Coffee ads and Labor

“…the pleasures of consumerism would be routinely diminished by an awareness of the productive origins of consumer goods” (Billing, 1999, pg 131)


But, what happens when it is the brand itself the one that is putting the productive origins of the consumer goods, in this particular case coffee, right there in their advertisements, for everyone to see?

Maybe Marx can help us a bit with this dilemma. He explains that commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production, not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. He explains, “Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange … The relations connecting the labour of one individual to that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations… But as … material relations between persons and social relations between things” (Marx, 1961, p. 73)

In the analyzed ads we see a break from this, though it occurs on different levels. Some of them show the workers as with a very strong sense of the “other” and tend to portray them in a stereotypical way, and even some show them as faceless beings. Others, especially those related to the Fair Trade movement, draw the public’s attention to the issues the coffee labourers face.

There is still a long way to go to create fairer labor conditions for coffee workers. Is putting them in ads the solution? Probably not, but it could help in raising awareness in this very complex historical issue.


  • Billig M. 1999. Commodity fetishism and repression: reflections on Marx, Freud and the psychology of consumer capitalism. Theory & Psychology 9(3): 313–329.
  • Marx K. 1961. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Vol. 1.
  • Wright, C. 2004. Consuming lives, consuming landscapes: interpreting advertisements for cafédirect coffees. Journal Of International Development, 16(5), 665-680

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