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 the ways in which these images function are both visible and invisible, the product of massive organizations and many people making decisions that are somehow never looked at.
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.”
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.
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.
In late 2010, the NFL began to air a short promo during football games, which features grainy cell phone video of home audiences celebrating.
The video’s source footage, harvested from YouTube, includes scenes where members of the home audience pointed their cameras at their television screens during a game, in apparent violation of the NFL’s licensing restrictions.
NFL Remixes Prohibited Recordings of Telecast off YouTube
Typical NFL broadcasts include the statement:
“This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent is prohibited.”
The promo illustrates the arbitrary and capricious nature of corporate attitudes towards the distinction between “fair use” and “copyright infringement.” Commercial organizations such as late night talk shows, news broadcasts, and marketing firms routinely make use of footage that individuals produce and distribute on services like YouTube. The individuals who originate this footage are rarely credited, even in commercial broadcasts. At the same time, when individuals post commercial content to YouTube, that content is routinely removed.
Since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, private firms have had a powerful tool to remove content from the Internet. The DMCA provides a legal framework for the issuance of a “takedown notice” which compels an offending party to cease the distribution of infringing content. This law has, however, been widely abused by businesses, often targeting small operators who don’t have the resources to determine whether a takedown notice is valid.
In a Spring 2009 statement issued through the Telecommunications Carriers Forum, Google claimed that 57% of the DMCA takedown notices it received were sent by firms seeking to frustrate competition, and that some 37% of the received takedown notices were not valid copyright claims.
Another noteworthy feature of this promo is the use of proprietary CBS trademarks in the status bar and on the field, as this spot is broadcast by competitors to CBS, such as Fox.
Comprising a long-running series, these advertisements depict consumers of the advertised clothing brand as lifeless mannequins — or maybe ventriloquist dummies. Decorated with brand-name images of historical pop stars, this particular ad culturefucks an intergenerational youth-cult theme by subversively depicting the heroes of the rockstar mannequins as mannequins also. Different figures exhibit various classic iconographic hand gestures throughout (such as members of a crowd holding Bic lighters in the air at a rock show).
History is Just a Bunch of Brand Names
Machine and Inventornator.
Progress means that we exist to invent. Also, new inventions are better, and as long as the future brings us new inventions the future means everything is better. We are unique among the animals because we can plan for the future, and we are best off planning for the best possible future. In the future, our planning will bring us technology that does much of what we do better than we can do it ourselves. “Microsoft gives me the family nature never could.”
Edit Your Family
Google Will Make You a Robot in 13 Easy Steps.
During a boardroom meeting, a young, hip, executive meatbag’s telephone transforms him into a machine. Given the genealogy (or demonology) of the public relations industry and the freudian characteristics of technological prosthetics, the emphasis on this particular Brand of efficiency facilitated by connectivity is perhaps not incidental to the iconology of the advertisement. Agents swarm the cloud. “Whose brain are yours today?” Google have been secretly working on an automobile that drives itself through traffic. Progress is when the car decides where to drive.
An ad for a psychiatric medication that depicts the patient as a mechanical wind-up doll.
This same visual metaphor has appeared in other ads for the same pill. The first third of the spot is about the symptoms this psychotropic drug is meant to treat. The second two-thirds are about how this advanced pill can make you into a robot even if science doesn’t really know how, and what side-effects you might expect from ingesting this substance regularly. The visual subtext says: you will feel better when you stop being a robot and start treating life like the Game modern sociologists say it is. Ask your HMO for a list of licensed drug dealers in your family-friendly neighborhood.