Advertising to the Authoritarian Mindset

The sporting goods company Under Armour recently launched a new PR campaign, “Rule Yourself.”  In a television spot featuring Tom Brady, NFL quarterback for the New England Patriots, the cinematography depicts multiple clones of the quarterback “in training.”

As a literal, visual depiction of the social individual who is both unique and at once a product of mass society, the commercial is straightforward enough.  Behind the glare of the advertisement’s celebrity individual, however, the depiction of the individual as merely one instance of a uniform, mass type reveals some telling information about what appeals to the intended audience: the producers of this advertisement espouse a view of individuality as a function of commodity fetishism.  Consumers define their identity though the products they purchase; people satisfy a need for group membership by association with branding (i.e., Apple products are for creative types).

In this view, the individual in mass society is mass produced for mass consumption; the individual cherishes mass produced goods as if they were distinctive, special, unique, and intrinsically valuable.  Individual subjectivity is a function of mass-produced desires.  This is the situation Guy Debord was commenting on in The Society of the Spectacle:

“Each new product is ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the promised land of total consummation. But … the objects that promise uniqueness can be offered up for mass consumption only if they have been mass-produced. The prestigiousness of mediocre objects of this kind is solely due to the fact that they have been placed, however briefly, at the center of social life and hailed as a revelation of the unfathomable purposes of production…”

Undergirding this message, the advertisement’s producers appropriated a number of motifs from NAZI propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary, “The Triumph of the Will.”  This “triumph of the will” whereby the mass media encourages the “individual” to “rule” his or her self replaces Hitler’s religion of the state with a contemporary religion of mass production.  By the end of the commercial, there are enough clones of Tom Brady fill up an entire Nuremberg Rally.

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Beyond the striking similarities in form and theme existing between Riefenstahl’s propaganda and the Under Armour advertisement, there is an additional, overarching unity: something about the demographics research performed by Under Armour’s PR firm suggested that today’s American audiences would be receptive to the same types of images that inspired NAZI followers during Weimar Germany‘s economic distress.

This existence of an authoritarian mindset in the American psyche — and specifically, a desire for submission to authority — it at once at the core of most modern marketing, and something that psychologist Erich Fromm viewed as a defining problem for modern civilization itself.  In Fromm’s view, modern civilization’s mastery over nature has cut humanity off from its most basic ties to psychic life: that is, with freedom comes the threat of isolation.

Fromm identifies totalitarianism as an answer to the threats of isolation associated with individual freedom: the aggressive authoritarian attempts to destroy the world and the threats it contains, whereas the submissive authoritarian seeks meaning by identifying with the goals of a group.  In both cases, the impulse is a feeling of powerlessness.

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This sense of powerlessness associated with modern civilization — in spite of our technology, which truth be told, is becoming increasingly inscrutable and even “magical” — is something many observers have called attention to.   A member of a mass — as opposed to an individual, or a member of a public — is by definition in no position to influence the mass.  A member of a mass is carried by herd mentality.  The key distinctions between mass society and a public sphere comprised by individuals was summarized by C. Wright Mills in 1956:

“In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against—if necessary—the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations. When these conditions prevail, we have the working model of a community of publics, and this model fits closely the several assumptions of classic democratic theory.

“At the opposite extreme, in a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.

“The public and the mass may be most readily distinguished by their dominant modes of communication: in a community of publics, discussion is the ascendant means of communication, and the mass media, if they exist, simply enlarge and animate discussion, linking one primary public with the discussions of another. In a mass society, the dominant type of communication is the formal media, and the publics become mere media markets: all those exposed to the contents of given mass media.”

The image of authoritarian submission offered by Under Armour is more insidious than that offered by Hitler because it is cast not in the guise of some cult of personality, but of individualism.  In this advertisement, Tom Brady is not issuing commands to the television audience.  H hides is the vast network of market research, economic analysis, psychology research, PR, and production that constructs the modern self, which mass produces all the commercial products which the individual uses to “advertise” his or her own individuality.  All the hair coloring, clothing, food, media — all of it.

This hidden aspect of American authoritarianism was alluded to in Fromm’s 1941 book, Escape from Freedom.  Fromm wrote:

“Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow.  In external authority, it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop.  But … in anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible.”

It is worth pointing out in this connection, that most modern advertising is really just propaganda: a distortion of truth (Tom Brady cannot actually clone himself) that appeals to emotion (Tom Brady signifies strength and discipline even for couch potatoes) in order to induce some behavior or belief in the audience (parting with cash).

These images come with heavy baggage: the science of behaviorism combined with empirical psychological research revealed a new concept of the human being as part of a deterministic, mechanistic cosmos.  This is an image of the human that can be controlled as well as any part of nature.  Marketing, PR, and advertising all rely on this notion of the human being as a machine susceptible to external influences in definite ways.  Through the Human Ecology Fund the CIA funded an extensive list of research projects aimed at uncovering just these psychological mechanisms.  The Department of Defense made extensive use of psychology researchers to manipulate the psychology of Guantanamo detainees — probably in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

The idea that the human body and human mind are essentially a machine has proven powerful — and profitable.  Near the dawn of modern behavioral science, already scientists recognized the threats this posed to individuality.  In his 1968 book, General System Theory, cognitive scientist Ludwig von Bertalanffy lamented:

“The concept of man as mass robot was both an expression of and a powerful motive force in industrialized mass society. It was the basis for behavioural engineering in commercial, economic, political and other advertising and propaganda; the expanding economy of the ‘affluent society‘ could not subsist without such manipulation. Only by manipulating humans ever more into Skinnerian rats, robots buying automata, homeostatically adjusted conformers and opportunists (or, bluntly speaking, into morons and zombies) can this great society follow its progress toward ever increasing gross national product.”

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