This article by our friend Stephen Duncombe was printed in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.
The Power of Desire
Progressives can learn a valuable lesson from advertising: desire can be power. Advertising circumvents reason, working with the personal, the magical and associative. A journey of universal emotions rather than an argument of fact, it’s appeal is not cognitive, but primal. Advertising is visceral.This emotionality, perhaps all emotionality, disturbs progressives. As heirs to the Enlightenment, progressives have learned to privilege reason. Feelings motivate the others: those bible thumpers, consumers, reactionaries, terrorists, the mob. All true, but emotions also motivate progressive politics. The problem is not desire, but where desire has been channeled. The solution is not to abandon emotion with appeals to “reason” or “logic” or “fact,” but to rearticulate desire as desire for freedom and justice, desire for a better world, an ardent desire to kick some conservative ass.
The desire that is such a fecund environment for advertising can be the same passion that makes social change possible. In fact, it is the failure of mainstream politics to deliver on desire which sets the stage for advertising’s successes. It’s worth quoting the art critic John Berger at length on this:
The industrial society which has moved towards democracy is the ideal society for generating such…emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in a contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy, which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.
Advertising capitalizes on our unrealized – political — dreams. But it is Berger’s solution, not just his analysis, that makes his words so valuable. He is not just arguing for a “critical reading” of advertisements (except insofar as such a reading leads to social change). And his goal is not to limit, regulate or even abolish advertising. Instead he is calling for the abolition of the very conditions that generates envy and thus gives advertising its power: an inequitable economic system. Berger jumps the divide from the impotent critic to one who aligns himself with those who wish to fundamentally change the world.
But to change the world you have to mobilize desire. Here, ironically, advertising can help. In the passage above Berger limits his gaze to the negative desires that commercialism exploits, but it’s important to recognize that Madison Avenue exalts progressive passions as well. Advertising is not just about envy and fear, it is about promise and plenty. In its own convoluted way, and for its own pecuniary objectives, Madison Avenue is unwittingly an invaluable propaganda bureau for progressive ideals – keeping hope alive. Each advertisement, along with this or that product, sells the dream of a better life. The path to the realization of these dreams is certainly not to be found in the purchase of the products being sold, but we also can’t get there by rejecting and distancing ourselves from the very desires mobilized by Madison Avenue. Progressives need to redirect these passions back to their original source: dissatisfaction with the world at hand and aspirations for a better one.
Progressive desire has provided material for copy writers and creative directors for decades. Now it is time to turn the tables. Karl Marx once argued that only socialism could unlock the material promise of capitalism; I believe only progressive politics can free the fantasies trapped within advertising.
Progressives need all the help they can get today. The Democratic Party stand for nothing, the activist Left has embraced “resistance” adopting the conservative cry of “No! We’re against it.” Both surrender agenda setting to the Right. Things weren’t always this way. Look back only a few decades and the roles were reversed. Socialist Revolution, the New Deal, Civil Rights, Feminism – these were progressive visions that determined the contours of what was politically plausible. Conservatives, on the other hand, had been wandering in the desert ever since Hoover’s defeat to FDR. Some conservatives used those days and nights in political isolation to tap into and articulate their most intimate desires: preemptive military intervention, privatized social security, regressive taxation, the marriage of church and state. They came up with strategies to translate these desires into articulated fantasies. From the 30s to the 80s these political fantasies were ridiculous, in the present reign of Bush II they are becoming policy.
Today, progressives are in the desert. The things we stand for, whether they be a socialist state or anarchist society, world peace and human justice or, god forbid, well funded social security programs and decent public schools, are now considered ridiculous. But just as wandering the desert through most of the 20th century helped conservatives become bolder and smarter, our time of political isolation can be an opportunity to rethink what we desire, and importantly, strategize how to sell these fantasies to the rest of the world. Here progressives can learn from the masters of selling: Madison Avenue. This does not just mean that the Left needs to learn to create better advertisements and come up with better media strategies (though we do). Advertising is not just a technique, it is, to borrow again from John Berger, a way of seeing. What we learn from Madison Avenue should challenge and change the way we progressives conceptualize our politics, communicate them, and then act them out on the street. We need to think different.
Dressed in suit and tie, a man steps out of his car. The front door of his house bursts open and a young girl runs out, throwing herself up into the arms of her father. Father and daughter, bright and happy, get back into the car and drive to McDonald’s. In the drive-though lane they are cheerily handed neat white bags of food. Next scene they’re entering a zoo, the man without his tie and jacket, the child giddy with excitement. The sun shining, daughter feeds father a french fry as they sit together on a park bench. The girl points out an elephant and its calf walking by. Father and daughter share a moment, witness to the universality of generations, watching the old leading the young and passing on the wisdom (and presumably consumption habits) of ages. The last shot shows father and daughter walking hand in hand, a pink balloon tethered to the girl’s wrist and floating above them, a McDonald’s drink cup in the man’s free hand, drawing a close to this idyllic late afternoon at the zoo. In the lower right hand corner of the screen a McDonald’s logo appears.
It’s a specific advertisement for a specific company, though we’ve seen it a thousand times before, selling a thousand different products. It makes the same promise that all advertisements make: a fantasy world is only a product purchase away. Its case is argued without argument. Advertisers don’t issue manifestoes, grand philosophical statements are few. Their language is subtle. Arguments don’t calculate logically, but they do resonate sensorially and emotionally. Modern advertising technique has been honed for nearly a century by legions of very smart and creative people, applying lessons of countless studies and spending immense amounts of money. Advertising, to invert Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled observation, is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as any you can find outside chess.
Progressives have traditionally looked at advertising with disgust; for good reason too. Ads clutter roadsides and interrupt TV, they create unreal expectations and convince us to buy crap. They are a symbol of the bad taste of contemporary capitalism. In today’s America, we progressives are the outsiders whose needs can’t be addressed by salespeople. But perhaps there is another way of thinking about advertising that could be useful to progressives. From advertising’s building blocks I believe we can reassemble a model of communication and persuasion that is true to progressive ideals andeffective in today’s world.
Advertising only works if its message can be personalized: “This Bud’s for You,” “Have It Your Way,” and so on, ad infinitum. In the prehistory of modern advertising, products were sold primarily through mass appeals to an anonymous public. A late 19th Century advert for Ivory Soap, for instance, illustrates a bar of soap selling it with the generic tagline: “an agreeable item of toilet use.” Within thirty years Lifebuoy sold their soap with a picture of a man at his desk, two women sharing a conspiratorial secret behind him, and the directed question: “Are People Whispering Behind Your Back?” Applied more subtly today, this technique of directed personal identification is still a mainstay of advertising. Recall the McDonald’s commercial above. We can also recognize ourselves in the father and the daughter. They laugh; we’ve laughed before. They get along; we have gotten along before, too. And of course, thanks to their near ubiquity, we can find a McDonalds to eat at just like they did. Unless we can identify our life (real and imagined) with the one being played out before us, the advertisement doesn’t work. We are made to feel that an advertisement broadcast to millions and a product manufactured for a mass market speaks just to us: I’m lovin’ it.
Progressives have a tendency to make their appeals in the name of The Other: The People, The Masses, The Persecuted and The Unfortunate. Boycott grapes and you’ll help the farm workers, stop the war in Iraq to prevent the slaughter of innocent Iraqis or American soldiers. There is nothing wrong with this; an injury to one is an injury to all!Progressive policy is often cast in its potential impact on a social body: the working class, women, Latinos, or even a social problem: the environment, civil rights. A mass solution for a problematic mass. Deep down inside the progressive psyche is the haunting suspicion that our needs and desires can not be universalized and that they must therefore be kept private while we articulate the needs of a generic other. As such progressives recognize the needs of no one in specific.
Progressives need to do something different. We have to learn to appeal to the personal at every level- starting with ourselves. What are our needs and desires? How do we articulate them? How do we connect them with others? From this studied spot we can reach other people, identifying, articulating and including their needs and desires into our politics and policies. (At least those that we wish to include – desire is complex and contradictory, driven by ideas and ideals both inspiring and frightening, creative and destructive.) With personal need and desire honored and accounted for, our politics might find a receptive audience among the individuals — ourselves included – who make up society.
Progressives also need to personalize and make visible the political process. In the 1990s I was part of a community activist group called the Lower East Side Collective (LESC), based in Lower Manhattan. All of our “advertising” followed a simple format designed by Leslie Kauffman, now a staff organizer with United for Peace and Justice. On the front of the sheet we would briefly explain the issue we building a campaign around, whether it be fighting rent law decontrol or saving community gardens. On the back, under the headline “What Can I Do?” we would list five things that the reader could do to get involved, ordering them from “If you have five minutes a week” (usually a couple of phone calls to key politicians) to five minutes a day (letters and faxes) to five hours a week (join us). By creating this menu of scalable involvement LESC personalized the activity of politics by offering the opportunity and direction for people to become individual political agents while recognizing that people have important personal lives outside of politics. It also recalls a process that makes abstract movements real; a phone call, a poster, a letter.
There is, however, a potential problem with progressive personalization. When advertisers reach out to individuals, they want these people to buy a product within the consumer-capitalist matrix of individual not too rational persons in pursuit of self-gratification. As Margaret Thatcher infamously intoned: There is no such thing as society, only individuals.
We progressives don’t share this idea of the world. We want people to buy a better society. We tend to see the world in social terms: large historical forces shape history, political progress comes through concerted social action. Solidarity is our means and community is the end. It wasn’t idiocy that led progressives to habitually speak in abstractions with group appeals, it flows from our understanding of the world. And it is this understanding that we need to understand. Not the goals, or even the means, but how we think about how people receive politics and then act upon them. There is more than a grain of truth in Thatcher’s words. People experience social forces and social change on a personal level. Think of taking part in a massive rally. The exhilaration evoked is probably felt by many others in the crowd, and the goal of the protest can only be achieved by acting with others, but no mass can feel for you or be constituted without you. The point of reception (even in a crowd) and agency (even working with others) is the individual. Because we fervently believe in society, personalization will always be a more complicated and difficult task for us. But unless we learn to personalize our politics our victories will be as hollow as the abstractions we’ve created to fight them.
Advertisements make a promise: the product displayed will transform you from what you are — incomplete, inadequate, normal — into what you would like to be; fulfilled, successful, special. This is the classic “before and after ad”. There are two pictures: on the left is a loveless loser with stained teeth and bad breath, on the right is the same person, now radiant, magically transformed. This is a primitive variant, and one we tell ourselves we’d never fall for, but the same logic underlies nearly all advertising, even if “before” is only assumed. In this way, John Berger reminds us, advertising is never about the present, always the future.
Consider again the McDonald’s ad. The promise here is that McDonald’s will transform your busy, alienated, plain family into the carefree, harmonious, and better McDonald’s family. This logic applies itself not only to the characters but the setting as well. The mise en scene of advertisements: the tropical islands and hip clubs, the efficient fast food drive-throughs and zoos where no money changes hands, have meaning only as a transformation of places we are all too familiar with: cold street, night in front of the TV, wretched restaurant, privatized public space. Then there’s the utopian promise of advertising: somewhere out there is a world far superior to the one I inhabit, somewhere is the person I’d like to become. It is all obtainable. The world transformed through a hamburger! The means are ridiculous and this is what makes advertising absurd. It is also what makes it so successful, for with each promise not delivered the frustrated consumer looks elsewhere for gratification. If not the burger, then perhaps the toothpaste. Failing that there’s that bottle of Courvoisier. Restlessly searching, endlessly consuming, this is the engine of capitalist progress and the wealth.
Ironically, we once had a political monopoly on transformation. Conservatives wanted the status quo; us radicals moved towards an imagined future to create a new type of humanity. It was the great conservative Edmund Burke, after all, who railed against the French Revolution because the pace of republican progress promised to upset the time-tested tradition of divine right and natural hierarchy. What was Democracy, Communism, and Anarchism if not a dream of a magical transformation. (“I have a dream….”) While historical hindsight teaches that we should probably reject some of the magical component of these dreams, we should not be so ready to throw out the ideal of transformation.
Progressives too often tend to make appeals to guilt and sacrifice, asking people to give up what they have so others might have a piece of it. These are appeals to a diminished present and they are doomed to failure. Imagine an advertisement which asked you to stay where you are, to accept things as they are, or promised to make things worse if you accept change. This is what progressives often do- tactically speaking it is insanity. Instead of asking for sacrifice, we should appeal to peoples’ dreams, weaving a tale that ends with their better lives.
This is not the transformation of Madison Avenue- at least not entirely. I have yet to come across a hamburger that can make the sun shine on a accessible and clean public plaza. There is no connection between burger and sunshine. However, it is simple to connect all sorts of progressive policies to the McDonaldland utopia. Shorter work weeks and flexi time can offer free afternoons – and lower unemployment. There are issues currently being fought for by a variety of progressive organizations that could deliver a small slice of these utopias, yet their reasoning is usually analytic: percentages, populations, numbers of hours lost and gained. What is there to dream about in this? Why not envision the world transformed that progressive politics would deliver? We already have the visuals; the social ideals of the McDonald’s commercial make an excellent advertisement for a progressive social agenda.
This reappropriation of transformation should not be limited to the ephemeral plane of ideology or propaganda; the ideal of transformation needs to be woven into the ways progressive politics are realized. People need to see their personal lives and social relations transformed in practice as well as imagination. Social movement scholars like Barbara Epstein calls this “pre-figurative politics,” a process in which the vision of the future is prefigured in the practices of the present, thereby erasing the distinction between means and ends. The early US Civil Rights movement is an example where organizers, black and other, tried within their organizing to create a interracial “beloved community” as a model of what they were trying to create through their organizing. Their real function is a living, learning model of a inclusive community, the antithesis to the racism of the South that the activists were protesting. A similar principle guides the direct action group I was part of, Reclaim the Streets. By making protests street parties, we not only strategically target a policy or practice we want to condemn, we literally demonstrate to participants and bystanders the world we’d like to see: fun, exuberant, with lively street culture operating in public space. RTS transforms people and space from what is into what could be.
We often think our truths are derived from linear logic. A plus B equals C. But apply this logic to the advertisement above: A father and daughter, plus a McDonald’s, equals familial nirvana. Linear logic makes this is absurd. None of us would stand for such manipulative reasoning. But the trick of advertising is it circumvents this linearity, substituting equations with associations. A picture of a happy family is placed next to a picture of McDonald’s. Bingo: McBurgers arefamilial bliss, B is C. The goal is to equate unlike items, collapsing difference into unity.
Association has become the mainstay of advertising technique while still retaining the goal of magical transformation. Budweiser, for example, advertises its beer with a “real men of genius” series, making fun of the social foibles of the everyday guy: men wearing too much bad cologne, eating taco salads, passing gas. The product only appears in the last scene when a Bud Light is pulled from an ice chest. What’s the association? Bud makes you fart? The link is no longer between the product and what a consumer would like to become, but between the consumer and the advertisement, a recognition of himself in the everyman, and a connection between the advertiser who “gets him” and a beer that fits him. The objects of association don’t matter, it is sheer feeling — a laugh, a cry, a recognition — that the advertiser wishes us to associate with their product. This emotionally charged consumption, like the spectatorship of reality TV, taps into the turbulence below the surface of our collective illusion of safety and control, an impotent attempt to access the dead life buried within a living death. Shop to feel.
How can progressives hope to appropriate this? Why would we want to? To answer the second question first, we must. As critic Neil Postman has argued, linear logic belongs to the era of the sentence and the paragraph, associative logic is in tune with present visual era. If progressives wish to communicate in the present they need to learn the language of association as Conservatives have already done. Think of the propaganda of the current Bush administration, constantly referring to Iraq in the same sentence as terrorism, Saddam Hussein in the same breath as Al Qaeda. In fact, when the Bush administration tried to “logically” prove the connection between Hussein and weapons of mass destruction with Secretary of State Powell’s infamous UN presentation– it backfired when the evidence turned out to be faked. Association, on the other hand, can never be found false since no truth claims are made.
This does not mean though, that associations must be built upon lies. Association can be illusory. Karl Marx, in his analysis of “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” in Capital, reminds us that the items that appear to us in the marketplace as free-floating commodities have deep social histories: the stories of the hands that produced them, the social links between producers and consumers; the interdependent social system that all of us have built. It is capitalism, Marx argues, that cloaks theseassociations, burying the social history of the product under surface of the commodity. That is: “transform[ing] every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic”; hiding from humanity “the secret of their own social product.” This process of erasure and substitution is one in which Madison Avenue has played a leading role, replacing the living lineage with an autonomous and “phantasmagoric” product personality. Pontiac breeds excitement!
These are the social hieroglyphics that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted us to decode when he asked us to consider where we get our sponges, our soap, our coffee, tea and toast. “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning you are dependent on more than half of the world.” Associations were what King was describing when, late in his life, he drew out the lines between the war in Vietnam and poverty and race hatred in the US. More recently, Michael Schellenberger and Tom Nordhaus, in their provocative white paper on “The Death of Environmentalism” argue that the environmental movement needs to articulate a wider set of associations, articulating and publicizing links between industry and weather, resources and war, nature and values. Peter Teague, in his preface to this report, explicitly scolds the environmental movement for not making public the invisible but real associations between global warming and contemporary natural catastrophes like deadly hurricanes.
Associations can also communicate what we are for and what sort of a world our policies might create. Back to our McDonald’s advertisement. What if progressives told the same story? A father picks up his daughter in the afternoon and they have a wonderful day at the zoo. Same idyllic scene, same lighting, same music, same smile. Then at the end, instead of a golden arches popping into view, there’s a tagline about policy for a reduced work week. The principle of association is an opportunity for progressives to move past the timid linear logic that inspires no one towards harnessing a powerful tool of persuasion.
Oscar Wilde teased: “The trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” Politicos do sacrifice free time and their ignorance of the consumable pleasures of the system. But political activism can be social, exhilarating, rebellious and fun. As such, association can also be employed at the level of organization building. If we hope to appeal to anyone outside of a small group of masochists and flagellants we need to cultivate and articulate positive associations with progressive politics. In the Lower East Side Collective, fundraisers were dance parties, tabling an excuse to goof and socialize, we prided ourselves on our clever language in posters, our demos became carnivals…we had a good time. This wasn’t hard, it was no accident. This projection of “fun” was a conscious strategy to counteract the public perception of leftists as pc, dour and sour– a stereotype that had more than a grain of truth in it, at least in my neighborhood. “Changing the culture of the Left” was how Alice Meaker, the main architect of this strategy, put it. Leslie Kauffman went so far as to prepare an organizational instruction sheet with characters like “Sullen Sue” and “Ideological Ivan” as inspiration .Within a year of our founding we were fifty active organizers working on six simultaneous campaigns. LESC was attacked by the sour left for having too much fun. That’s when we knew we had succeeded.
Though building associations between progressives and good times may seem trivial, it is not. These associations communicate the personality of the politics we are trying to actualize. They make up the progressive brand. Branding happens when a group of often unlike products and services, manufactured by myriad global subcontractors, are bestowed with one robust and easily identifiable personality with its own unique set of associations. Coke is the real thing, and so on.
Politics are already branded. Think of the associations one makes when hearing the term “conservative.” There are all types of conservatives: fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, cultural conservatives, and even neo-conservatives. Yet they all come together in a single brand. For progressives this brand is a negative one, for conservatives positive, and each fights to make their definition prevail in the public mind. In recent years conservatives have won this battle. One of the great feats of American politics in the last half century is the transformation of the conservative brand from one associated with greedy industrialists and the economic failures of Herbert Hoover to an ideal of the brave everyman standing up against the rapacious, repressive regulatory state.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has argued that progressives need to “frame” their politics to give them sort of coherence and narrative. He suggests that progressives politics can be made sense of through the metaphor of the nurturing mother (conservatives, he argues, are best represented by the stern father). Lakoff’s “nurturing mother” is a brand. Not a great one in my opinion, but a thoughtful, overdue attempt. Still, far too many contemporary progressives consider branding a dirty word.
Our distaste for branding, in part, is the result of a reactionary distaste of anything tainted with the market. It also stems from a more well-founded recognition of the simplification and substitution of the imaginary for the complex real which is commodity fetishism at its most extreme. But progressives also chafe under the yoke of a brand because of our own fetishization of difference. We, after all, are the rainbow coalition. How could our brilliant diversity be reduced to such a monochromatic thing like a brand?
This is a real concern. Part of our politics is a respect for and cultivation of difference. It is the disadvantage of not being a religious zealot or cultural supremacist. It is also the disadvantage of believing in a participatory democracy and a nurturing society in which all individuals have genuine opportunity to shape their own destiny and that of the world around them. Yet corporations manage to devise a personality that encompasses the diversity of their products all the time. Ford, under one brand, owns numerous divisions producing hundreds of models in thousands of styles all across the globe (and then transforms this process yearly), yet this diversity doesn’t seem to challenge the organizational workings or erode the profit margins of the corporation.
The solution may lie in commonaspiration. McDonald’s commercials work because the differences each of us have are left behind once we are engaged in the common fantasy. We enter the advertisement as individuals, charged by individual emotions though the ad markets to millions because the fantasy is a general one. For a brief moment we lose our difference and wrap ourselves within a shared ideal of happy families (however that family is constituted) and immaculate public space. Common fantasies are the ones that progressives need to work hard to articulate. We are now the ones now wandering in the desert. We can use this time to hallucinate a common future, not remember our separate past; dream of not who we are or were but who we can see ourselves becoming.
In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s latest cyber-punk novel, a marketing impresario improbably named Hubertus Bigend explains it like this. “What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda. And makes us buy things.” Hubertus Bigend is an complicated character in Pattern Recognition, portrayed as ruthless and amoral, but not necessarily adversarial and also inevitably victorious. This is either evidence that Gibson has thrown in the towel and surrendered his usual noir critique of multi-national corporations and hyper-consumerism, or a recognition on his part that there is a deeper truth within advertising and marketing that needs to be reckoned with. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (NY: Penguin, 2004) p.69
In this Berger implicitly borrows from Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” in which Marx argues that religious emancipation will only come when humans are emancipated from the social conditions that give rise to religion.
The sublimation of progressive desire into consumer purchase is well understood and articulated by, among others, Stuart Ewen in his groundbreaking book on the early history of advertising, Captains of Consciousness (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
“Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency,” is how Raymond Chandler put it in his classic detective novel The Long Goodbye (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953).
Progressives are so good at otherizing that we do it to ourselves. I consider myself a card carrying member of The People, yet somehow The People hangs just above me, out of reach; an abstract category full of abstract people.
Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” released at an October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Teague’s quote is on p.4.