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Some time ago I watched an interview of author Chris Hedges by TVO’s Allan Gregg. The title of his latest book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle really piqued my curiosity. Having now read it, the content of the book seems particularly apt to comment on in this blog.
The Quintillion Times is a chronicle of how media and emerging media technologies affect our culture and those who live under its influence. Empire of Illusion is a narrative describing America’s descent into a fatuous experience of epic couch potato-ism.
Chris Hedges obtained a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and has travelled the world reporting on a variety of human experiences for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and The New York Times. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of global terrorism. He’s also been a professor at Columbia, Princeton and New York Universities as well as the University of Toronto.
Whether you agree with his general beliefs or not, Empire of Illusion offers a fascinating opinion on the role of media in casting a kind of somniferous spell on the American public – a condition which may have relevance to Canada and other western democracies. He echoes the voice of Noam Chomsky in describing how the American public has become distracted by the vast media circus. To add depth to his story, Hedges cites many authoritative voices including authors like Naomi Klein and political philosophers such as John Ralston Saul and Sheldon S. Wolin.
Quoting Wolin, Hedges describes the American state as approaching an inverted totalitarianism. Rather than charismatic leaders, it is an anonymous corporate state which inundates the media-scape with mesmerizing diversions: Lascivious details about the lives of media stars through whom we live vicariously, and political pseudo-events that distract people away from meaningful civic participation or any real understanding of fundamental issues.
Hedges illustrates how consent for the Iraqi war after 911 was manufactured by actions such as Dick Cheney supplying media outlets with top secret information about Saddam Hussein’s preparations for an atomic bomb. The secret “facts” were presented as coming from anonymous government sources. Once published for the world to see, it allowed Cheney to appear on Meet the Press and (while attributing the story to the New York Times) validate the story that Saddam had attempted to obtain parts needed for a uranium enrichment project.
Similarly, the CBC documentary series Love, Hate and Propaganda revealed in its episode The War on Terror, the story of a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl who testified before the American congressional caucus on human rights. She tearfully conveyed witnessing first hand how Iraqi soldiers removed babies from incubators and let them die on the floor. The story was all over the news. Its shocking content helped drive support for the first war between America and Iraq. The problem is, the whole story was fabricated. That 15 year-old girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and further, she was not even present during the Iraqi invasion to witness any such event.
Thus unfolds the theme of “news as spectacle” in Empire of Illusion. Hedges describes how the news has become dominated by content like celebrity gossip and quasi-advertising (such as new product announcements) written by corporate public relations officers. Corporate dominated news outlets become complicit in validating lies, even acting like a government mouthpiece.
Hedges’ book identifies how independent thought has withered during a period where “spoiled, intellectually limited and wealthy elitists [get] churned out by” ivy-league schools. For-profit universities train this elite not in the art of independent thought, but as extensions of self-interested corporations. Education becomes instruction of how to accumulate wealth. Rather than nurturing knowledge for its own sake, “some forty-five colleges and universities” have become listed on the NYSE or the NASDAQ. The economic imperative has taken over.
Hedges identifies the emergence of an economic “oligarchy” which has seized important influence over elected officials. This is the same term used just last week by Ralph Nader when he appeared on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange. All the while, American freedoms are being curtailed – with the public cowed into submission by tales of terrorist cataclysms.
We have just learned of the effect of this mode of thought on government. Edward Snowden’s revelations show just how far the NSA has taken its mandate to subpoena “any tangible thing” including meta-data from telecom giants. This broad and vague definition (as described in the congressionally approved rules governing the federal domestic telephone records program) was approved by congress. Whether or not the congressmen and women truly understood what they were authorizing was debated on the June 17, 2013 episode of TVO’s the Agenda: Seeing through Transparency.
Hedges also claims that the “capitalist ideology of unlimited growth has failed”, a sentiment echoed by – ironically – Jeff Rubin, the former Chief Economist and Chief Strategist at CIBC World Markets.
But this book does not dwell only on politico-economic issues. The second chapter entitled The Illusion of Love describes the hollow experiences surrounding both the consumers and producers of pornography. The chapter is a metaphor for the objectification of human beings as commodities, as objects to be used and discarded in a culture defined by corporate greed; alas – devoid of any capacity for empathy.
Look around you and ask yourself: Do we live in an environment dominated and increasingly defined by an ever-present dissemination of commercial messages? As we are bombarded by subliminal and overt messages from birth, do they inform our values? Does news as spectacle contribute to a voyeuristic fascination with celebrities? And does all this stimulation distract from real learning, greater understanding of the objective world and truer empathy towards others? These are questions particularly suited to the age of Quintillion.
The 1970s saw Benny Hill expressing the sexual revolution on television. He used humour to lay bare the natural urges of men and women that were repressed by the ruling class and religious leaders. In one pertinent skit, Hill plays the priest who is having a discussion with a commoner, locked in the stock at a public square. In a typical manipulation of the double entendre, the priest beats the commoner for uttering seemingly innocent comments about his day. For everything the commoner says, the priest hears the bawdy interpretation of the double meaning – revealing his own wicked thoughts.
People laughed with Hill because they identified with the overtly lewd humour. The emergence of this kind of statement in the media has further brought into the open the tradition of crude rituals among the underclasses. Before television it was the burlesque and the vaudeville on stage.
As television became commercialized and advertisers pushed for more popular shows, sensationalism crept into the news. Even as the ruling classes and religious authorities attempted to exert prudish codes of behaviour on the unruly masses, their hypocrisy was revealed in salacious sex scandal after sex scandal, as alluded to in this Benny Hill skit.
In the 1980s, from street culture to rap music, African Americans managed to co-opt the word “Nigger”, thereby undermining the term and giving the finger to racist oppressors.
Fast-forward to 2013. By this time, Internet memes like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” have gone viral. People no longer just listen to a message, they enact it for themselves, repeating the message and also reinterpreting it.
By simultaneously evoking the Gangnam fashionista district of Seoul and displaying the fashion victim in a garish yellow suit, Psy’s video mocks the conformity of commercialized popular culture, the deep narcissism of the fashion industry and the self-absorbed commercial segment of the entertainment business. His ridiculous dance pokes the celebrity-worshipping public in the eye, even as they don’t get his sarcastic and ironic video.
This silent version deconstructs the pop-video, driving home Psy’s ironic philosophy.
Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has embraced this message and turned it against the Chinese communist leadership who imprisoned him for three months and continues to ‘disappear’ and torture innocent people who refuse to defer to their authority. In his version of the famous Internet meme, he defiantly twirls a set of handcuffs. “He says the international meme phenomenon is an expression of individualism that should be allowed in China.” Predictably, his government has blocked access to this video in that country.
Gangnam for Freedom – Amnesty International.
Most recently, you can witness the recent flood of freedom videos featuring students of the middle east. In this video, Egyptian students do the Harlem Shake in front of the Mulsim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo. That song begins with the phrase “Con los terroristas” which means “With the terrorists.” In his article, Haifa Zaaiter writes in Arabic about the attempts of Tunisian Salafist rulers to condemn civil disobedience. They attempt to derail domestic protests by encouraging youth to focus instead on the fight against Israel’s interdictions on Palestine. “That slogan has lost its lustre because it is being aimed at youth who have grown tired of having that slogan used to suppress everything that bothers or frightens the ruling class…”, says Zaaiter.
Hopefully, the trend towards individualism and independent thought proposed in Neil Nevitte’s book “The Decline of Deference” will continue. Today, people have the power to publish their feelings free of censorship on the Internet through social media, to exchange ideas, to participate, and to connect with strangers in strange lands. Hopefully, this movement will continue unabated; relinquishing the power to the people in repressive states around the world.
It’s an amazing social phenomenon that commercials have become entertainment. But from the perspective of the marketer, this makes total sense. The competition for your attention in today’s sprawling media-sphere is intense.
And while the marketers try to gain your eye for 30 seconds, the public relations practitioner tries to extend viewership for weeks or months. In the run-up to the 2013 Super Bowl, many advertisers posted their Super Bowl commercials online for our entertainment. This extension of traditional media into online social media outlets is an attempt to squeeze more value out of the estimated $4 million USD it costs to air a 30 second Super Bowl ad.
When making a commercial, the marketing team employs several of The Rules of Advertising as defined in this blog. They make it controversial, or they illicit gut responses, or they play on emotions – mostly in an effort to implant their brand into our mind and often to keep us thinking about the commercial long after it’s over. So once the ad has aired, how does the PR team extend the life of an advertisement?
Social media is key in this regard. Companies will post the ad on their own website as well as YouTube, they will provoke discussion on Twitter and they will create links or encourage their audience to create links from their own blogs to the video posting of their ad. “And thanks to the longevity of social video advertising, there’s a lot more opportunity for brands to claim victory during overtime. Incredibly, over half (55%) of the video shares from Super Bowl 2012 occurred a month after Super Sunday.”
What is the effect on our society of this pervasive messaging and its call to engage? Basically, people are being drawn-in and made to help out the marketer’s job. By creating discussion about the ad and making it available to everyone, from everywhere and ostensibly forever, the advertisers are recruiting the general public. And generally, the public is buying in.
The interactivity of the Internet and social media mean that we are no longer just observers of media. Increasingly we have become active participants able to influence our corporate suitors and the general public. We are allowed to stamp our approval or disapproval on every product out there and we throw in our two cents by adding comments. It used to be that everyone was entitled to their own opinion. Today, everyone is entitled to broadcast their opinion to the world.
I’m not here to argue that nobody’s opinion matters. To the contrary, I think social media could be an incredibly revolutionary tool. The attractiveness of social media is that by broadcasting our likes and dislikes and opinions, we get to feed our own egos. We grow increasingly satisfied that the world is listening. To us!
At the very least, for-profit companies are listening. They measure the success of their campaign by our views, our likes, our comments. And they get to understand their audience better, how to better serve their customers and ultimately how to be a more successful enterprise.
But does all this discussion about commercials, consumer products and celebrities contribute to an ego-driven, materialistic society, ever more distracted by the commercialism around us? More to the point, do these distractions make us more shallow? Does our society become less critical, less engaged about the greater issues of importance in the world? Perhaps.
The other possibility is that social media allows individuals to seek out issues that interest them and to discuss events of real significance to the human race. Maybe everything evens out in the end. It’s just that now, we have more of everything to choose from.
As marketers vie for our eye, issues-related organizations need to keep up. To keep from becoming irrelevant in the global discussions, issues-related associations must also recruit the expertise of the PR specialist.
The challenge for non-profit organizations is that they compete with the consumer driven distractions that are easy for everyone to participate in. Of course, not everything needs to be a serious discussion. There’s lots of room to have fun.
But given that the planet’s environment is in decline and considering the prediction that the younger generation within western cultures will be the first to experience a shorter lifespan than the last, as well as other important issues from human trafficking, to toxins in our foods and consumer products, it is imperative that issues-based organizations keep up their end of the discussion.
Non-profit organizations need to hire creative, out-of-box thinkers that will compel the general public towards meaningful action rather than indulging in the distracting banalities of consumer culture.
These Quintillion times in which we live, as defined in these pages, is a time of speed and of new technologies that affect a hyper society, where people are connected to each other across the global village as they extend themselves into cyber-space.
The defining characteristic of the Quintillion times is the presence of the Internet and of new technologies, which allow for interaction and interconnectivity between people, organizations, business firms and government in ways that we have never experienced before.
As discussed in the section called Deconstructing Commercials, commercial mass messaging has reached a ubiquitous level in our society. There is hardly any place where we can avoid being reached out to by commercials, advertising, slogans and enticing imagery.
Steve Waddington, a public relations practitioner and author on the topic sums up the 20th century approach to commercial mass messaging:
“Marketing [and PR] in the last century was an industrialized process of shoving stuff into the world. There wasn’t a great deal of participation, and there wasn’t – by the end of the century – a great deal of love of respect for Marketing with a capital M. In this mode, marketing was telling a tightly controlled story at industrial scale.”
But with advancements in new communications such as social media, mass message-makers are being cajoled into a new era of two-way communications. The paradigm shift we are experiencing is moving mass communications away from the “push” model as developed in the 20th century to a “push/pull” relationship which has emerged at the dawn of the 21st century.
The difference between a “push” model and a “push/pull” model is that the former is similar to using force (the object is a passive recipient and cannot easily influence the speaker), whereas the latter is similar to the art of seduction (where the object can speak back and influence how the speaker makes his approach).
The goal of seduction is to tempt, to beguile, to win-over, to attract, to entice. It involves some willingness of the seducer’s object to participate. The consumer can now tell the seller how she wants to be treated. The situation changes from one where the consumer either accepts or rejects the seller’s message to one where the consumer engages with the seller on the condition that he treats her the way she would like.
Under the older model, this was not possible as there was no engagement, no opportunity for mutual influence, i.e. no seduction. Waddington also explains that: “All too often, those in marketing and PR were the creators of opacity – obfuscating and obscuring simple, easy-to-answer truths like the fat or salt [o]f a food product, or the true cost of a financial services product, or coaching the CEO to evade difficult questions in interviews, instead droning away at their key messages, disrespecting their interviews and their audiences.”
This “disrespect” of one’s audience is less and less possible because the Internet has created a place for the audience to speak back, and to speak to the world. Blog sites or product review sites have given a voice to the consumer. And among other consumers, this voice is more credible than that of the seller: A user-endorsement is more appealing to other consumers because the speaker has no personal agenda. The goal is to benefit others with good and truthful advice.
Having the power to publicly voice an opinion that may resonate with other consumers and get disseminated all over the Internet gives the consumer a role in how they would like to be influenced by the seller. It forces the seller to adapt, to change his approach – ultimately forcing the seller to engage with the consumer. This engagement, this two-way communication, is the art of seduction. The consumer of goods, services and messages gains the power to influence how the seller engages her.
As explained by Ray Kotcher, senior partner and chairman of Ketchum, one of the world’s largest and most influential communications firms: Today “public relations is more involved in brand building – in helping companies actually build their products and their brands – than it ever has been. And second, public relations is key to reputation building, which companies today understand is more valuable than it has ever been.”
Now that the public has a voice, the sellers of messages are forced to engage in order to enhance their reputation. Competition between sellers forces them to become more attentive suitors in the seduction of consumers.
In the long run, seduction is more effective than force. The consumer of a message is less likely to resent the seller of a message because she has been invited to engage. She may equally influence the seller as he may influence the consumer.
The Internet and social media have precipitated this shift towards seduction. Commercial mass communication becomes more personalized and more about inclusion and participation as consumers and sellers of messages influence each other.
We see this model emerging today out of the realm of commerce. The question now becomes, as consumers of government messages and policy, can we as a society begin to influence, to engage, to seduce our political leaders? Will social media lead to a more participatory democracy? What is the potential for the public to engage and influence political policy as we move forward into these Quintillion times? Check out the Online Party of Canada for more regarding participatory democracy.
November 22, 2012 – The Revenge of the Nerds throw a nerd-themed party in support of East York Learning Experience, an adult literacy program. We used Facebook and Twitter to promote our event and pitched it to local news outlets. We gained coverage in the East York Observer and Snap -Beaches Danforth issue.
My team and I raised about $1000 on a budget of $276. We were all very pleased with the results.
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The latest iteration of The Cult made a whistle stop at the Phoenix concert hall Friday night (August 31, 2012). For the fans, it was a rare chance to experience their 80’s rock legends up close and in a more intimate venue.
Canada has always represented a kind of home coming for The Cult; a traditional strong-hold of devotees, and a source of influence for the aboriginal themes that are deeply strewn throughout their discography. Lamentably on this night, Toronto seemed to hold no sanctuary for vocalist Ian Astbury and Cult axe-man Billy Duffy.
After a prolonged period of chants, cheers and whistles, the crowd at Friday’s sold-out show finally managed to coax the band onto the stage with an ovation that, perhaps, was not the howl of anticipation The Cult seemed to be hoping for.
Early in the set, Duffy attempted to light up the crowd during the soaring psychedelic anthem “Rain”. Deftly and dexterously, he enticed his Gretsch® White Falcon to a wailing crescendo of sound. The Cult proved that they still know how to rock-out. But apparently, their impassioned yet aging fans just aren’t the same fervent animal that existed during this band’s bygone heyday.
Playing songs from their latest CD, “Choice of Weapon”, Astbury rightfully reminded the crowd that to include only pleasers from the past would amount to nothing more than public masturbation.
The tone was set early on though, as Duffy shook his head repeatedly at the tepid temperature of the gathering. In an apparent fit of anguish, he seemed to give-in to an instant of disgust. Suddenly, violently, he thrust his middle finger into the air.
While the crowd was eager, it occurred to me that you can’t clap or bounce when you’re holding up a cell phone. At one point, Astbury implored the crowd to let loose and enjoy the moment: “Is that all you got for me?” Then later; “You’ve forgotten!” Perhaps it was a sign of age among the mature crowd. Had we forgotten what it is to scream at a rock-star?
Or, perhaps the band’s frustration just stemmed from a symptom of these times: That in attempting to record every moment for posterity, we actually move away from the experiential. Rather than living in the moment; we archive it – defer it. We relegate those lost moments to the category of simulation, only to be viewed and reviewed later. Re-interpreted from a distance – through technology.
Edit: Dec 11, 2013 – Apparently science has validated my theory.
Before playing the obligatory “She Sells Sanctuary”, Astbury announced that this would be the last song. This heralded an actual smattering of boos since it indicated the concert would be cut short. When The Cult left the stage, there followed a sustained and deafening cheer that brought them out for two more hits. At that point though, while it may not have been too little, it definitely was too late. As we filed out of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel the whole experience was kind-of hollow, man.
DECONSTRUCTING COMMERCIALS: THE RULES OF ADVERTISING
Rule #1. Any publicity is good publicity (if you don’t mind the heat).
Rule #2. Keep your eyes on the prize. Know the target audience and catch their attention.
Rule #3. Sex sells. Use sex in proportion to the impact you desire.
Rule #4. Repetition. Repeat the main message.
Rule #5. Get the audience to participate in a way. By either finishing a common phrase, singing along, or getting a song into their head. More and more it’s about social media.
Rule #6. Play on emotions. Trigger sadness, empathy, joy, shock, etc.
Rule #7. Tap into nationalism. Molson Canadian.
Rule #8. Become a “viral” video. (As though you can just decide to make that happen…)
Rule #9. Aim young. Titillate the kids with music, eye candy, coolness factor and above all sex appeal.
Rule #10. Keep them talking after the commercial is over. Play on social themes or social friction to create an edgy commercial that provokes critique and media play.
Rule #11. Play on people’s insecurities. Exaggerate or invent causes to make one feel insecure about oneself and then sell a remedy. Dandruff, deodorant/anti-persperant, weight.
Rule #12. Use humour.
Rule #13. Use irony, sarcasm or exaggeration to entertain the recipient of your message.
Rule #14. Illicit a gut response. Disgust, pleasure, etc.
DECONSTRUCTING COMMERCIALS: THE RULES OF ADVERTISING
Rule #9: Aim young. Scotiabank’s “Getting There” account for children has been around for decades, seemingly an insider’s benefit for parents who bank with Scotiabank. It is only now that Scotiabank is taking the plunge into deep advertising. Until this decade, Scotiabank has largely avoided any massive contribution to the ubiquitous commercial communication that takes place all-around us. But with this new campaign, Scotiabank boldly steps into the Quintillion times in which we live.
Only a few years ago, Scotiabank’s contribution to advertising was scant, only the necessaries were done. Today, Scotiabank touts itself as “Canada’s Hockey Bank” and sponsors the honoured Canadian television program; “Hockey Night in Canada”, as well as the CBC program “Dragon’s Den”. Scotiabank has lent its name to not one but two Canadian NHL Hockey Arenas (Scotiabank Place of Ottawa’s NHL Senators, and Scotiabank Saddledome of the Calgary Flames). It has also associated itself with cultural events such as “Scotiabank Nuit Blanche”, “Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival”, “Scotiabank BuskerFest” even the “Scotiabank Giller Prize”. Here’s an organization that has gone from virtually zero visibility to increasingly ubiquitous in a few short years, placing itself as family friendly and multicultural.
Today, one of the apparent keystones of Scotiabank’s advertising strategy is to employ the ninth rule of “Deconstructing Commercials”; Aim Young. And so, the Young Scotiabanker is upon the scene. (And incidentally, the Young Scotiabanker can take her Scene Card to the movies – another product by Scotiabank, allowing her to get cheaper tickets at Cineplex-Odeon cinemas in Canada). Gaining clients when they are young is a great strategy by Scotiabank. The “Getting There” account offers higher interest and no fees. Besides, how many times has anyone actually switched banks outright?
Also, this bank takes the high road to gaining acceptance among youth. They have NHL poster-boy Jerome Iginla; captain of the Calgary Flames fronting their television ads, its a squeaky clean image.
In contrast, view the Mini-Wheats commercial below in order to understand the full definition of Rule #9: Aim Young and hook the kids with: music, eye candy, coolness factor, and above all sex appeal. Don’t be fooled. The commercial below is aimed squarely at children younger than 5 years of age. The sex appeal is rife, with sultry eyed cartoon women gazing at you as their exaggerated hips gyrate to the beat.
The subliminal cues are numerous. Sexy kisses, juicy hearts, go-go dancers, come-hither eyes, hyper music. It’s all meant to excite. What is the connection between breakfast cereal and the sequence near the end of the commercial that has the go-go dancers kiss the mini-wheat as juicy hearts fly out of his face?
Commercials like this attempt to ‘hack’ our ‘reptilian’ brain. The sexual input and hyper stimulation arouses our ancient heritage; reptilian, reactive, innate, instinctual… The commercial is directed at those who are too young to resist: too innocent to be cognizant that they are being ‘hacked’ through reactive rather than rational receptors.
This is the just the start of a lifetime of ubiquitous commercial communication aimed at ourselves during these Quintillion times.
DECONSTRUCTING COMMERCIALS: THE RULES OF ADVERTISING
Rule #3: Sex sells. Use sex in proportion to the impact you desire.
The above video contains thundering music, stimulating a virile response and saturated with passion. Not only is advertising the ubiquitous commercial communication that takes place all-around us, but sex appeal is existent all throughout it. This commercial is aimed at those adolescents going through their bodily development, and with it, the smell of teen spirit. Fantasy plays a huge part of adolescent development. But before you picture 18 year-olds going out to buy the product, picture a more impressionable 14 year old asking his mom to buy him Axe Body Spray because the gym teacher requires all students to start using deodorant. This is no joke; it was part of the curriculum in my grade 9 gym class, the first grade of high-school.
The act of succumbing to advertising is a first indication of colonization in our society. Colonization of our culture; where the ongoing insertion of commercials affects our sensibilities, our psyche and hence our decision making. This colonization occurs through the ubiquitous use of overt and subliminal messaging in the commercial communication industry that happens in our Quintillion times.