The Living Dead: Can I Interest You in Your Values?
Another rumination on the persistence of global capitalism
By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. […] Seriously though, if you are, do. […] You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously.
That’s how Bill Hicks started a segment about marketing during his Revelations show at the Dominion Theatre, London in 1992. I think it worthwhile to quote him at length.
No, um, this is not a joke […] I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now, too. “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.” […] God, I’m just caught in a fucking web. “Ooh the trapped dollar, big dollar, huge dollar. Good market — look at our research. We see that many people feel trapped, and if we play to them and separate them into the trapped dollar…” How do you live like that?
Unfortunately, we all live that, even if we don’t live like that. Every day, whether you pass through Times Square on your way to work, shop at Wal-Mart, or see a movie, you live your life caught in a web. Trapped. The historical explanation for how this happened — which spiders spun which threads and when and why — is irrelevant. What matters is what we’re doing now.
I’m afraid the answer is that we are all spiders, trapped in a web without limit, without anchor. We think we’re free even as we stitch one another’s paralysis. We starve even as we suck at one another’s innards.
But what’s so bad about marketing? Who cares that you can’t take a five-minute walk without seeing a few logos?
• First premise: market transactions are necessarily dehumanizing. If you care too much about your neighbor, you might try to talk him out of buying those cigarettes. You might ask her whether she knows that milk doesn’t prevent osteoporosis. Empathic relationships are bad for business. The profit motive is the only motive.
Well, but we need to do business.
• Second premise: branding is effective, regardless of whether it improves the bottom line. I have not eaten at a McDonald’s restaurant in several years. I can, at any time and without hesitation, recite the “I’m lovin’ it” jingle. I can’t listen to “So Fresh, So Clean” without thinking of McDonald’s. When I see anyone playing basketball on TV or in their driveway or at the park — hell, if I catch a glimpse of a basketball, I think of Michael Jordan, of Air Jordans, of NIKE.
So what? I don’t know how ya’ll see it, but when it comes to the future, NIKE is for the children.
• Conclusion: that which is employed in the service of pushing product is invested with the exploitative character of capitalist transaction. I want to have a real experience every once in a while. I wish I could appreciate a Rube Goldberg machine for what it is and not think of the Honda Accord. Why did Honda want to be associated with a machine that solves a simple problem in an overly complex way? Because it looks cool. Such overextension of the corporate domain threatens lived experience with overexposure.
What do we do about it?
We turn to the writings of the often downright batshit but occasionally lucid anarchist Hakim Bey. In CHAOS: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, Bey describes what he calls Poetic Terrorism. “PT is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls.” The Theater of Cruelty is presumably the indolent and industrious production of our interchangeable and precious lives in a politically well-ordered society. PT, then, is an act that frees someone, at least for a moment, from the violence of her quiet desperation.
Sounds fine, but the examples Bey offers sound strangely familiar.
Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Land-art, earth-works as bizarre alien artifacts strewn in State Parks. Burglarize houses but instead of stealing, leave Poetic-Terrorist objects. Kidnap someone & make them happy. Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune […].
What do these acts of PT sound like to you? To me, they have all existed, in spirit if not in literal content, as elements of a commercial that looks like a music video, a music video that looks like a commercial, a song on the radio, an advertising campaign… the list is inexhaustible. And it gets worse. Bey gives a necessary condition for the PT act: “if it does not change someone’s life (aside from the artist[’s]) it fails.” Garden State on The Shins, anyone? Of course, the music of The Shins fails to meet the other conditions, but we are nevertheless justified in worrying that the project of PT itself is bound to fail if it relies necessarily on a condition so cringe-worthy and ill-defined (if not unsatisfiable).
Given Bey’s disdain for politics (“it’s so boring”), in light of the 2008 presidential election, his choice of emphasis in the following sentence is… unfortunate. “The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE.” Yes we can! And while we’re at it, why don’t we drink some Coca-Cola? Or Vitamin Water. Whatever, as long as you: “Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary.”
Sorry, I just choked on some bile. This all smacks of — if I may call it this — white male middle-class US culture. Good old American countercultural values. Ya’ll like Sonic Youth, right? And Gossip Girl? How about KRS-One? Then NIKE and Smirnoff, surely. If you like “TV Eye” then you’ll love Swiftcover car insurance. Ad nauseum.
Ad infinitum too, it feels like. There’s no end in sight, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s because the machine can co-opt anything or whether it only appears that way because of our reproductive complacency. What’s clear is that large corporations know that the youth value authenticity, spontaneity, creativity. So if you ever hoped on being authentic, spontaneous, or creative, you better be wearing a New Era cap while vacationing in Michigan and drinking Belvedere vodka.
That’s the really scary part. I could count the number of times a year I sit down and watch unedited TV on two hands. And I can still remember dozens of commercials. It’s viral, and it was viral before the internet even existed. That’s the real bottom line. Corporate America will always be ahead of you. I don’t know whence their epistemic privilege, but marketing departments do always know what you think is hip, what you think is beautiful, what you think is ironic. Or if they don’t yet, just give them a few years.
God, I’m just caught in a fucking web.
If a web gets too obstructive, there’s always the broom. I consider this sufficient reason to fight for the end of global capitalism. Throw a brick through a bank window, then! Of course, there won’t be a revolution unless it’s televised. The commercial breaks will feature commemorative coins, designer bandanas, and Che t-shirts.