I visited my alma mater, Colby-Sawyer College, the other day. I was invited to speak with a class of seniors about life after college in the “real world.” It is always fun to return to college and catch up with some of my undergraduate professors.
I have had a number of different jobs since graduating from college. I have written for some newspapers, I worked in a record store, I was a music critic—I even dabbled in marketing for a while, but I hated it.
Marketers are glorified car-salesmen. Those who work in advertising or public relations use their writing and videography talents to convince consumers to buy things they do not need—hardly a noble profession, if you ask me.
These advertisers play on consumers’ emotions to persuade them their lives will be meaningless unless they drive a Honda, own an iPhone or drink Coca-Cola. Noam Chomsky correctly stated in a 2008 speech shortly after Barack Obama’s election (“What Next? The Election, the Economy and the World,”) “The point of advertising is to delude people… To create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.”
Modern day advertising has become so sophisticated in its power of mass persuasion, marketers no longer emphasize the actual product being advertised, focusing instead on the company’s brand. They make us believe, for example, that Nike does not sell mere sneakers, but athleticism, sportsmanship, and the Olympian ideal of the human body.
This focus on brand identity over the product itself creates a stronger, more intimate relationship with the consumer—one that, advertisers ultimately hope, will instill within the buyer a sense of brand loyalty. “With this wave of brand mania has come a new breed of businessman,” journalist 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…”
Consider this current ad for the Honda Accord.
The clip features a montage of seemingly ordinary people engaged in their daily routines. One woman runs with her small dog to her Accord to escape a downpour; a middle-aged man struggles to retrieve his car keys from his young child. At one point, a driver brakes abruptly, narrowly avoiding a collision. He then turns to check on his two children in the backseat and smiles, knowing they are safe.
“We know you,” the announcer states paternally. “We know how hard you have to work….and that you don’t get enough sleep.” All the while, a sentimental piano underscores the intimacy of these images—and the Accord’s vital role in them.
What is curious—though certainly not uncommon--about the commercial is it offers absolutely zero information about the car. All we really need to know, the ad assures us, is that the car was specifically designed for you. It is your car for your life. “The best way to make a car is to know you—the people who use it,” the announcer says. The spot plays entirely on audiences’ emotions and feelings about the car, ignoring the vehicle’s practical uses. This is the essence of brand marketing.
Most graduates of my major (Communication Studies) go into marketing and public relations. That is where the money is. Journalism, filmmaking, media studies, and radio may be fun hobbies, but they will not make anyone rich, so most Communication majors dismiss careers in them. Their parents and business-oriented professors (of which there are more than I think people realize; the stereotype of the radical, anti-capitalist professor is just that) push them into the lucrative, “practical” career paths.
Young people who pursue jobs in marketing, business, public relations or Wall Street are not interested in critiquing or questioning society, let alone capitalism. Indeed, they like capitalism, so long as it can benefit them personally. The moral, legal or environmental ethics of their professions are not concerns for them. Their job is merely to service a tiny, narrow sector of industry. These individuals are what Chris Hedges calls “systems managers,” unable to see beyond the narrow confines of their day-to-day work life. They become, he writes in Empire of Illusion, “products of a moral void.”
As a result, the three Colby-Sawyer alumni that joined me on the panel all work in the corporate sector. They talked to the students about the importance of networking, and “creating personal bonds,” with their customers (see the aforementioned Honda ad above). And they spent the majority of their time before and after the talk on their cellphones, or responding to text-messages from clients.
They are the living embodiment of the modern advertising executive—always connected, constantly on the go, and perpetually engaged in the techno-trend façade known as “multitasking.” This lifestyle of non-stop distraction prevents them from ever reflecting on the utter deceit and immorality of their profession. These advertisers effectively perpetuate the consumer society which, in addition to creating a culture of greed and hedonism, threatens to deplete the ecosystem that supports life on the planet. The self-serving business mindset and the seemingly insatiable thirst for ever greater profits exhibited by the corporations that employee PR agents see everything—including human lives and the environment—as a potential commodity.
“Human life is not commodity, figures, statistics, or make believe!” The Refused loudly proclaim on their masterpiece album, The Shape of Punk to Come.
When I started college, I made a conscious effort not to take any Business courses. I was afraid they would somehow poison and corrupt my young, artistic mind. The more business people I interact with, the more I am convinced I made the right choice.