We live in the age of the image. Never before in history has such a barrage of unconnected ideas moved through our lives. From iPod to YouTube our culture has become a streaming channel of endless icons, branding with thought tattoos each individual who dares to tune in.
From the early days of western corporatism advertisers have been rubbing the bottled genie in hopes of magically increasing corporate revenue. What they soon realized was that the attention of consumers was easily bought by employing controlled symbolism to market their products, drawing the customers loyalty more through attachment to the symbol than the item being offered. When deconstructing this morbid state of affair- something that I'll attempt in this short essay - it should first be understood that it is not the image (icon, brand, or logo) that is important, but what that image solicits as an emotional response.
The fact that we can find historical precedent for modern advertising doesn’t make it easier to understand. Symbols litter our minds; from the golden arches to bitten apples our world has become a crowded arena of patented images. The consumer’s attention is battled for on the front lines of supermarket isles, in the halls of malls, or even driving down the interstate. We are told we can become members by simply buying products, as if this act was itself the sacrament. So deep has this symbolism penetrated that in Kalle Lasn’s words (Culture Jam, 2000), “advertisements are the most prevalent and toxic of the mental pollutants.”
This toxicity, rising as it has through the need to sell products, has left an indelible mark upon the human mind. Lasn continues by noting that, “Corporate advertising…is the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race.” Strong words, but not altogether unreasonable when you see as Lasn does that the symbol has gone from simple iconography to complex and multidimensional abstraction. In that symbolism is historically one of the most powerful tools for uniting people, we must recognize that its nature is two-fold; first, the symbol is itself inherently benign, and second, any meaning applied to a particular image is what becomes important.
There is an old iconographic precedent that justifies modern advertising. In the year 312, while preparing to battle for control of the Roman Empire, Constantine received a vision telling him to unite his men under the banner of the Cross. “In hoc signo vinces,” the angel told him, “In this sign you shall win.” This symbol, already having ancient ties to Egyptian and Phoenician cultures, was easily accepted, and eventually became the most complex and powerful banner of western civilization.
Beyond the West we find other cultures using similar means to achieve similar ends. Chinese thought manifested as the symbolic duality of yin/yang, Judaic representation would be expressed by the Star-of David, Native American as Totem; all of these symbols being expressed in glyphs designed to establish instant connection between image and idea.
The consumer provides the fresh skin for the hot iron, so without cultivating critical minds, our bodies will continue to be treated as perfect receptors for the corporate logo. More than our wares, but our whole selves, our thoughts and deeds, should define what makes us different. By seeing necessities as more than iconographic trophies, we displace ourselves from the corporate battle. We begin to make informed decisions based not upon form, but upon function.
It was realized in the mid-eighties that (Naomi Klein, 2002) “successful companies must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” (No Logo) That we have allowed the Corporation to move from production of goods to the manufacturing of Icons is our mistake, one that we must claim and work to remedy. Does it really satisfy, does it bring us happiness? We should ask these questions and others as we confront the barrage of commercials from day to day, because the symbol has turned from representing deeper, universal ideas, to selling materialism. We can imagine a young man saying: “Under the shadow of the sears tower I found myself,” because it was that symbol that his city presented as most important. This experience is common. As the sacred retreats from the Vegas Strip, cowers beneath the overwhelming magnitude of the “stars and stripes,” or huddles away to avoid contamination from ethanol or elmer’s glue, we begin to understand her reticence.
Advertisers long and systematic policy of targeting the ego has produced a morally inept culture, dependant not upon deeper meanings but on colorful veneers. Once again, it is the emotional reaction to the said media that is in question, because, (William Bernbach, 1989) “you can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.” There are numerous examples of advertisers soliciting emotional responses to commercial products. Ads such as, “Drive = Love,” or “Bigger is Better,” show that the aim is our emotional insecurity. We are reminded again and again about the body’s endless needs and infinite wants, that we must have a certain thing to be up-to-date, or fashionable. What was natural and sustainable has become demonized by the consumptive majority; our new prophets are corporate leaders and tycoons.
The tendency today is to see life in monetary terms, because that is our world; that is capitalism and democracy in action; that is free-market economics, the newest revelation from the bible of modern affairs. We are looking through the glass darkly, not because we don’t own it, but because we're only leasing it. Some argue that the corporation has brought us what we love most, entertainment and material goods. They have given us a world where we may theoretically take more time to enjoy the finer things, the subtler things, but in the end we pay for it.
The corporation has hijacked the icon. Our deepest fears are played against us in hopeless tugs-of-war. Should I buy Coke or Pepsi, Nike or Converse, Gucci or Gap? The Icon rules, we are the first generations to have brand names as kings, to be raised on cartoons and commercials. It is a life we have been given and must somehow sort out. As each generation has its challenges, so this is one of ours. In a world where one watches the Super Bowl not for the game but for the advertising, we should be concerned that the wool keeps inching down.
It is ours to reclaim for ourselves what it means to be human, to redefine our approach to society. In this postmodern hyper-technical culture of competing interests we may choose or we may not. Whatever we do, the concept of marketing symbolism will surely survive, because our need of image and icon date to the very beginnings of humanity. Again, the conclusion is to not see the symbol as destructive, but to question what the symbol solicits as an emotional response. As we realize this, we can cultivate symbols with deeper meanings, ones that illicit a beneficent reaction, ones like the mythic Shiva that remind us of our mortality, that we must live well for tomorrow there may be no more living.
cross posted from EO.