This year marks ten years since I graduated from college. It is a rather startling thought.
Since that time I have had a number of disparate jobs–most of which I tolerated only slightly more than others. But I have yet to land The Job. You know–the career occupation that combines both my passion and talents with a steady, more or less livable paycheck.
The Job is the one you stay at for most of your working career, and it allows you to join the ranks of the so-called “middle-class.” In the wake of our post-NAFTA/post-Great Recession/post-permanent war economy, I am no longer sure such a socio-economic stratum even exists, though it is apparently the only thing the Democrats are capable of talking about.
Of course, I could simply whore myself out to some Fortune 500 corporation doing marketing and PR work as so many of my classmates in my major (Communications) have done. But frankly, I would sooner starve to death than become a spokesman for the corporate state.
Marketers are little more than car-salesmen in fancier suits. These advertisers use their writing and videography skills to convince people to buy things they do not need. They insidiously play on consumers’ emotions to persuade them their lives will be meaningless unless they drive a Honda, own an iPhone or drink Coca-Cola. These celebrated “madmen” make obscene amounts of money promoting the profligate consumption and rampant resource extraction which is threatening the very ecosystem of the planet.
They are the glorified cheerleaders of capitalism.
“The point of advertising is to delude people,” Professor Noam Chomsky stated in a 2008 speech shortly after Barack Obama’s election. “…To create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.”
British filmmaker, Adam Curtis’s absorbing 2002 documentary series, The Century of the Self, traces the roots of the modern advertising industry to public relations pioneer, Edward Bernays. Though Bernays is virtually unknown to most Americans, he was the first to use the emerging theories of psychoanalysis developed by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to create what Walter Lippmann would later term, “manufactured consent.”
Bernays used Freud’s theories of “subconscious desire” to help American corporations–thriving at an unprecedented level in the wake of the post-World War II economic boom–convince people to needless purchase mass-produced goods they did not need. In doing so, Bernays all but created the public relations industry and perhaps irrevocably transformed the United States from a nation of mass production, to one of mass consumption.
Bernays’s practices have been further adopted by politicians and the state to keep Americans generally docile and passive and squelch anti-capitalist radicalism. (Recall President George W. Bush’s now infamous advice for Americans, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: “Go shopping.”)
Modern day advertising has become so sophisticated in its power of mass persuasion marketers no longer emphasize the actual product being advertised. Instead, they focus on the company’s “brand.” They promote the vague, subconscious feelings the product is meant to evoke, or play up the company’s supposed “values.” (“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!”)
This brand-based advertising makes us believe, for example, that Nike does not sell mere sneakers, but athleticism, sportsmanship, and the Olympian ideal of the human body. By focusing exclusively on a company’s brand, advertisers hope to create a more emotional bond with consumers–one that will ultimately instill within the buyer a lifelong sense of brand loyalty.
“With this wave of brand mania has come a new breed of businessman,” Naomi Klein writes in her seminal book, No Logo, “one who will proudly inform you that Brand X is not a product, but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea…”
And this brand-approach to advertising is not limited to for-profit corporations. Nonprofits, small businesses, and politicians also use branding to attract grant money, customers, and votes. (Advertising Age magazine granted its annual “Marketer of the Year” award to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign after his 2008 victory.)
Job seekers are, likewise, encouraged to “hone your personal brand,” an utterly dehumanizing concept that reduces human relationships to little more than a series of business transactions.
None of the moral implications of marketing seem to concern the droves of college graduates who flock to the profession. They have been inculcated since childhood to believe the sole purpose of a career–nay, of life–is to make money. Few of them are interested in critiquing, never mind challenging, the capitalist system. Their education–most of which emphasizes technical skills and standardized exams over critical thinking–has molded them into little more than unthinking systems managers.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day-shift.”
I had no idea what kind of career I wanted to embark on upon completing college. But I remember feeling compelled to somehow use my education for the betterment of society. Ten years and a master’s degree later, I still feel that obligation. I agree with Socrates that education is the “kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” As such, I refuse to become a cheerleader for capitalism.
The more we sever ourselves from commercial culture, the more we can escape advertising’s ubiquitous allure. We can reclaim our personal and public space, our schools, and our daily lives from corporate advertising. Only then can we move from being mere consumers, to reaffirming our status as citizens.