a grump and a bore. If you'd really like to know more about the
relationship between market capitalism and the media, why not
just read one of these excellent books on the topic:
love the holidays just as much as anyone, but this year I'm feeling
a little out of sorts. Maybe I'm just too pessimistic. But doesn't
anyone else worry that America has forgotten the true meaning
I watched How
the Grinch Stole Christmas recently, the original one, the
cartoon by Chuck
Jones. I'm sure you've seen it. It's seductively charming:
funny, sincere, just naughty enough, but never vulgar. It remains
one of the most popular cartoons ever made which, unfortunately,
speaks volumes about the sorry state of our nation.
It's true, the story seems harmless enough. The Grinch hates
everyone, so he robs them all blind. Then he lies to cover his
tracks. So far, so good. After all, what would be accomplished
in this world without a little dishonesty and theft? The problem
comes toward the end, when the Grinch decides that Christmas...perhaps...means
a little bit more than packages, boxes, and bags. Not only is
this treacly, it's downright dangerous.
The intended message seems to be that one doesn't need to spend
money on fancy gadgets or useless garbage to enjoy the holiday.
As if the purpose of the holidays were to enjoy yourself. It's
no wonder Theodor Geisel decided to use a pen name when he wrote
book. Heretics have had their fingernails extracted for less.
And well they should. If such ideas caught on, why, it would
call into question the very foundation of our society. As James
Hillman once pointed out, America relegated Jesus and
all his buddies: the Poor, the Meek, the Peacemakers,
etc. to the back seat ages ago. Today, we live in "a
monotheism of business. It's our dominant myth, and everything
has to serve it."
Right on, brother James everything has to serve it. And
even a writer of children's books ought to understand that serving
the "market's universal church" (as Benjamin
Barber alternatively calls it) means spending some dollars,
whether you feel like it or not. How on earth are we supposed
to sustain our greatest cultural achievements Microsoft,
Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Toys 'R' Us, Enron (no wait, scratch that
one), etc. without a healthy cash flow? How on earth are
we going to turn the rest of the world into labor pools for our
products and markets for our goods if we don't do everything necessary
to fuel the fire of our own economy?
Well, it's sad to have to admit it, but not everyone "gets"
the elegance of these basic principles. Some people right here
in this country are so intent on "living simply," that
they fail to see the necessity the beauty of markets
unfettered by governmental or moral controls. And, of course,
as we all now know, there are a few spoilt sports outside
this country who really just need to lighten up and join in the spirit of the new millennium.
In a former era, it was easy to maintain the fealty of the faithful.
The Church simply put on the best show in town. They had soothing
music, mysterious incense, grand architecture, and fabulous outfits.
For the braniacs, they devised one of the most obtuse, arcane
intellectual systems ever devised. And if none of this worked,
they had at their disposal excommunication, thumbscrews, guilt,
and the threat of eternal damnation. It was a good system.
But today we've really got it down. Instead of a clunky medieval
bureaucracy, we have the modern, high-tech mass media. Television,
radio, newspapers, magazines the media is everywhere: living
room, bathroom, office, and car. They are transmitted in cables
underfoot, from pole to pole overhead, and, thanks to radio waves
and the thousands of satellites whooshing around the planet, the
media inhabits the very air you breathe. Whatever your mood or
predilection, the media is there to numb you up or dumb you down,
to distract your mind or fill it with dreams of Regis and Rogaine.
Now, there's one little problem. Technically, the press is supposed
to be free, and it's still best to keep up appearances. Of course,
true freedom of the press would mean that journalists, broadcasters,
and all the rest could investigate and report pretty much whatever
they wanted. But who knows what ideas they might get into their
heads. Scary. What if Dan Rather interviewed a guest on national
television who seriously discussed alternatives to our market-über-alles
system? What if Nightline did a story that questioned why
America has only two political parties and both are pro-big business?
Thanks to a small handful of men, we'll sooner see Ted Koppel
lose the hairpiece. These geniuses came up with a most clever
way to get around the freedom of the press. By letting business
owners buy space in their newspapers and radio programs and television
shows, they put the media in the market's debt. Soon they were
able to drive the cost to the consumer down so far that the more
opinionated and heaven forbid "public-service"
oriented media simply couldn't compete. They were either driven
out of business, or, better yet, incorporated into ever-larger
Today, the thousands of small, independent media companies that
informed and entertained the public in the early part of the century
have almost all been subsumed into the paternal arms of six
count 'em, SIX enormous multinationals, all among the largest
companies in the world. (Even public broadcasting, with its ready
cash flow from corporate America, is now ripe for conversion.)
And you don't get that large by worrying about social costs or
by "listening to your heart." These righteous companies
listen only to the insistent demands of the bottom line. And the
bottom line says, make it simple, fun, or salacious and people
will not only stop their whining, they'll open their pocketbooks
and ask, How much?
Just think, if it weren't for the shrewd business values of News
Corp, AOL Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom, Bertelsman, and,
of course, Disney,
our culture would have to live without the soothing pleasures
of Judge Judy and That Seventies Show; Jerry Springer
would be a salesman for La-Z-Boy; and some lucky real estate agent
with a Chrysler would have Barbara Wawa for a secretary. The bottom
line knows that to get the most bang for your buck, you simply
need to scrape the bottom of the banal barrel. So rest assured,
your favorite news and entertainment outlets won't be fretting
about the actual quality of their programs or posing difficult
questions about the benevolence of free markets anytime soon.
The News's primary responsibility is no longer news; it's market
share, and her sultry attendant, advertising.
Ah, advertising, that beguiling siren. She's got us all in a
muddle. We don't want to want her, but the fact is unmistakable.
We can't get her slogans, logos, and jingles out of our minds.
She has us completely at her mercy, and we love it. The Church
had the Sistine Chapel, the Pietà, and Chartre. We have
the Absolut bottle, the Golden Arches, and the Swoosh. Marshall
McLuhan called advertising "the greatest art form of
the twentieth century," and he never said a truer word.
Okay, McLuhan didn't exactly intend this as a compliment. Elsewhere
he said that "ads push the principle of noise all the way
to the plateau of persuasion. They are quite in accord with the
procedures of brainwashing." Oh, get over it. Sure that Jack
in the Box guy is annoying as hell, but marketing is essential
to the program. And it's a lot more fun than the alternative.
Would you really rather sit through a two-hour sermon on the evils
of liquor and licentiousness each week. Yawn. If the media is
the lifeblood of our "democracy," then advertising is
its beating heart, and our upstanding marketing men and women
are capitalism's clergy. They inform us of the basic tenets of
our faith and facilitate our fundamental ritual, the incessant
murmur of our mantra, buy, buy, buy...
Our own bard of consumer culture, Don
DeLillo, understands well the magic of marketing, its power
to seep into the unconscious, to inhabit our dreams (After all,
he was once an ad man himself.):
Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep.
It seemed important that I know what it was....She uttered two
clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time,
words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal
spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica.
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of
an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance
was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder...Toyota
Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida. [from White
Dr. Seuss could have learned something from DeLillo: an appreciation
for the power of corporate branding. His Grinch was "gold-shot
with looming wonder" over all the wrong things. Fortunately,
Ron Howard has minimized Seuss's effect on future generations
by creating an overproduced, vulgar, and poorly written remake
of the classic.
Instead of aiming for the charm of the original, Opie, sensibly,
played to the public's insatiable desire for Jim Carrey's smart
ass. In doing so, he sent a clear message to kiddies of all ages.
Success is not measured by the quality of your work, but by the
amount of money you make. His piece of crap became one of the
biggest moneymakers in motion picture history. Last year, How
the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) grossed nearly 350 million
dollars — not including promotional tie-ins. Oh, it's a jolly
'oliday with Carrey, all right.
You know what? I think I've cheered myself up. Sure, there are
still a few vestiges of the old love-your-fellow-man nonsense
lying about, but they are dropping like tabs at a Dead concert.
The future looks bright. Next up, Steven Spielberg's remake of
It's a Wonderful Life: "Every time a bell rings an
angel gets a million bucks."
A Note to Carlisle's Grandmother:
Hey Nana, Help! Remember that time I said that Aunt
Celia must be closer to Jesus than you because she yelled
his name better, and Papa took me aside and insisted
on telling me about your work with unwed mothers and
such (and that all those rumors about Celia are
true)? I'm worried that he's going to read this column,
and then give me one of his I-don't-know-what-the-world-is-coming-to
phone calls. You understand that I'm not really
upset with Dr. Seuss; I don't think Jesus is
in the backseat; and Christmas is about loving
your fellow man (or at least ought to be). But you've
had more practice explaining irony to Papa than I have,
so would you head him off at the phone and talk to him
for me. Thanks, and see you next Tuesday...