Tuesday, 4 February 2014

SELLING THE VACUUM



If economics teaches us anything it is that you can look at one set of figures and see endless prosperity, but squint at them and you’ll see nothing but doom and gloom.

So, with so much subjectivity around, how do you get at the truth? My advice is to forget the number crunching, the charts, and other diagnostic tools of the modern witch doctors, and start reading the signs directly. In a sky without eagles it might be rather hard to resort to a bit of augury, but just as the Etruscans and Romans had their avian messengers, so the society of the present day also has its sky-borne bringers of truth. We call them commercials and the US Superbowl seems to signify their season, especially as American football is a sport that seems tailor-made for showing them.

Indeed, a study by the Wall Street Journal found that the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes, which leaves around 174 minutes in a typical broadcast, of which around an hour is commercials. For Superbowls the figures obviously skew even more in favour of ads.

Superbowl commercials are often thought of as a way of reading the national mood, but there are problems with this thesis as it’s clear that Americans will always love puppies, horses, and farting grandmothers. So, the perennial has to be factored out to get at the Zeitgeisty. So, what was that this year?

Rather than Coca-Cola’s multilingual mauling of a dire anthem or the Cheerios racist-baiting spot, the most revealing ad for me was that for Bud Light. This was because of the mismatch between its paltry product (a watered down version of an already mediocre beer) and the obviously gargantuan efforts being taken to sell it.


This was nothing less than an echo of the wider economic picture, where massive efforts – QE, zero interest rates, fracking, flooding the country with immigrants, etc. – are undertaken for a negligible economic blip.

This ad was pure overkill in pursuit of a completely underwhelming effect. It wasn’t even very popular – something to do with a lack of snub-nosed curly-haired little girls, farting grannies, and puppies.

The “story” is a kind of Joe Schmo wank fantasy, with an everyday moron plucked reality-TV-style from his banal existence and catapulted into the glitz. After being approached in a bar by a reasonably attractive woman he is taken to a stretch limo filled with a gaggle of pissed-up tarts and a crooning rapper. After reassuring himself – if he had any intelligence – that they aren’t after his organs, he is then given a fashion makeover by someone apparently famous for doing just this, and then driven to a swish location. Here he is confronted by an uncomfortable-looking Don Cheadle, leading a llama with a diamond-studded harness into an elevator. Our Mr. Nobody-who’s-temporarily-a-somebody then enters a party full of sexy twins. All the while helicopters buzz around in the darkness above the limo and the party building. The climax is a table tennis game with the ex-governor of California dressed up as Bjorn Borg, which Joe Schmo wins and then finds himself on stage with some band that’s also supposed to be famous, or at least cool.

Yes, it’s weirdly entertaining the first couple of times you see it, and it makes the trite point that Joe Schmo isn’t too pissed to participate in lightweight rhythmic activity with an antiquated Austrian. With all those lovely twins and bachelorettes around, this is obviously supposed to have a sexual connotation, but that can’t be driven home too clearly when all the other ads are full of puppies, cute kids, and embarrassed grannies. The commercial ends with a convenient summary:
“BUD LIGHT. THE PERFECT BEER FOR WHEN YOU SOMEHOW FIND YOURSELF IN A LIMO WITH REGGIE WATTS AND SOME BACHELORETTES, THEN GET STYLED BY MINKA KELLY, BEFORE DON CHEADLE, A LLAMA NAMED LILLY, AND THE IDENTICAL TWIN OF THE GIRL YOU JUST MET TAKE YOU TO A PARTY, WHERE YOU DEFEAT ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN A SUDDEN-DEATH PING PONG MATCH, THAT PUTS YOU ONSTAGE WITH ONE REPUBLIC.”
The ad agency clearly ran rampant with Budweiser’s money, hiring stars, limos, scouring the earth for attractive identical twins, keeping a fleet of choppers in the air, and employing an army of cameramen and technicians so that some lunk can have it drummed into his head that he should buy this wimpy, wishy-washy can of liquid instead of a rival can. It’s a bit like watching the entire propaganda apparatus of the Third Reich being thrown into full gear merely to encourage the German people to snigger discretely behind Poland’s back.

The meta-truth trumpeted out by this ad is clear – consumer capitalism is trying too hard and its efforts have a hint of desperation: “Please, please, please Mr. Everyman, we’re begging you on bended knee, buy our mildly refreshing brew or some other product you don’t need, and which won’t affect you too much, because if you don’t our magic castle will disappear.”

In the past capitalism grew because it fulfilled needs and desires, driven by actual emotions and real aspirations. Now, by and large, it can only exist by growing well beyond these spheres. In the past it didn’t have to show too much tail to get a reaction and create economic energy. Markets weren’t flooded and bloated then to the point where additional growth was painful and, what’s worse, awkward and even embarrassing. Desire could breathe the clean air of hunger and need; now it wallows in the mud of superfluity and gimmickry, hence the llama.

The masses sealed their end of the bargain by working hard, saving, and spending on things that made a difference – growth with vigour. But now they are replete, satiated and jaded. They want what they don't need, and need what they don't want. In this off-balance world, growth has to be forced, or it is cancerous and fungal, lacking form and purpose. The system has reached its limits. Each additional act of stimulation requires ever more disproportionate inputs. This is what the Bud Light commercial sums up so well. It is a symbol of our age.

Consumer capitalism can no longer turn the heads of the masses with a coy glance or a flash of white stocking. Instead, it now has to come at them naked and painted, a veritable Whore of Babylon, engaging in overkill. The less it is wanted the more it prostitutes itself, and the more it prostitutes itself the less it is wanted.

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