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Commercial Free Dystopia

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Did you see The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4? I watched it through my fingers.  This TV serialisation is based on Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel published in 1985 but it veers away from the book and pursues different paths. In many ways, it’s much darker.

Every element of the production sends shivers down my spine. There’s the flat blue filter of the cinematography which makes the Handmaid’s red uniforms stand out like blood smears in a cold landscape. The subtly nuanced performances stop us from ever fully understanding the characters and their motivations; they are multi layered and complex.  Elizabeth Moss (of Madmen fame) plays the central character, a handmaiden called ‘Offred’. You feel sympathy for her predicament until you see her join a furious crowd stampeding a stranger to death. Joseph Fiennes is her Commander; Fred Waterford. He seems cruel and sadistic but is also intelligent and sensitive at times.

We’re shown through flashbacks how Gilead, the strange world they live in, was born from an America we’d find familiar but is now governed with puritanical tyranny. Margaret Atwood has chillingly stated there is nothing she depicted in the novel which hasn’t actually happened in some society, at some time, somewhere in the world. There are no visible adverts as commerce has been drilled back to the bare essentials.  There are scenes of people in supermarkets buying food that is either unpackaged or in plain covers.

It makes me think of the commercial free outdoor environments like Sao Paulo. Most people who are used to urban landscapes like New York or London would find it strange and maybe even a little eerie that there are no billboard adverts visible on the streets of a city.

We can’t chose to be exposed to advertising which is part of our outdoor landscape in the way we do with most other media channels.

There are pressure groups who have campaigned for similar advert free environments in cities as disparate as Bristol, Paris, Tokyo and Tehran. These groups resent the way advertisers impose their brands on us through outdoor advertising. We can’t chose to be exposed to advertising which is part of our outdoor landscape in the way we do with most other media channels. They are wary of how brands use out of home advertising to become part of our public space and then infiltrate our more intimate conversations and ultimately affect our thoughts and change our behaviour. This fear is an indication of how powerfully effective this medium can be.

Whilst it’s true that advertisers have some control over our lives, a competitive mix still gives us the ability to wrest some choice for ourselves. Would a society that strips away that commercial competition also be one that rips away personal freedom and choice? The visions depicted in novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and other similar cautionary tales of controlling societies (George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’) certainly seem to say so, showing us ways of life that most of us would find awful. I prefer a colourfully commercial city landscape to one where its stark absence rings a sinister tone.

Vanessa Lenton, Head of Regional Media

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