Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Advertising Has Become the Metaphor of American Capitalism.

There is a Cable TV show called MAD MEN which has stirred up much debate on NPR, conservative websites, and many blogs(or so I'm told.)  Actually, I would like to see a truly intelligent and honest movie about the advertising world whether set in the 50s, 60s or today--or anytime in history. Advertising has become the perfect metaphor for what has become of American capitalism. American capitalism is now more about the art of selling than what is actually being sold. For one thing, we no longer have a manufacturing economy that makes things but more of a service economy that schmoozes customers. For another, American students are more likely to major in business--shaking hands--than in engineering--using hands.

Of course, this has been a long-running theme in American history. As long as "there's a sucker being born every minute", why not go for the easy buck? The American West was filled with snake oil salesmen of all stripes. Prior to regulation and government control, one could advertise just about anything. Indeed, advertising men haven't been much admired through most of American history.

But, at some time in the 20th century, advertising turned into an high concept art and a prestigious institution. Just as gambling had started in the underworld but gained respectability via Las Vegas and Atlantic City, advertising became a chic and choice industry for ambitious people. And, in a way, this was understandable given changes in the economy. The reputation of capitalism that had suffered terribly during the Great Depression recovered during the postwar yrs. US economy was dominant around the world, and Americans made stuff--quality goods ranging from can openers to cars to jumbo jet engines that were envy of the world. Americans had great things to sell, and so what was being sold and how it was being sold went hand in hand. There was no shame in advertising the latest American car or refrigerator or TV set. But gradually, America become an importing nation. Advertising came to mean more about promoting foreign goods than American goods. Trade deficits mounted but advertising companies made us feel good about buying a Toyota or shopping at Walmart. Also, places like Detroit and other cities got filled with blacks who made poor workers and worse products--blacks also burdened companies with high cost due to their high rates of on-the-job thieving and absenteeism. Unions got fat and bloated and protected inferior workers as long as they had union cards. American goods in many sectors got worse and worse.

Also, despite government regulations which curbed many of the abuses of the past, pervasive hyper-consumerism emphasized the desirability than the durability of good and services. Desirability was linked to disposability. Consumerism meant always looking for the latest and hottest stuff without thinking whether one really wanted or needed it. It's as though we increasingly began to judge a book by its cover.

In a way, we all went along because we didn't want to face reality. We wanted to be told that certain drugs would make us happy. Or, if we watch this or that TV show and emulate its characters, we'll be cool and hip. If we listened to this self-help guru, we'll find enlightenment. If we followed the advice of that financial genius, we can become overnight millionaires.

And, it even extended to politics which became more about selling a candidate than finding one who's truly fit for the job. Though Reagan was indeed a great president, much of the appeal was marketing. Clinton upped the ante, playing the role of rock star celebrity. Bush sold himself as a NASCAR Mall Church beer buddy All-American. Obama was sold as Will Smith messiah, as the Son of Virgin Oprah. Palin sells herself as Moose hunting barbie. None of this necessarily new in politics, but the level of marketing and the brazen shamelessness have gone totally out of control. The old Anglo-American model of sober restraint and dignity has been replaced with the kind of trashy and splashy Latin-American politicking of the Perons of Argentina.

And, the mythic romance with capitalism has led to all sorts of frauds since the 1980s. Perhaps, David Mamet captured it most succinctly in GLENGARRY GLENROSS where the trick is to fool clients into buying worthless land. It doesn't matter what you sell, only how you sell. The main commodity is not the commodity itself but the communication.

Though capitalism is the best economic system known to man, a blind kind of Ayn Randism came to 'spiritually' prevail among many Americans who looked up to rich people as demi-god heroes and even saviors of mankind. This was understandable to some extent as the wealth of nations does indeed depend on risk-taking entrepreneurs and corporations. But, Americans forgot that powerful people must be watched, scrutinized, and criticized.

Because what passed for American conservatism and new liberalism(under Clinton) painted a simple picture where BIG GOVERNMENT is corrupt and intrusive whereas businessmen were heroic, honest, and hardworking, many of us turned a blind eye to what was happening in the corridors of American capitalism and just took faith in the idea that the rich guys were doing the right thing. But, what happened?

ENRON! Enron turned out to be more about the art of selling than having a superior product or service to sell. In a way, it was more of a advertising company for energy than an energy company. And, look at the rise and fall in the late 90s. Though an handful of internet companies were indeed the real thing, many had nothing to sell except hype. Since the mantra was 'technology is the future', clever geeks and their financial partners-in-crime were able to fool the public into thinking that their companies would be the next Microsoft and every investor would become a millionaire.

Then, there was the whole business with the so-called OWNERSHIP SOCIETY which might as well be called the UNIVERSAL HOUSE-OWNERSHIP PROGRAM. In all of this, the very people promoting, marketing, and selling this stuff may have genuinely believed in the garbage they were spewing. As the art of advertising and promotion had risen to such masterful heights, it was easy to be dazzled and fooled by the illusion--in the way that cosmetics and coaching can make even a no good bitch come across as a beautiful wonderful person.

The biggest fraud of them all was the financial instruments that enabled the housing bubble and led to the Great Recession. Again, it was more about the art of selling than what was being sold. It turned out that the financial instruments created by Wall Street wizards were really retarded, fraudulent, or delusional, but what did it matter? We were all sold on the notion that they were brilliant innovations by the best and the brightest from top business schools of Harvard and other great schools. We were assured that the financial instruments were blessed by yoda-like gurus Alan Greenspan, Bernaeke, and Hank Paulson. To question them would have been like questioning God, Jesus, and the pope during the Middle Ages. Essentially, Wall Street packaged and sold dead rats inside boxes, but as long as the boxes were beautifully wrapped in gold-leaf paper and scented with perfume, it was "DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY."

With loss of American jobs and rising trade deficits, things were not adding up to sober people. But, there was no reason to worry, we were told over and over. The admen in government, Wall Street, academia, Hollywood, media(both Milton Friedman on the right and Thomas Friedman on the left) and etc assured us that things would all work out. We could just keep borrowing and borrowing. Housing prices would go up and up, and we could live on mortgage-backed loans. Or, Green Jobs would save us as 'green was the next red, white, and blue'.

Not that Obama's 'socialism' is any better. It too is just a vast marketing ploy, more a mega conjob to empower himself and political allies than do something difficult, constructive, and longterm to set the US economy and society on the right track. The STIMULUS PLAN was an advertising fraud. We were told we had to pass it right away or unemployment would go past 8%. Well?
The Banks had first gotten everything their way by effectively ending regulation of their industry. After their financial instruments and shenanigans brought down the economy, they used the media and government to sell the notion that they MUST BE bailed out or the whole economy will sink.

We see much the same in Hollywood. It no longer has new ideas but only regurgitates old ideas repackaged with bigger explosions and more expensive special effects. But, Hollywood sure knows how to market and sell their stuff. Worse, people seem to prefer this stuff if only because it makes them feel good and assured that happiness and pleasure are there to be easily had.

Journalism, the so-called Fourth Estate, is supposed to play the role of truth-speaker and skeptical commentator, but even it has become part of advertising. Just consider how the news media sold Barack Obama as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Remember the media's cheerleading for the Iraq War? Consider the fact that much of financial news has fed us Panglossian fantasies about how the world is gonna be part of a new global order in which everyone will be much better off. There may indeed be lots of good things about globalism, but the news media were more sellers than tellers of what's really going on.

Perhaps, the people deserve a lot of blame too. No one likes bad news or at least non-sensational sober news which upsets us or fills us with anxiety. It's no wonder then that most people would rather hear liberal or mainstream conservative fantasies about race than the harsh and troubling truth discussed by members of the 'alternative right'. No wonder that people would rather listen to Oprah than James Watson.

Of course, radicalism too can be sold as something fashionable and satisfying. Though the whole Climate Change movement is about gloom-n-doom, people sign up because it gives them a cartoon vision of good vs bad. Everything is simplified and easily digestible to the heart and mind, and there is the happy promise of salvation of all mankind(accompanied with glib self-righteousness) IF we do the right thing and bow down  before Carbon Pope Al Gore. Christianity too is both about gloom and doom AND uplifting salvation. Indeed, simple-minded negativity and simple-minded positivity seem to go together--just as comic book superheroes need to be confronted by grand villains. No doom, no boom. Indeed, Obama's presidency is inconceivable without the economic woes, from which he's to save us like Superman saves a woman tied to railroad tracks. He's just another Superman comic hero created by liberal Jews.

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