We have engineered for ourselves, so it seems, a world that is rapidly turning into what is little more than a grotesquely inflated ‘advertisement’ for itself, a world that has become – we might say – nothing more than one long ‘commercial break’!
Someone once said that the sign of really bad TV is when you can’t tell the actual programmes from all the commercials that sandwich them. A kind of ‘inevitable decline’ sets it, a deteriorative process whereby the quality of the programming goes steadily downhill and the quantity of adverts that we have to sit through inexorably increases. Eventually we reach the stage where we really can’t tell the difference anyway…
This yardstick applies well for the life that goes on outside the TV screen as well. Our day-to-day lives are so inundated, so permeated with commercial images that that it is hard to tell where genuine life ends and the consumer-orientated images of it begin. The two are so intermingled that we have lost any sort of a perspective by which we might be able to tell them apart. Or perhaps it’s simply the case that our sensibilities have been so conditioned at this stage by the onslaught of commercial images and virally-reproducing commercial memes that we wouldn’t even be able to know what ‘genuine life’ is anyway, even if it ran right up to us and poked us in the eye.
Our own perspective has after all been so compromised by the nature of the designed environment that we live in that it has become all-but-impossible for me to tell the difference between my own ideas, and the ever-proliferating commercial memes that have so successfully infiltrated and colonized the public domain.
How do I know if it is my own thought that I am thinking or if it is in fact an off-the-shelf patented product of the nefarious all-powerful advertising agencies?
What is more to the point, do I even care?
We don’t of course tend to think very much about the prevalence of corporate logos, copywrited brand names and glossy commercial images in public life, the way that all this kind of stuff has become the back-drop of our lives, replacing anything more wholesome (or ‘untainted’) in the process. We are too used to seeing them everywhere we look to take any time to notice; by their sheer ubiquity, corporate messages have reached the point of becoming invisible. And the fact that we don’t consciously register them means, of course, that we are conditioned by them all the more effectively. If there is someone there telling me what to buy the whole time, where to go and what to do when I get there, then I am not going to be very happy about this erosion of my freedom – I will fight back, which is only healthy. But if the voice passes beneath the radar of my conscious attention then this is another story altogether – because I don’t register these messages as being extraneous (i.e. because I don’t see them as coming from an external authority) it is as if they are my thoughts. I don’t perceive them as ‘intruders’, as the ‘introjects’ that they are. This takes us deep into Philip K. Dick territory, into a world (as in Lies, Inc) where the compliant citizens mistake the propaganda of the police state, which is being beamed telepathically into their brains, as their own thoughts.
If we were able to take a good long holiday in some country where advertising and corporate presence has not yet reached the level that it has everywhere else in the world, then the peculiar nature of our corporation-dominated culture would hit us in the face like a physical blow. This is after all the only way to truly see one’s world – to step right out of its sphere of influence and then have a look at it. If we were to do this (if we had the luxury of being able to do so) then what we would see would not be very pleasant. Advertising and commercial messages are not there to serve us (who would be foolish enough to think this?) – they are there to serve the corporate entities which wish to place their products in the minds of the general population. That, after all, is the name of the game; that’s what it all about.
This however gives rise to an utterly extraordinary scenario – that the very basis or substance of the virtual world within which we live out our lives is a corporate artefact designed not to benefit us but the agency which constructed it…
This is of course not a particular unfamiliar idea – in its first, more primitive phase of development capitalism leads to a situation where a company owns many aspects of its employees’ lives (for example the USA in the early days of its industrial expansion, or contemporary free-market China). It might own their time and energy when they are working and it might rent them their accommodation for when they are not working. It might sell them goods and provisions from the company store, it might loan (or sub) them money, and so on. It might provide recreational facilities. We might think that this phenomenon is a thing of the past, but the truth is of course is simply that it has become a lot more subtle, and a lot more insidious. It is not just the case now that the company for which we work owns our homes, our time, our creativity or ingenuity, the grocery store where we buy our provisions, the recreation centre where we spend our free time, but rather that it owns the consensual virtual reality which constitutes the whole world for us, the limited and tightly regulated domain within whose narrow bounds we live out our lives.
This virtual world exists in our heads. It has been placed in our heads just like any another product – it is a product, a product we have don’t have any choice in buying. This situation as absurd as it might sound, is the logical end-point of a process that starts out perfectly harmlessly with the various producers of this commodity or that commodity (whether its washing powder, breakfast cereal or worming tablets) advertising their wares just as a stall-holder in a market might cry out at regular intervals to let potential buyers know about the fine quality of their fish or vegetables.
The next stage in the process is where the advertising of products and services spreads out beyond the marketplace and gradually becomes more and more pervasive, until it eventually becomes a major part of our actual environment. Images are displayed in newspapers, magazines, shop-windows, on the sides of buses or bus-stops, up on giant billboards or up in flashing neon lights on the sides of tower blocks. Brand-images and logos are permanently imprinted on our brains by the sheer force of repetition. Jingles and slogans are insistently incorporated into our ‘audio-feed’ with the intention of getting them to stick. A well-oiled planet-wide mechanism of subtle coercion comes into being, along with an army of skilled technicians to run it night and day. Along with this comes the whole business of sponsorship – popular TV shows are sponsored, sports and the arts are underwritten, educational facilities are funded, research programmes are awarded grants, large sums of money are donated to political parties and so on.
As the science and technology of product placement passes out of its infancy and becomes mature we see a population of consumers being supplied with more than just physical commodities but a whole way of life, a whole way of thinking. We provide the population a way of thinking that validates the product, an outlook that makes the product look cool. Once things get to this stage there is really no holding back – the end-point of the process is in view and there is no reason not to press for the ultimate conclusion, the ultimate solution. The ultimate solution is to control everything. Not only do we produce the product, we also produce the state of mind that wants the product. There is after all no reason why we wouldn’t take care of all the angles, leaving nothing to chance. Why leave the mark with any degree of independence? After all, any independence on the part of the consumer and they may decide that they don’t want to buy the product…
So the end-point in the process is to supply an entire, ready-made outlook on life, as well as all the ‘stuff’ that goes with this outlook. Both sides of the equation are taken care of – ‘the lifestyle’ and ‘the one who has the lifestyle’, ‘the game’ and ‘the player of the game’. And when this happens – as indeed it has already happened – then of course it’s too late to back out. We’re trapped in someone else’s dream. We’re up shit creek without a paddle. We’re holidaying in Memeland and we’ve lost our true selves.
By Nick Williams | Staff Writer