“If you don’t have an iPhone…” Visualizing the hidden side of consumerism

By Sophia Binz, Anne Blanken, Melanie Veltman

In contemporary society, consumerism has become a powerful ideology. This ideology implies that the acquiring of products defines our identity and sense of self. We seek happiness and fulfillment through consumption, making it a purpose of life. As an ideology, consumerism is a lense through which we understand the world; forming our values, relationships, identity and behavior, culture and the entire social structure of society. (Cole, 2017) Consumerism is an inherent feature of capitalism, which is based on mass production and an understanding of growth as the ever increase of the production and selling of goods. (Löwy, 2010)

Advertising plays a big role within consumerism and creates demand by inventing false needs (Löwy, 2010). Positive qualities, emotions and situations are attributed to products in order to convince consumers to buy them. By doing so, the negative aspects of products in particular and consumerism in general are being neglected and remain invisible. Consumers seem not aware of, or are deliberately ignoring the negative impacts of the consumption of products. This is at least partly due to the fact that many products now have a global supply chain that is often very long, which makes consumers morally and geographically disassociated from the circumstances in which goods are being produced. (Clarke and Boersma, 2017)

Our goal is to make the negative impacts of consumerism visible. In today’s visual society, where knowledge is often equated with seeing, we think showing people the hidden side of consumerism, namely the production side, could be helpful in generating more awareness about the impacts of our consumption behavior. Therefore we decided to use the most influential way of generating consumption, namely advertising, against itself. By creating contrast and breaking through the one-sided approach of advertisement we hope to make people aware of the impact they have with their behavior as a consumer.

Apple might be the best example of consumerism within contemporary society. It is considered to be ‘one of the most valuable brands in the world’ and shows an incredible growth from 8 billion dollars in 2004 to no less than 230 billion dollars in 2015. (Gordon, 2016)

In the meantime, low wages, working overtime and dangerous working conditions due to toxic chemicals and explosions are common in Apple-affiliated companies and have led to a considerable amount of suicides among workers in the last years. A ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’ exists, but Apple has to cut costs in the production process in order for suppliers to get a greater profit margin. The companies ensure that enough psychological pressure is exerted on workers, so they refrain from complaining against the working conditions. (Clarke and Boersma, 2017)

Moreover, the mass production of the iPhone has numerous repercussions on the environment. Along with high CO2 emissions due to the transportation of parts during the production, leading to air pollution, the dumping of electronic waste and the pollution of rivers near factories are an immense problem. Especially in China, where Apple’s biggest supplying companies are located, people suffer from diseases due to smog in the air and a lack of clean drinking water. (Williams, Cocan and Goldman, 2016)

To create our video, we used an iPhone 5 advertisement and first analysed the original iPhone ad, using Gillian Rose’ chapter on semiotics. We identified the signifiers and signifieds that are present in the images in the video and tried to connect them to the broader ideologies embedded in our society. The specific goal of this advertisement is attaching qualities, emotions and possibilities to the possession of an iPhone, which is done by linking images to emotions. This can be seen in various scenes of the video. We analysed three examples to illustrate the pattern of this commercial.

The first scene of the advertisement shows two persons running through a field of reed. They are wearing outdoor equipment and backpacks and they are filming each other. This can be interpreted as the signifier for having fun, being adventurous ad connecting to nature.

Another sign is presented by the signifier of oil on an asphalt ground, resulting in rainbow colours and the hands of a person, taking a photo of this phenomenon. The signified in this context is artistic beauty and aesthetics in everyday motives. This shot is clearly a syntagmatic sign, since oil spilled on the ground could as well be a signifier of pollution. However, due to the signs before and after, which show other, similarly artistic everyday situations, the viewer interprets the oil as a harmless, aesthetic sign.
Towards the end of the commercial the viewer sees a group of three people in a street, laughing and posing for a picture, taken by a stranger. This composition is a signifier for family and spending time with close ones as well as connecting with strangers and helping each other out. The signified closeness of friends and family is repeated several times until the end of the video, leading to the portrayal of the strong emotion of belonging, togetherness and closeness, which is ultimately connected to the idea of taking pictures with the iPhone.

It becomes apparent that the advertisement makes use of what is termed punctum in semiology, by bringing across a certain atmosphere and feeling, playing on the viewers emotions when watching the scenes.

After analysing the original ad, we altered it, trying to create a totally different picture of the iPhone. The goal of our video is twofold: first of all, we simply want to show what is behind an iPhone. Therefore, we tried to incorporate most of the above mentioned factors when we altered the original commercial into our own version. The combination of sound, a voice-over and video serves to make viewers visualize the circumstances in which their iPhone was made. Secondly, we effectively tried to break through Apple’s pattern of creating a harmonious and positive feeling in connection to the iPhone by alternating between the original sequences and the added scenes of, for instance, workers in factories or polluted rivers. This creates a big contrast and hopefully will have a shocking effect on viewers.

In conclusion, by visualizing the hidden side of consumerism, we aim to dislodge the effect of the iPhone branding by painting a more truthful picture of Apple’s production. This kind of advertising could pave the way to more consumer awareness.


Clarke, T. & Boersma, M. (2017, June).The Governance of Global Value Chains: Unresolved Human Rights, Environmental and Ethical Dilemmas in the Apple Supply Chain. Journal of Business Ethics, 143 (1). Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.proxy-ub.rug.nl/article/10.1007/s10551-015-2781-3.

Cole, N. (2017). What Does Consumerism Mean? A Sociological Definition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/consumerism-definition-3026119.

Gordon, K. (2016). Apple – Statistics and Facts. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/topics/847/apple/.

Löwy, M. (2010, January 1). Advertising is a ‘’serious health threat’’ -to the environment. Monthly Review, 61 (8). Retrieved from https://monthlyreview.org/2010/01/01/advertising-is-a-serious-health-threat-to-the-environment.

Rose, G. (2016). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. London: Sage.

Williams, S., D. Cocan, J. Goldman, (Producers) (2016). Death by Design, [online video]. Retrieved March 3, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0u_qt5My06o.

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