For one thing, there is the fact that PepsiCo — which owns Quaker Oats, which owns Aunt Jemima — is so enormously profitable that their executives found it easier to just let the mature brand go than to grapple with ways to substantively address their history of profiting from racism. In so doing, they “used up” all the profit they could gain from this form of racism, and discarded it in the name of good citizenship. This helps sweep a whole history under the rug.
It is also remarkable that at no point between the Civil Rights Era and today, did anybody in a position of corporate responsibility take cognizance of what their brand name represented — or how it was represented. Nobody at Aunt Jemima, at Quaker Oats, or at Pepsi. That’s a very slow rate of social progress.
Colonel Sanders appeared in a recent advertisement aired during the NFL season, cross-marketing the KFC brand with the Mrs. Butterworth brand.
In the ad, the Southern Gentleman is shown sneaking up behind his “mammy” at work in the kitchen. He embraces her. Presumably they have intercourse. In the historical context in which we are to understand this liaison occurring, one can reasonably conclude we are witnessing a rape, which was common in those days as a means of population control.
In tone, the television spot is very lighthearted and playful, yet it also illustrates ways in which the media uses images from a racist history without addressing that history. And how the way these images function is both visible and invisible, the product of massive organizations and many people making decisions that are somehow never looked at.
Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague. Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm. A thunder-storm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march. It was the opinion that thunder was the voice of God, announcing the day of judgment.
— Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)
In 2009, the World Health Organization declared the “swine flu” pandemic. WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan made the “swine flu” pandemic announcement on the PBS NewsHour, seated in front of a giant statue of the Hindu god Shiva — the destroyer — dancing through the flames of the world:
World Health Organization discusses 2009 "swine flu" pandemic in the PBS NewsHour.
Only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable
For any individual, one’s own body is a resolute ground of control, and care of the body allows one to maintain stability despite any risks associated with the outside world. It is no surprise that in light of mass media, government and health sector attention to the new H1N1/09 outbreak that individuals started to engage in more health protective behaviours such as hand-washing and avoidance of travel to affected areas.
On this evidence, it seems easy to argue that panic could play a pivotal role in successful modern health policy. However, the main difficulty is to instill a high level of anxiety and panic for a sustained period of time, as demonstrated by the finding that the time-length exposure of risk is linked to anxiety. Indeed, risk perception research has shown that people are more afraid of risks when they are brand new than after they have lived with it for some time…
In the New World Order, now that the Evil Empire is history and we have peace with the Taliban, we vote according to ideology, but big decisions are made according to the demands of crises. Crisis can be an effective way to frighten citizens into accepting policy changes they would never have thought to advocate.
We talk about the risks of coronavirus very differently than we talk about the risks of automobiles or firearms. And yet, when crisis can be invoked, politicians can exploit a spectacular month of automobile deaths on 911 (2,996 deaths) to justify lasting changes to our society and how we view civil liberties.
Coronavirus will pass, even though we are reorganizing our society around this new crisis. Some features of this crisis will stay with us. Americans are just starting to get ill, and corporations are already getting trillions of dollars in a massive feeding frenzy.
Just like the post-911 changes to air travel security are still here even though we don’t hear much about terrorists anymore, our current source of anxiety — germs — will put measures in place that will not be undone. The Federal Reserve’s response to this crisis relies on new policies enacted during the last one.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
In recent years the NFL has increasingly embedded nationalistic overtones in their televised spectacles, including F16 flyovers, football-field-sized American flags, and veterans displayed prominently on the field.
This past season, Pepsi got in on the action, plastering their logo all over a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier to defend the homeland from Coca-Cola while cross-promoting their product with the SuperBowl Halftime show.
In terms of the content of the Pepsi commercial, the spectacle is reminiscent of the scene in Apocalypse Now where a USO show involving Playboy Bunnies in the Vietnam jungle degenerates into an orgy of male aggression.
The relationship between military might and commerce is an old one: the Navy, specifically, is provided for under Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. While the Founders were wary of standing armies, a navy was viewed as essential for protecting trade routes. Today, this function would seem to extend to protecting corporate brand-name identity.
During the first Gulf War, The Topps Company (best known for selling baseball cards) engaged in a bit of war profiteering by selling Desert Storm trading cards.
One card featured a young Dick Cheney — then Secretary of Defense — with his menacing grin intact:
The back of the card gives biographical details for the military-industrial complex ringleader:
A relevant feature of the military-industrial complex is its relationship with the rise of the managerial society: note that, as Secretary of Defense, Cheney controlled “budget allocations.” Since his position was appointed rather than elected, the military resources he controlled were essentially outside the realm of democratic accountability.
Walmart has figured out how to charge more for their cheap imported goods: they now offer a credit card. If Walmart customers take out Walmart credit cards, then, presumably, all the consumers living hand-to-mouth now can make their interest payments directly to Walmart, instead of to the bank. Just cut out the middle man:
Walmart Credit Card
The language used in the advertisement above is conspicuous for a number of reasons. The sales persons are clearly trying to mislead the customers in the advertisement, promising a future filled with impossible high-tech wonders like “jet pack tennis shoes.” This type of deception is normal only insofar as consumers are accustomed to the lies and distortions associated with marketing — on a daily basis, the typical consumer is told more lies than truths. The advertisement also conflates spending with saving — two activities with opposite implications or one’s cash flow.
Spending has been equated with saving for some time. While this might sound a little “Orwellian” to some — a contradiction in terms that everybody accepts without thinking about it — this is just one more instance where PR and marketing is able to subvert human rationality.
If you assume — like most economists — that individual consumers are rational, benefit-maximizing free agents, who choose the most product for the least money, then there is no good way to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a fully-loaded Toyota. One could appeal to status appeal to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a high-end Toyota, but such an explanation would have to be made on sociological terms rather than economic terms. If one wants to explain this phenomenon in economic terms, one has to abandon the notion that consumers are rational. Abandoning the assumption of human rationality, in turn, can lead one in various directions: this either makes a claim about human nature, or, alternatively, one can look for influences in the culture that undermine rationality.
Perception management is the bread-and-butter of the PR and marketing industries. Marketing manipulates individual perceptions by creating new desires where none previously existed. PR replaces an individual’s perceptions with a corporation’s preferred perception. Spending becomes saving, you can’t live without the new smart phone — even though you’ve been living just fine for years without it. Must-have fashion accessories are not must-have in the same way as food or water, they are accessories — though the PR industry’s preferred terminology reveals an important fact of social psychology.
Violent Shopping at Walmart
The tactics used by PR and marketing are able to elicit the most primal types of violent reactions among consumers seeking to gratify not basic needs, to to acquire scarce resources, but the desire for must-have accessories, and even mass-produced semi-disposable gadgets that will wind up in landfills before too long.
According to reliable sources, “G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”
G.I. Joe Broadcast Energy Transmitter
In this clip from the 1987 film, “G.I. Joe: The Movie,” America’s elite fighting force is preparing to test the Broadcast Energy Transmitter, a new technology that promises to deliver free, wireless energy to the whole world.
While America is trying to deliver free energy to the world, the terrorist organization Cobra tries to steal the technology, and keep it for itself.
There was, though — once upon a time — a Golden Age, when information came on floppy disks, and file sharing was a key selling point for personal computers. Back when, corporations encouraged us to copy files freely between ourselves, and it raised nary an eyebrow to hear that “a hobbyist in Michigan starts a local Apple Computer Club, to challenge other members to computer games of skill and to trade programs.”
Consumers identify with their products. Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan both theorized about the role of technology as a prosthesis — as an extension of the body — but many consumers today take this a step further, and internalize the messages used to market the products they purchase.
Through marketing, technology is not externalized, but internalized, and incorporated into the psyche. As such, it is less obviously an intrusion into the lives of consumers. Coming from the inside, it is less liable to be viewed in any way as an obstacle, and is thereby rendered a more effective means of manipulation, insofar as its influence is more difficult to discern or resist.
When consumers talk about how they “need” different products, they mean different things by this. Many people are quite dependent on technology generally: most products most consumers buy are products of industry. Food is no exception, even if it is served up at a locally-owned restaurant: most food comes from industrial agriculture.
In many cases, however, once a product has “gotten inside” the consumer, the consumer develops a psychological dependence on a product. Although addiction is a common metaphor used to describe this relationship, familiarity is also comfort. For most of human history, very little ever changed. In this era of planned obsolescence and pop culture, the brand — and, identification with branding — offers a source of continuity.
Consumers frequently purchase particular products because some symbolic quality of the product’s marketing provides a sense of comfort. While a particular smoker may describe himself as “a Marlboro man,” people also identify as “a Coke drinker” or “a Pepsi drinker.” Coke and Pepsi are both cola drinks, sold in cans and bottles, sold at an identical price point: they compete based on symbolism, not by offering more product at a lower cost. Consumers internalize the symbolism of marketing, and are conditioned to accept material products as related to these symbols — even if the connection between the symbol and the product is quite tenuous.
To the extent that consumers accept as their own views various messages offered up by marketers, individuals become little more than purchasing patterns: collections of brand preferences and demographic data. Individuals are branded by marketing, as with a branding iron. The degree to which this understanding of the individual has become normalized in contemporary society is revealed by the phraseology of politicians in describing the population: politicians talk about consumers with far greater frequency than they talk about citizens.
The phenomenon of brand-identification has social consequences as well: the “Twitter revolution” has seamlessly spread to the American social realm. That #Occupy Wall Street incorporates into its name a convention specific to a particular commercial service quite easily goes unnoticed, and is therefore accepted without question or objection. The revolution is an advertisement.