The same image can be interpreted a million times over, and differently each time. The interpretation of an image is dependent on the spectator, whose understanding is derived from ideology. Thus, ideology is that which guides individuals into particular social niches and associations — it is ideology which gives an image, which intrinsically has no meaning, symbolic meaning.
Firstly, we should define our most important term which is ideology. In Marx’s Capital, he defined it simplest he could, with an aphorism: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). Philosopher Slavoj Zizek elaborates on this in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology:
The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself (Zizek, 33).
Ideology is all around us. We are constantly making associations without realizing it because we have been inculcated in a particular historical context. Ideology is especially relevant in Western society since our desires are constantly being shaped in an effort to further consumption.
Consumption derives its power through subliminal messages. It exerts power by transcending itself from simply being an action to being representative of worth. Economist Thorstein Veblen gave this a name — “conspicuous consumption.” Purchasing an expensive car, to give one example, is not merely an act in and of itself. It also represents a certain social rank to the individual and those around you. Therefore, an act of consuming has two dimensions to it. One is the actual use-value of the commodity to the individual. The second is what the commodity culturally symbolizes and it says about the individual to the observer. The focus on the commodity, and the creation of symbols, was pivotal in rise of mass-consumerist society in the 20th century. It shifted the West from a need-based economy to a desire-based economy.
It is no surprise that symbolism differs in each socioeconomic class, not just for consumption, but for virtually everything that is perceived. The following poll is from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:
I think this chart clearly makes the case that human beings derives their associations from perceived usefulness. For a laboring manual worker, the association is naturally that which is most familiar — a church. A church is most dear to them and resembles a large museum in form. For an upper-class individual which possesses the free time to tend to such things, a museum is a thing-in-itself. It is simply a museum, which is why near 20% of these individuals chose “none of these” as their response.
Without usefulness and the free time (or individual interest) to explore certain areas, objects and ideas are dealt conveniently as pure associations. Marketing plays into this ignorance, but we also see this even more evidently in politics. To illustrate this, I’m sure that if you wrote buzzwords like “socialism” and “inequality,” each class of people would have differing associations for that particular word. The fact that many of these associations have replaced the actual definition of the word is frightening and speaks more of the respective economic class which we are all born into rather than personal choice. Sure, there can be choice involved as to how we define words, but to the politically-unconscious laborer, such a choice is relatively meaningless. This is especially dangerous in a time of mass-media and populist politics. Consumerism and politics, coupled with misleading associations, leads to a very unhealthy social situation.