Should you be Skeptical of Ads? Pyrrhonian Skepticism and Consumerism

Ancient Pyrrhonists recited, like today’s advertisements do, phrases promising ataraxia, or inner tranquility. But can we reach ataraxia via skepticism, and what are the consequences?

Oct 9, 2023By Catherine Bedwei-Majdoub, PhD Philosophical Theology, MA Philosophy, MA Marketing Management

skepticism ads pyrrhonian consumerism


Adverts are impossible to escape. Inundated with thousands every day, shoppers maneuver awkwardly through the overabundance; abstaining, for inner tranquility, from belief in the wild promises made by advertisers. Ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics believed that a state of inner tranquility called ataraxia was the ideal state of mind. To achieve ataraxia, Pyrrhonists recited phrases that evoked their skeptical outlook. This article uses the context of shoppers and advertisers to suggest that buying into, not living skepticism, is the only existential lesson we should learn from the ancients.


Skepticism Today and Yesterday

currie skeptics
The Skeptics by Ken Currie, 1990-1991, via ArtUK.


Skepticism is commonly thought to be about what can or cannot be known, about uncertainty or doubt that this or that is true. Skepticism, then, is a no man’s land. Similarly, the Pyrrhonist conceived skepticism epistemically insofar as he accepted as ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ only what was justifiable or inferentially so. The Pyrrhonist approached every possible knowledge or truth with extreme caution, meaning that he thought it highly unlikely that there could be anything called ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth.’


To say he renounced belief is to say that there was nothing he held dogmatically or completely true. Nonetheless, he made statements that sounded like truth claims – “We can’t know anything for certain” – and spoke as though he had beliefs – “Agrippa is right. Every “belief” infers another “belief” ad infinitum. Or is invalidated by relation, assumption, disagreement, or circularity” – but what we might call an object in the world was merely what appeared to him as something: albeit not necessarily nothing; but neither any specific thing.


This ancient skepticism resonates with the skepticism in today’s marketplace. The Skeptical Shopper would loathe offering firm conclusions on any product’s capacity to do as their ads say. She does not believe their claims. Nevertheless, she’s persuaded to purchase this or that thing. She leaves the marketplace never with nothing, always with something.

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Consequently, she’s as vulnerable to the apraxia (inactivity) charge as the Pyrrhonist. Since action begins with belief, living skeptically should result in inactivity. But both the Pyrrhonist and Skeptical Shopper are rarely inactive. The latter accepts as true her friends’ recommendations about advertised products and keeps up with today’s trends and fashions; as much as the former (excluding Pyrrho, apparently) would run for cover at first sight of a downpour or from the rabid dog chasing them.


Epochē: ‘I Suspend Judgement’

sextus empiricus
Print depicting the Pyrrhonian Sextus Empiricus, British Museum


Foremost among the skeptical phrases and what most represents the spirit of skepticism is ‘I suspend judgment.’ This phrase would be highly provocative for thinkers like Franz Brentano, for whom making a judgment is introspectively like deciding. Both judgments and decisions require an acceptance or rejection of one thing over another and some level of certainty about conscious states. Therefore, speaking rationally, the ancients cannot decide to suspend judgment without going through the same internal processes they’d go through when making a judgment (given that a judgment is an intentional act).


Few would agree that the Pyrrhonist who sees rain (or a juicy burger) but apparently “suspends judgement” on if what he sees is really rain (or a burger), and yet decides to take an umbrella (or a bite in case it is a burger), has indeed suspended judgment.


We can think the same of the Skeptical Shopper who is suspicious of advertising. Is the shopper’s suspension of judgment on advertisers’ claims—e.g., Red Bull “gives you wings,” or Rice Krispies “boosts your child’s immunity”—real if she buys their products?


rice krispies ad
Photo from the article ‘So Red Bull Doesn’t Actually Give you Wings’, BBC; with photo from the article ‘Kellogg Slapped Again for Exaggerated Health Claims’, NPR


To answer no would support a conception of advertisers as Sophists. Both embellish truth by way of rhetoric and fluff. But while Sophists were criticized by Socrates, advertisers should be, but surprisingly are not, stunted by the Skeptical Shopper.


The advert-to-shopping causality chain persists despite a global landscape of overconsumption. That is, regardless of concerns that consumerism leads to environmental depletion, exploitation of workers from developing economies, and inequality, the Skeptical Shopper still shops. Consumers continue buying advertised products even though they make them more skeptical and more guilty about social problems, like the unbridgeable gaps between rich and poor.


Ultimately, it is doubtful that the Pyrrhonist and the Shopper can really achieve epochē (suspension of judgment) or ataraxia (intellectual peace).


The non-suicidal Pyrrhonist (excluding the probably mythical stories about Pyrrho, 360-270 BCE) stops at the edge of a cliff, even though he suspends judgment over whether falling would result in death. The Skeptical Shopper leaves shops with bags of that miraculous cream that erases wrinkles. But the Pyrrhonist would insist he doubts that the precipice is a precipice, and the Skeptical Shopper would say she does not really believe that cream can be miraculous. Both Pyrrhonist and Shopper exist in a world where no one wants to admit that fear or vanity is ever-present.


Please, Sir, No More

milroy lightbulbs
Light Bulbs by Lisa Milroy, 1988, Tate Gallery


The marketplace sells many lightbulbs because advertisers exploit differences in perceptions, and sellers bring barely differentiated products into already saturated markets.


Nevertheless, the Skeptical Shopper is pragmatic: her focus on utility protects her, in principle, from fluff and rhetoric. Until, that is, she spots the moonflower-shaped teal bulb that complements the hallway’s standing lamp. Much like the Pyrrhonist recites ‘no more’ to avoid thought and evaluation, her ‘no more’ is an ironic disablement of conviction.


She claims indifference to advertisers’ stimuli and appeals, but she knows a good-looking LED bulb when she sees one. She is an eco-warrior, not a worrier, and she wouldn’t want to find herself with subpar bulbs.


This may be faulty logic, but she buys for ataraxia. She has conceded to her wants and indifference, not, you must understand, to advertisers’ imaginations. As a Skeptical Shopper, she is immune from excess or inefficiency, to purchases being good or bad. She gets what she wants not because of advertisers’ rapacious commercialization of existence but because she wants what she gets.


‘Opposed to Every Account There’s an Equal Account’

rooms mind moran
Rooms of the Mind by Katy Moran, 2009, Tate Gallery


Socrates’ statements ‘I know I know nothing’ and ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ synergistically confirm that doubt should not tranquilize the intellect. Indeed, Descartes’ doubt lead him to certainty about his existence. For him, doubting is thinking, and thinking, ‘cogito ergo sum,’ is just being conscious of existence itself.


This is much unlike the Pyrrhonist and the Skeptical Shopper. Their doubt and thinking amount to, “I expect there might be something (I want) even though I suspect there’s nothing particular (I need) because I assume there might be something alternative (to what I have).” These sentiments beg the question: is the Pyrrhonist and Skeptical Shopper’s living or shopping as empty as their skepticism?


Belief is passion, assent, and participation. True enough, Pyrrho never wrote a great love song.


The Skeptic Determines Nothing

moki cherry communicate
Moki Cherry, Communicate, How?, 1970, Photograph: Tom Van Eynde, Corbett vs. Dempsey, ICA


When the Skeptical Shopper suspends her intellect, she neither wholly accepts nor rejects advertising messages. Like the Pyrrhonist, she cannot say which of the too-many she finds convincing or not convincing.


With 500,000 brands in existence, each making this or that truth claim, consumers roam about the worldwide shopping web determining nothing but choosing plenty. A shopper’s doubting that the “made in the developing world” cherry lip balm would give her the plumpest softest lips without exploiting workers does not preclude her hoping it might. Suspending judgment on those (made-by-low-wage-workers) designer trainers that profess to sculpt and shape her thighs is not the same as believing that they can’t. Contrarily, it is what she must, has to, investigate if she is to know whether they can or cannot deliver on their promise.


barbara kruger shop
Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) by Barbara Kruger, 1987, via the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.


Poor Skeptical Shopper (poor Pyrrhonist), advertisers (Agrippa) said. In their overloaded state of mind, they cannot be sure if what appears to them to be the case corresponds with what the case objectively is. The Skeptical Shopper determines nothing, so she buys that protein shake that promises to tone her boyfriend’s flabby pecs. She’s skeptical that it is a muscle-toning shake, but it might be. Over time her skepticism increases. Perturbability is feigned. Ataraxia emerges.


Advertisers have said too much about so much. Yet they thrive and earn because consumers act this way in the marketplace. Like the Pyrrhonist ostensibly “suspends judgment,” needing “no more,” the consumer still buys to see if “one [product] is equal to another” without coming to any determinate conclusions. She’s lured back to the shops over and over by artful “socially responsible” appeals—recycled jeans that make her derrièr perter—from all kinds of brands. Advertisers’ bewitching calls keep her skeptical and the economy decidedly linear (that is, non-circular).


So, here is a justified true belief: consumer skepticism—skepticism about whether she has enough, has bought enough, that what she needs could be enough—is the existential problem facing the world today.

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By Catherine Bedwei-MajdoubPhD Philosophical Theology, MA Philosophy, MA Marketing ManagementCatherine has extensive experience as a university lecturer. She began her teaching career in marketing, and currently lectures in business ethics and corporate social responsibility on a postgraduate MBA programme, and in philosophy on undergraduate theology and philosophy programmes. She is particularly interested in interdisciplinary studies. In her spare time, she writes poetry and is working on a fictional novel.