the opportunity to own, unless Banks paints on your wall of course!