Marketers are not your friends. Brands are not people. There is no such thing as a consumer-led initiative. And, most importantly, the revolution will not be marketed.
Many people would have you believe otherwise, though. Many in the media have been applauding a lawsuit filed by a small group of advertisers alleging that Facebook inflated the video advertisement viewing metrics it gives to marketers by up to 900%, and that the company has known about this for up to a year. Predictably, those working in proximity to media have been outraged, citing this as proof of the failure of the aggressively pushed “pivot to video,” earlier in the decade. Far more than being a buzzword, Facebook’s projection of massive figures for users willing to consume video advertisements resulted in an enormous amount of restructuring by media organizations who replaced their writers with videographers.
The fundamental problem with this kind of reaction is that it contains the underlying assumption that “consumer-led initiatives” are events that not only occur, but actually control the behavior of companies or industries. This is utterly false. Even a cursory understanding of advanced capitalism imparts the basic fact that the consumer is the least powerful agent in a system that incentivizes manipulation and control of people’s behavior, purchasing or otherwise. The rapid creation and incorporation of massive-scale information systems into this relationship has made both Facebook and the advertisers suing it part of an all-powerful surveillance authority that barely anyone in the US seems to have a problem with. There is an absolute failure by the media to recognize the real meaning of these technological developments. It is natural to be outraged at people losing their jobs at companies whims; what is not being said is that consumer-led initiatives causing this exploitation of labor isn’t remotely in the realm of possibility.
Don’t take it from me, though. Marketing as a profession was created by former Woodrow Wilson propagandist Edward Bernays,as a morbid twist of psychoanalysis onto the masses. Bernays, who later assisted the CIA in stoking the flames of the anti-communist Red Scare in the US, believed that mass democracy was incredibly dangerous. Influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud, he believed that people had to be influenced and controlled to avoid the expression of the “dark, libidinal forces” under the surface.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”- Edward Bernays, from Propaganda (1928)
Mass marketing created the highest level of social control in American culture: the culture of consumption. Bernays’ proposition for the CEOs of his time created the rules for the game every one of us live out under capitalism: What defines your conception of your existence apart from what you consume? What is consumption if not a social act? When consumption provides a sense of self, of not only our individual places in the world but how we relate to others in it, why would anyone attempt to discern the reality of power relations of capitalist society?
The reality you experience is the conception of your self and your relations to the world and others around you. In capitalism, reality is consumption.What is a marketer’s job? My 4 years of sitting through grueling, jargon-filled classes taught by overpaid former executives boils it down to one corny phrase: “to create value for customers.” In the world of marketing, value is not inherent in the material world. It is not a function of utility. Value is what is created by a company that appeals to the self-image of the consumer, because consumption is not just personal but social and visible. The value of your clothes and the price you pay, for example, has little to do with the labor which made them or how much it cost to manufacture them. Clothes have value because you are seen in them and you express yourself through your consumption of them. This example seems innocuous enough, but a similar conception of value can be created for any consumer product.
The advent of information systems technology has given marketers power that Bernays would have creamed his pants over, if he was alive to witness it. This, after all, is how Facebook makes money. Even as you read this, companies are vacuuming up massive amounts of data on your browsing history, social media usage, applications, purchasing habits, and even your phone’s location service. Algorithms not only create product recommendations for you, but can accurately synthesize the nuances of consumer style and taste. Technology is far enough along than most people are even comfortable with: a Target algorithm was able to accurately predict that a high school girl was pregnant, using only a selection of purchasing habits. The algorithm is so powerful that it can even estimate a woman’s due date to a small window, so that coupons can be sent to her for specific products at specific stages of the pregnancy. This data is being used for marketing. This is what is used to “create value” and thus create the consumer for the company, not the other way around. In the age of information surveillance this sophisticated, how on earth can “consumer-led initiatives” be anything close to how industries operate? If all of this so far has seemed perfectly innocuous and within the realm of “doing business,” consider also that the FBI and NSA have working relationships with at least 9 of the biggest tech companies in the US, and can request access to the data of any individual user. You are being watched, and there’s no need for cameras. (Of course, Facebook is eager to provide those to you anyways.)
By giving business the omniscient power to mold the sense of self, marketing and the world of consumption define reality. They make organizing outside of it not only feel powerless and insignificant for the American consumer, but un-American. Reality need not even to be hidden or censored when the dependence and social pressure of consumption defines it anyways. The urgency of climate collapse, or the concept that consumption is careening us towards future Armageddon on its own will never reach Americans in the excess of their lifestyles. The American thinks for me, not for us. They think and desire for now, not for the future. This is becoming more and more obvious with the advent of instant-gratification services such as guaranteed two-day shipping, and the trends towards hyper-specific product customization.
Self fulfillment through consumption is available at the click of your mouse. What use, then, is organizing against the power-relations of neoliberalism? Knowledge about power under capitalism is the knowledge Lovecraft wrote about: what is there to be learnt other than that you are a worthless speck, a cockroach to be crushed under the toe of an alien force that you are unable to understand? A mere contemplation of this world as it truly is, says Lovecraft, would be enough for one to lose their sanity. We can barely even conceptualize capitalism’s vast division of labor, its international supply chains carved in flesh and blood. We put off thinking about the massive amount of death climate catastrophe will bring.We avoid contemplating the true scale of the imperial and colonial violence, the pillaging and violation that did establish and does sustain our quality of life, because to do so would be a contemplation of reality. The left of the 20th century attempted this and failed. Living life as an active citizen, or a true seeker of change, as it turns out, is a frightening confrontation with powers that far outmatch us. With such failure, somewhere along the line is the active citizen’s loss of self in this sea of blood and piss. Capitalism was waiting with a reassuring answer. Who better to monetize this pessimism than American business? Who better to create a new sense of self, to turn the active citizen into a passive consumer? The unassailable popularity of the individualism preached by Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s was preceded and matched every step of the way by marketing campaigns that had taught the American public that the only democracy they needed, the only way to express oneself, was the freedom to consume.
We are running out of time for alternatives to consumption. The utter travesty of environmentalism as a serious political movement can be attributed to the ingenious capitalist plot that turned it into something that can be bought by an individual. When 100 companies are producing 7I% of worldwide carbon emissions, the placing of agency and accountability seems clear as day. Why aren’t droves of people smashing company property? Where is the legislation that holds a gun to private industry until it stops leading us to certain destruction? It would seem that any serious reckoning with the power-relations at play that the masses have can be distracted from and monetized. “Socially responsible” business, which is a term that suffers from no irony whatsoever, tells us that the individual consumer is responsible for reducing their emissions by purchasing their products! The death of the concept of revolution by the masses in the US was not at the hands of the state; instead, the American populace happily shoots itself in the dopamine receptor.
What, then, is to be done? In 2018, the answer is right in front of us. It is terrible, cruel reality. Everything is going according to plan. Marketers and tech companies are two sides of the same coin. Consumer democracy, or the “customer is always right,” is the myth that sustains this nightmare. This is not an aberration. Reality is not some unfamiliar violation of American ideals. What we see every day is not an America that wasn’t supposed to be. It is America as it really is. Of course, no one wants to believe that. Everyone has some conception of America that is based on morals. There is nothing wrong with believing fervently in pluralism, in the sacrifices and struggles of immigrants, and in participative democracy. The most atrocious failure of the western left, however, is the failure to realize that none of these things have anything to do with American reality. We are witnessing American institutions working the way they were always designed to. The only difference is now some of us have been shook awake from our consumption-induced comas. The left today exists in a critical moment: neoliberalism is crumbling. Capitalism’s growth is starting to annihilate the resources of the world, and it is unclear what climate collapse will bring to our institutions. Reality may indeed be terrible, but we need to stop trying to find ourselves in the cycle of consumption to behold the world, ourselves, and our place in that for what it really is. Because of that, marketers and their ilk will not be joining us; they are part of the enemy. We need to observe and document these changes and weaknesses in American hegemony, and we need to provide an answer to violence and looming catastrophe that mass consumption can never satisfy: Solidarity. We must organize our communities with the vision and optimism of a new reality.
(Thank you to Erica, Claudia, and Malloy for help in making this a much stronger piece of writing.)