Monday, August 20, 2007

A blast from the past

A little background...

With the Iraq disaster bankrupting the country, both morally and financially, and Iran next in line for a little tough love, it might be a good idea to revisit how in hell this country got started on this path to unapologetic imperialism, naked resource grabs, the PNAC ideal of "full-spectrum dominance," the fear and loathing of much of the planet and the gradual devolution of George W. Bush from useless blithering idiot to soul-shriveled, blood-drenched sociopath.

Below is an article I wrote in the week after 9/11/01, in which I attempted to point out the similarities between selling a product and selling a war. As I watched the lies and phony rationales unravel during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and cringe as the very same set of unsubstantiated accusations are now hurled at Iran, it seemed a good time to revisit the influences of salesmanship and marketing on a population already pre-conditioned to accept the outrageous claims of advertising and, rather than apply critical thinking skills to the issue, respond by simply buying the product.

And because consumerism is its own reward, the cycle repeats for every single "hot" new product for which advertisers can create buzz, resulting in the itch to buy and then scratching that itch with a trip to Walmart. Return home, fondle the new gizmo for awhile, turn on the TV, watch more embarrassingly childish advertising, develop a new itch and so forth. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

So, without further babbling, here's a little trip down memory lane.

September 17, 2001

War on Sale: Buy Now while Supplies Last

By Warren Pease

The public is galvanized as if Hitler and Tojo had returned from hell to finish the job of pulverizing America and installing a fascist state fronted by the Japanese emperor. Polls show nearly universal sentiment to kick ass and take names – and the names don’t really matter. We’ll lash out at any wog in a pinch, even the guy we bought fresh fruit from two weeks ago at the corner market. There’s blood lust in the land and it must be satisfied.

Which is hardly surprising. We live in a country in which our primary duty is stoking the engines of commerce by consuming the fad du jour as defined by pop culture and branded by TV advertising. So when the major cable and broadcast networks run 24/7 advertising for a single product – in this case, a US war against Islamic radicals – it shouldn’t be too shocking that more than 90 percent of American consumers respond with wild approval.

In the hours and days immediately following the atrocities of September 11, Americans were subjected to what amounts to an endless branding campaign, featuring some of the most powerful images ever seen on television. Relentless, sustained, moving and graphic, television pounded home the message that America had been horribly violated and that it must exact revenge. Within hours, a suspect was named and a strategy articulated.

Using a strategy from Marketing 101, the networks first defined the problem and then sold the solution. The problem was international terrorism, personified by Osama bin Laden and his shadowy band of Islamic fundamentalists, and the only solution proposed – at least the only one not immediately dismissed as quixotic or unworkable – was massive military response.

By defining the solution along such a narrow continuum, network advertising virtually assured that Americans would buy the Bush administration’s product. Throw in the testosterone quotient – manly American men doing manly things to unmanly swarthy cowards in far away places we can't identify on a map – and the administration had a real hit on its hands.

War or widgets: creating the buzz

But simply substitute "widgets" for "war" and see what happens. Beginning at 9:00 A.M. EDT on September 11, manufacturing giant Glutco Inc., the company that manufacturers and distributes the world’s most sought-after widgets, launched a non-stop advertising campaign on all major television networks. Within hours, imbued with THE MESSAGE, Americans roared their approval, left their jobs and homes and drove directly to the nearest widget outlet. They didn’t need proof that Glutco’s widgets were superior; most of them didn’t even want or need widgets. But the clarion call of mass marketing won’t be ignored.

Shelves emptied in minutes; trucks lined up at the loading docks to deliver more widgets; those also sold out. Even though the campaign had been planned for months, mighty Glutco’s distribution system was unable to keep pace with demand. Americans simply couldn’t get enough widgets. Special edition widgets showed up on eBay at preposterous prices, then were bid up several times over. Widget collectors found themselves in demand as instant celebrities, being asked weighty questions on national television by a fawning media.

Daily newspapers and weekly magazines kept the public salivating. Publishers happily saw their pages eaten up by lucrative, image-intensive Glutco advertising. Entertainment trade rags reported a series of made-for-TV movies in the works; marginal actors and off-key singers kept themselves in the public eye for another few weeks by shilling for Glutco widgets; even Glutco’s chief competitors expressed reluctant admiration for their adversary, since the heightened popularity of widgets had expanded the market for their products as well.

True, the campaign was the most expensive marketing exercise in history, but it really wasn’t much of a gamble. After all, if American adults will fight over the last Cabbage Patch doll, even though the Cabbage Patch brand was sold primarily to kids through Saturday morning cartoons, it was reasonably predictable that they’d respond with unprecedented fervor to a non-stop harangue by analysts and experts, blow-dried anchors and "on the ground" reporters. Even with the sound off, the images were just too compelling to ignore.

And the numbers proved the hypothesis. Consumers bought $40 billion worth of widgets in the first week alone. Many ran their credit cards up to the limit and many more said they’d make any sacrifice to buy more widgets in the coming months. They took second mortgages on their houses; they spent their kid’s college funds; they looted their retirement accounts; those with disposable income bought bigger SUVs to carry more widgets. And Glutco’s major shareholders smiled the satisfied smirk of the seriously rich.

And so it goes in pop culture America, where the invisible hand of the market occasionally pops into public view -- whether shilling for widgets or war -- where allegiance is bought and sold like a used car, and where operators are always standing by.

A version of this article appeared at in mid-September, 2001.

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