Stuart Ewen talks about his history of hype, the public relations industry, saving the planet, etc.
Text-only version - from Stay Free! #14
Captains of Consciousness, by Stuart Ewen, was one of the texts that first sparked my interest in advertising. It's a clear, concise history of the subject; journalism teachers who know what they're doing often put it on required reading lists.
Around 1991, when I had graduated from college and started studying media issues, one of the things that bugged me about the ubiquity of commercial messages was that they had so little to do with the products they sold. While I had zero problems with, for example, a local business advertising their wares/hours/location, etc., ads that projected some extraneous message just seemed, well, dishonest. And annoying.
Most advertising has little to do with providing information; it's about creating brand identities/images. (Not to mention researching, testing, and focus-grouping, those images) One of the key themes in Ewen's new book PR!: A Social History of Spin is that those whose job it is to persuade the public (PR professionals, advertisers, politicians, and other types of leaders) have over the course of the century increasingly abandoned appeals to rationale in favor of appeals to emotion. Instead of trying to persuade with text and reason, they use imagery and symbols to appeal to instinct and emotion.
PR was originally a tool for damage control or crisis management. If a company committed a wrongdoing or had some other disaster on its hands, it would employ PR defensively to save face. Managing image perception (or "manufacturing consent," to use the words of PR pioneer/pollster Walter Lippmann) soon became a much more active process. Now crisis management is but a small subset of the ever-expanding field of public relations.
I guess you could say public relations, broadly defined, includes advertising. The difference being that, while advertising appears as an explicit commercial message, good PR is invisible. If PR is done right, you can't tell it's PR, it just looks like good business. The more advertising relies on imagery, or the more blurred it becomes with editorial content--the softer the sell--the less significant that distinction becomes.
PR! is a 400-plus page social history of the major developments in public relations. It's a great book, but I'd sorta feel like a fraud in recommending it without mentioning one of the main reasons I find this stuff so compelling: I now make image advertising (a promotional website and a newsletter) for a living.
Since Mr. Ewen lives in New York--where he teaches at Hunter College and CUNY--I was fortunate enough to not only read his book but meet and talk with him in person. An artist, an activist, a professor, a student, a dad--there's a lot to learn from this guy. --CM (The following interview took place in December 1996.)
SF!: A few years back, Mark
Dery wrote that you were involved in culture jamming. Now I hear the Village
Voice is doing a story on culture jamming. Do you think of yourself as a
Ewen: I've been involved with alternative media for a long time. I edited an underground paper, worked on billboards. But I'd hesitate when using culture jamming. I think of the media as a battleground, as a place where commercial values totally dominate sometimes and fall behind other times. Culture jamming strikes me as this term that's like "there is this thing called culture" and it's all-inclusive, and jamming is like causing static in the culture. I guess my politics is less into just causing static in this immovable culture and trying to imagine a different culture and a different way of life. But that having been said, somewhere along the line I realized that the alternative media I'd been involved in was connected to culture jamming. I first heard the term from Mark Dery. He called me up when he was writing a story for The New York Times so all of a sudden I became a culture jammer.
SF!: I think a lot of people being associated with culture jamming had never
heard the term before.
Ewen: It's a tag line, and one of the realities of our world is that everything gets turned into a product. The thing that I get nervous about in locking in certain kinds of language is that language becomes this natural resource for the culture industry and then it gets played out and disposed of. When we think about what we do, I think it's important not to lock into "breakdancing" or "hip hop" but to understand the process more than the category.
One of the things that has defined a lot of my work has been recognizing the way in which truth is packaged in our society. There are recognizable forms, whether it's flags that attract our patriotism, encyclopedia articles that attract our sense of objectivity, or entertainment which seems to be about nothing but entertainment. And I've always tried to make that issue of packaging part of the way I deal with stuff. For example, since the early eighties I've been producing a fictional encyclopedia as part of Billboards of the Future. Awhile ago I got asked to write an encyclopedia article about the history of advertising. First I felt funny about it--even though I love encyclopedias--because my work tends to be very opinionated and encyclopedias have an apparent neutrality. The guy editing it said, "you can't turn this down. I'm giving you the opportunity to define what people will be looking up for the next twenty years." And he was right, so I did it. But before doing it I started looking at encyclopedias and studying the encyclopedias as a literary form, trying to figure out how you write in such a way that it sounds like God wrote it. So then I thought, now that I've got the hang of writing encyclopedia-style I could create encyclopedia articles about all kinds of things. Although, the articles tend to be less about things and more about concepts like time, history, and progress.
SF!: So were you writing these for a particular book? You used them in
All Consuming Images and PR!.
Ewen: The Billboards of the Future were initially Xeroxed things that I'd hand out and send to people. Some of them got published in Pacifica newsletters and things like that.
SF!: Were you ever concerned about the form being misread? Ewen: On some level you want it to be misread. At first glance, you want them to think it's real, then, as they get into it, realize that it's not, that it's been turned upside down or inside out. I'd say this is true both in terms of my situationist/prankster activities and of my serious writings (which I've been trying to bring more together, there's not a clear division point). It's about looking at the familiar in unfamiliar ways. So whether you're writing a history of public relations or whether you're using the encyclopedia format, you want to create a context which people find familiar but where the arguments you're making sort of encourage them to see the familiar as if they're visiting from Mars. To see things about it that they might not normally see.
SF!: What else have you done like that?
Ewen: When John Lennon was killed I created a petition, a billboard using the petition format, to turn "Imagine" into the national anthem. I handed them out at the Central Park memorial and got millions of people responding. Some wrote and said, "How can you have a national anthem that calls for no countries?" No sense of irony, I guess.
SF!: Have you seen the [John Lennon] "Imagine" American Express commercial?
Ewen: That's unusual for someone your age. My kids and I discussed that ad and I was sort of saying what you were saying and they were like "where are you coming from? Everything is up for grabs. What about the Nike ads with women, "if you let her play . . ." I was having a discussion in my seminar about that and some of the women loved that ad; somehow they got serious about advertising.
SF!: Did you see the exhibit they had here about women and advertising?
God, I forget what it was called, but the whole downstairs was contemporary
"progressive" stuff and a bunch of them were Nike ads. I didn't realize until
later that the museum exhibit itself was cosponsored by Nike.
Ewen: A lot of what advertising is about is drawing illogical associations between things so even though those ads are interesting in the information they give out, they have absolutely nothing to do with the product, in this case Nike sneakers. But that's a whole 'nother story!
SF!: Yeah, you were talking about the ways you've played with forms.
Ewen: Two years ago we did this thing called Gravestones for Democracy where we took the whole street and turned it into a graveyard for democratic values. And then last year I sent out a call to artists to do Billboards for Democracy. The university where I teach is on the street so I managed to take over Hunter public space for what turned out to be over three weeks (much talk of the messy politics of getting it to happen). At the heart of the issue these projects raised is that who has a say in the public realm is dominated by commercial interests. It's the same issue that surrounds graffiti. When scotch companies put up posters in the subways, that's legitimate. But when kids from the Bronx decorate subways, that's vandalism. Unfortunately, we live in a moment when commercial messages are what's considered legitimate while noncommercial messages have less and less right to be seen and heard. The whole free speech issue in our society now surrounds the rights of corporations to advertise. Issues of ordinary folks having public expression is off to the side.
I've been writing books about the history of elite culture in the twentieth century: advertising, public relations, architecture, fashion, design, commercial image industries. And in my artistic practice I've been trying to do what a lot of people like yourself are doing, work on creative expression that isn't of that nature.
SF!: In PR!, when you talk about early practitioners of PR and how
they viewed the public as strictly reactive, as easily manipulated by the powers
at be, was there any mutual influence with mass culture critics at the time?
It seems like some of the Marxist critics who spoke out against mass culture
viewed the public in a similar way.
Ewen: Well, PR goes back a lot farther than that. But when you talk about the 30s and 40s, I don't think there are particularly direct connections between the two, but a lot of what, say, Frankfurt School critics were doing was drawing connections between American consciousness industries and German fascism. Most of them, certainly Adorno, didn't understand American culture very much. Adorno wrote some really stupid stuff about jazz and popular music. But they were aware that there were links between the goals of the American commercial persuasion industry and the propaganda apparatus that had become thoroughly toxic within Europe. And so they had begun to see within the buoyant culture of entertainment the possibility of what one writer later called friendly fascism. Those guys tend to be dismissed as being overly one-dimensional and that was a real insight. I think people have tipped over the other way. That's one of the issues that surrounding the writing of PR. I realized I was writing a book that is in a lot of ways out of synch with the way in which people like to talk about mass culture and popular culture these days. There's more of a tendency to talk about the diversity of voices, you know, postmodernism. I don't reject that. I certainly am aware of and participate in a multiplicity of viewpoints. But I didn't want to write about that. I think everyone's writing about resistance and no one's writing about power anymore. We do live in a world where public opinion is continually being managed and packaged. We do live in a world where the ownership of media apparatus is falling in the hands of fewer and fewer people, so to continually come out with this populist verbiage about how there are so many voices. Yeah, there are so many voices, but not all of them are being heard the same way.
SF!: Of course, if you say anything about that, you get accused of being
conspiratorial. Like the NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) objectives
you write about in PR!: the goal they had in the 30s, for example, to
link free enterprise with free speech. Whenever you say business plans stuff
like that, people say "oh, you're so conspiratorial," but I mean, it's all here.
Look at their objectives!
Ewen: Any student of history knows there are times when people get together. After all, there was a constitutional convention to overthrow the Articles of Confederation; a group of people getting together to get rid of one governmental structure and replace it with another. By abandoning the idea of conspiracy or viewing it as some kind of paranoid idea, people are throwing away a fundamental tool without which it's virtually impossible to understand human history. I mean, people don't just act like chemicals fomenting in a petri dish. There is volition, there is action, there is decision, there are decisions that are made by people in power. Now, if conspiratorial means that there's a master manipulator above the world pulling strings and we're all puppets, obviously that's not true.
We do live in a society where every ad you see on TV has behind it a group of people sitting around a table thinking "how are we going to get them to buy these adult diapers?" How are we going to sell this perfume? There are meetings, discussions, behind every ad there are touch-ups, producers. I actually find it astounding that the notion of conspiracy has become equated with paranoia.
SF!: It's all JFK's fault.
Ewen: Well, everybody knows they're continually targeted by persuasion managers and therefore there is a kind of folk culture of conspiracy which may have nothing to do with actual conspiracy, which just has to do with the sort of folk tales that people create living in a world where they know they're always being subjected to instrumental messages. Like take subliminal advertising. Whether there's sex written in the salt on a cracker, I don't know. All advertising is subliminal to some extent. Whether there is or isn't a skull in the liquor bottles, there's something about that story that's very appealing to people. The myths that people have speak something about the realities in which they live. There is a public relations industry, there's an advertising industry, marketing and merchandising and political consulting industries, the pentagon information office, there's also the financial industry where value is created out of thin air. The things that send stocks up and down have very little to do with economic elements; they often have to do with rumor and often with calculated rumor. What I've found doing the history of this culture is wherever you look, you find it.
SF!: It's interesting how everyone talks about focus groups now. It's become
a common reference point.
Ewen: People involved in advertising used to view human beings as reactive blobs of protoplasm; if you understood which stimuli to provide, they were expected to respond instantly. It was a very one-dimensional idea of the public. One of the things the sixties upheaval did to the marketing and PR industries was it told them that the relatively singular vision of who people are and what they could become was flawed, that it wasn't sophisticated enough. So in the late sixties, seventies and onward you have a much more anthropological approach to studying the public.
SF!: And that fits more in with the image stuff. Ads becoming less about the product and more about what's in people heads. Ewen: Yeah, but that goes far back. That really begins in the twenties. And as soon as people engaged in the persuasion business saw that appeals to emotion were more efficient than appeals to reason, you had a dramatic shift from a persuasion that was predicated on words to one based on images. Images work differently than words do. There's this guy, a neurologist Oliver Sacks and there's this story he writes about this guy named Virgil who's blind...
SF!: You wrote about this in the book.
Ewen: Yeah. Basically, the word is something that unfolds over time. It's not that propaganda can't be created through words--as it has and will be--but that the processing of written text is a deliberative process. People know that they're decoding letters. Images tend to speak very instantaneously. From the 20s onward, people involved in engineered persuasion view images as things that work very quickly and bypass reason. It's not like Walter Lippman thought that people were incapable of reason, he just felt that if you let people discuss everything, it's going to get in the way of leaders being able to make decisions. He felt you needed to develop techniques for assembling public support which avoid the problem of people talking about anything. And he, essentially, latched on to the use of symbols as tools of persuasion. And that's where we are now, with symbols as the basic finger knowledge of politics in our society today. But it was really discovered and articulated in the twenties. I think what happens later--in the period of the late 60s and a more sophisticated anthropological approach--is that people are understood not just as identical blobs but as certain kinds of cultural predispositions. Ethnic predispositions, ages, sexual orientation, and so forth all come into the formula in what euphemistically gets called lifestyle marketing, where the population gets broken down into subgroups and where the actual cultural realities of people are getting used as tools against them.
SF!: There was a story in American Demographics a couple months
ago about how marketers are turning away from quantitative research [hard statistics
and demographic data like age, geographic location, gender, etc.] and using
more and more qualitative research [in-depth, psychological information gleaned
from focus groups, surveys, and interviews]. Where do you see that fitting in?
Ewen: Whether you're talking about a politician or a war or a bar of soap, you want to be attuned to the intimate realities that people bring to decision making. Traditionally, there was this thing called the economy of scale, the idea that the more you produce of the same thing, the cheaper each item gets. Part of what lifestyle marketing did was take the market and break it down into particular product lines which are aimed at particular groups. Now with computers and databases, you're able to produce mass-customized products. So, although the economy of scale is still operating, it's making goods that appear to be aimed at the individual. There was actually a good editorial cartoon in yesterday's New York Times about the newspaper of the future which will be all about the people who are reading it.
SF!: I was joking about that with a friend of mine. Like in the future,
you'll see a TV commercial for some product, then go over to your grandmother's
and see the same product advertised but it'll be a totally different commercial.
Do you think consumers will adapt to all the target marketing?
Ewen: Actually, I think one of the most disturbing things about American society in the twentieth century is the way people have adopted the word consumer to identity themselves. I'm more comfortable with citizen or person, because consumer means your identity is tied to consuming. Consuming, beyond being passive or receptive rather than creative, is also very interconnected with environmental breakdowns. Part of what's being consumed are the earth's resources, the biosphere, ecosphere...
SF!: So how do you feel about mass customization? I find myself taking
stands against them just cos... well, it scares me that people would want to
read a newspaper that was engineered just for them.
Ewen: But people are caring less and less about each other and more and more about themselves. Our culture encourages that. All you need is to look at the welfare bill to see the extent to which society is willing to dispose of a few sectors of the population and not only feel guilt-free but actually self-righteous... You're a weirdo, you're not just someone who wants a newspaper customized for you, you've customized the newspaper for yourself. The real issue is not that the media shouldn't be connected to you, it's that it shouldn't be connected to you as a consumer relationship. The very fact that you started taking pieces of the culture . . . Stay Free! is from a Newport ad, right?
SF!: The cover of the last issue parodied a Newport ad, but it isn't always like that. The name is taken from the maxipads. Ewen: Well, you're someone who takes these things and makes it your own as opposed to this planned spontaneity, mass-produced individuality.
SF!: PR pitches itself as two-way--listening, responding, and working with
people--when actually it's much more one-way. You write about how new technologies
are pitched the same way, as being two-way when they're really one-way. Do you
see this happening with the internet?
Ewen: The internet right now is a still fairly chaotic place; there are a lot of different voices out there. It's a little like radio in the early days. In the early days, radio was a two-way tool. The idea that radio was just something that you listen to was an invention. The original radios were two-way and people used them that way; the first generation of radio listeners were also radio operators.
SF!: Did you see the article in The New York Times last week about
Pointcast? They're among the first companies to be making real money on the
internet and it's because they've adopting broadcasting from radio/tv. So, in
other words, it's one-way: them feeding ads to you.
Ewen: There's no question that the internet is increasingly a territory for consumption. I just talked with someone last week about how all these industries now are studying the pornography industry because pornography is the most successful business on the Internet.
SF!: Yeah, even a "family" company like AOL is making all their money off
porn. They censor bad words from their "legit" conferences or whatever and then
make all their money off smutty chat rooms... When you discuss things
other than PR that have been transforming public life over the course of the
twentieth century... well, like you talk about media consolidation, applied
psychology, public opinion measurement. All these have contributed to a growing
cynicism. How do you see cynicism fitting into that? Do think it contributes
to the problem?
Ewen: Yes, cynicism, by whatever name you call it, is about seeing things as they are and assuming that's all they can be. Sometimes that means that you're a cynical manipulator of the stock market and sometimes that means you're somebody who feels powerless.
SF!: So you don't see it as something potentially healthy? Like a protective
Ewen: I don't think being suspicious in and of itself is healthy. Being suspicious in and of itself drives you insane. Cynicism is an enemy of possibility. It's something I've had to think about a lot because, in teaching, unless you're also talking about the need to imagine other ways and to develop skills to make that imagination realizable, people just get depressed! Part of the reason I'm fairly optimistic is I fight back all the time. You know, it's important to see things as they are but it's also important to imagine things as they might be. And cynicism discourages that.
SF!: When I first started critiquing advertising, I hadn't learned how
to really determined for myself what was right and wrong about advertising.
It's sort of stupid to be like "advertising is bad," so I'd say "image advertising
is bad." Do you think it's somehow better or more responsible to discuss shoes
in an ad about shoes rather than, I dunno, "liberation."
Ewen: So you mean like talk about how shoes are made, that they fit on feet?
SF!: Yeah, I equate image advertising with stealth advertising. Ewen: Well, that's mainly what advertising is. The problem with the idea of a completely functional advertising is that no one uses products to be completely functional. I mean, who buys perfume to alter their smell?
SF!: Yeah, but wouldn't it be cool if it were like that? Then
products wouldn't be so, uh, magical...
Ewen: The biggest issue for me in the magicification of products is that there's all this magic in the message and no magic in the reality. The statues that the Mayan Indians made to celebrate the moon goddess had magic to them, but they were also really grounded in people's experiences. We live in a culture where people's imaginations are being colonized all the time and that's what's going on in the ads. The problem with the ads for blue jeans is not that there's sex in them--sex is great--it's just that the blue jeans will not deliver in the way that they promise. And virtually everything is being eroticized by the advertising industry. But I'd like to assume that in an emancipatory culture, there'd still be a concept of magic. How about you?
SF!: Sure, but that puts it back on the reader to say "oh, these jeans
aren't going to get me laid" or whatever. It requires everyone being literate...
and I don't see how you'd even begin to go about teaching people to think critically
about images if emotional appeals are more persuasive than rational ones.
Ewen: Well, one of the reasons they are more persuasive and more effective is there's nothing about our education that has ever taught us to look at this stuff critically. I don't view the power of images as something that's automatic. Images are images, an enormously wonderful way of communicating. Part of the reason it's so powerful is that our education system is so locked into a concept of literacy that was born in the nineteenth century. Learning how to read, write, and calculate numbers was extremely important is in the nineteenth century because those were the tools of power. We live in a society where added to those things is the ability to speak in a variety of other ways. Yet the educational system, in this country at least, is only at the most primitive level of starting to address media literacy. And most of what gets thought of as media literacy is totally wrong-headed.
SF!: How do you mean?
Ewen: It's taught by people who hate images and fear images, and therefore the concept of literacy is to inoculate kids against images. It's like teaching people to read just so that they'll be able to figure out the lies in the books they're reading. Now when you say it's hard to imagine what a new form of media literacy would be, I agree with you. We're at step one. My last book, All Consuming Images, is about looking at images as a social language. So I've been wrestling with it, but the reality is that the dictionary hasn't been written yet. A lot of the tools that have been developed, like semiotics and so, on are total bullshit. People learn how to speak those languages and don't learn how to look. If you read a lot of the garbage that's been written in the form of cultural analysis, it's very erudite and it says absolutely nothing.
SF!: If the answer is media literacy, though, aren't we sort of screwed?
Consuming and desiring aren't rational actions. And a lot of people don't decide
things rationally. My dad is a huge Rush Limbaugh fan and when you try to argue
with him about the facts, he'll listen, but nothing changes his belief that
"Rush is right." I gave him FAIR's Rush book for Xmas last year, which goes
through Rush's arguments point by point and refutes them but all he'd say was
it was boring. My mom's the same way. They often don't argue rationally.
Ewen: Well, I'm not saying media literacy is the sole answer. But I'm not so quick to discourage people's capability of reason. If people can't make critical sense of the world then we might as well give up. Unless our job then becomes one of finding more humane ways of manipulation, which I'm not in favor of.
SF!: What about taxing advertising? Don't you say something about that
at the end of your book?
Ewen: I don't talk about a tax on advertising, I talk about charging rent on use of the public sphere. One of the reasons commercial forces have so much influence is they get the broadcast spectrum. Those properties are extremely valuable; they provide an instant pipeline into everybody's home. And it's important for the public to start demanding rent on that. Then that rent can then go to support media which are noncommercial or educational... You can charges taxes for anything and part of what they're used for has a lot to do with the public demand. Unless we try to insure we have an informed and active public, then you can charge rents on the public sphere until the cows come home and they'll be used to buy garbage.
But another thing I want to point out about media literacy: being literate is not just being a critical reader, it's also taking the tools and using them, contributing to what's out there. If kids were encouraged to make media and communicate ideas from day one, the variety of stuff out there would explode, and people's concept of media would be less about "the media, they do this to me" and would be more participatory.
SF!: There's the strategy of sorta fighting fire with fire, like Adbusters.
Ewen: Adbusters has a good spirit but there's a kinda puritanism about them that bothers me.
SF!: What, like the antitobacco and the antidrinking?
Ewen: Not just that, they almost seem antipleasure.
SF!: I can see that. It seems like the left has a disdain for images and
symbols. You write a lot about FDR in PR!; do you think there have been
other great PR people on the left since then?
Ewen: Abbie Hoffman. Jean Kilbourne . . . It's out there but what you're asking is right. There is this tendency on the left to be stodgy. There have been moments of visual radicalism, whether you're talking about surrealism or dadaism or constructivism, but there's no question that there's also an extremely conservative tendency, which is why The Nation magazine, even after its makeover, is still pretty boring. Before its makeover, not only did it avoid using anything visual because they didn't want to pander, but they wouldn't even begin each issue with page one. Your issues start with page 224. I mean, what's that about?
SF!: The left is more critical of each other, too.
Ewen: Do you think of yourself as on the left?
SF!: Yeah, I do.
Ewen: Yeah, well, insofar as it's a continuum like "do you believe all people have a right to live" or "do you believe only you have a right to live"? The common good vs. the individual good. The reality is that you need both. If everyone's need is to completely accommodate to each other, you create fascism or Soviet communism. Certainly that brand of leftism never produced a culture that was particularly attractive to people. Soviet propaganda was nowhere near as successful as capitalist propaganda in the twentieth century. One of the damages done by Frankfurt-school politics was creating this elitism about popular culture which meant there was a distrust of the image. Not only did they cleave onto the word but they cleaved onto the word that was incomprehensible. That's the irony of the history of the left. Supposedly it's the politics to speak to all people and yet it has adopted forms which speak to almost no one.
SF!: People often think of PR as value neutral; it's "showing your best
side." And more and more even public interest organizations and charities use
it. This issue of the zine is actually going to focus on marketing to children
and one of the things we're talking about is how this perceived education crisis
is driving people to turn to alternatives that are pretty messed up. Everyone's
like, "Public education is bad."
Ewen: Well, the very idea that public education is bad is a part of the racism that has infused our society. Public institutions are now almost automatically associated with not just poor people but with people who aren't white. There was a time when the public was a much more inclusive idea, but we're living in a time now where the assumption is that if it has the word public before it, it's bad, it's demeaned, it's for people not like ourselves. It's very destructive because the idea of the public isn't about degradation, it's the idea that society exists for its people.
But, to get back to everyone being in PR, that's a problem because it means that everyone's involved in trying to engineer public perception and the real issue is to move toward a greater public dialogue. You need a public relations which are true relations with the public rather than a PR that is more about creating a mental scenery that will lead people toward this, that, or the other conclusion. And a lot of the "charitable PR" is PR which is using the same techniques, which is making the same assumptions about who and what the public is. And in some ways that's the tragedy of our time, it's a situation where real, meaningful public dialogue is something few people can imagine.
SF!: Maybe it's just me, but it seems like PR is helping create some really
ridiculous charities. Like Artists for a Hate-Free America.
Ewen: We've regressed to being a society whose concept of the world is predicated on good and evil. Social conditions are less and less looked at. There was a period of time not long ago where if you looked at violence or you looked at hatred, the assumption was that there were circumstances that led to that and that if you could address those circumstances, you might be able to ameliorate the situation. But that's a concept that requires a commitment to social action. When you abandon those ideas, it becomes more common to look at criminal behavior as behavior of people who are intrinsically evil. Once you move into a world of good and evil, then you start creating social movements on behalf of either good or evil.
SF!: I wanted to ask you too about the Socially Responsible Business movement. How do you view that in relation to the post-WWII movement to equate business with responsibility? Ewen: One way of looking at it is as one more piece of packaging. Another is that there are people in business who say that if all you do is pursue the bottom line, then you're going to create a lot of human wreckage.
SF!: Yeah, but at the same time they'll take issues like the environment
or diversity or whatever and promote them by arguing
that they benefit the bottom line.
Ewen: Well, that's because the market has become so pervasive. People can't imagine a world that isn't market driven, so that's the only argument that's successful. I mean, this is what's so fucked up about our world: if something isn't profitable, it doesn't deserve to exist. There are certain things which need to exist which may not be profitable. Education, health care, should not be driven by profitability.
As long as communism was around, no matter how bankrupt it was, there was this idea that capitalism wasn't the only system that people could possibly live by. The entire world is now on this railroad toward progress, it's Darwinian, and it's completely driven by market forces. In order to even get a listen, whether you're working in a business or in a school, the main thing people want to hear is what the financial benefits will be. And the funding of education and the de-funding of education encourages people to think that way. So it's not just that people have lost their imagination, but that the very way social resources are being used forces people to conceptualize every goal in the terms of cost-benefit analysis. All I'm saying is there may be people in business who actually have social concerns but now even those social concerns have to be couched in those terms because no one listens otherwise.
SF!: Have you ever noticed how fluffy some business-to-business advertising
is? Some of it's more superficial than consumer advertising.
Ewen: The profits are greater. There's more at stake.
SF!: But it seems like business people would be able to cut through the
crap more than other readers.
Ewen: There's a great ad of Fonzy riding around in the Popemobile in St. Peter's Cathedral. Is that what you mean by fluff?
SF!: Well, not exactly. What I mean is how magazines like Forbes or Fortune tend to have more advertorial sections, fake editorials. Ewen: Part of the fluff is that everyone needs to be attracted. The thing that's usually being sold in business-to-business advertising is cash. If you put stuff on Nick at Nite, you'll make money. Advertising to consumers is primarily about the spiritual benefits that the purchase will get you. That's the primary distinction, I wouldn't get hung up on the form. Very few ads directed at consumers promise wealth.
SF!: Going back to what you were saying about images versus text. It seems
like there's more concern over censoring images and music than text. Like Wal-mart
censors music and cover art, but you can't really imagine Barnes & Noble
or whoever getting away with that with books now.
Ewen: Patterns of censorship are tied to the media that the censors believe are most dangerous to the status quo they're trying to protect. No one today is worried about kids reading Catcher in the Rye; they're worried about gangsta rap or child pornography or whatever. It has to do with where we're at. The image is the primary currency of our society right now. It's the way you succeed, the way you menace other people.
Also, you're dealing with a population whose first sexual experiences were experiences with images, with pictures, films, etc. The way libidinal energies are stirred initially--that's something that touches people very deeply and therefore that kind of stuff seems really dangerous. Similarly with music: music is something that is perceived as very visceral and it is. It's very bodily . . . you're blushing!
SF!: My face turns red a lot.
Ewen: You're right, those areas which seem to be most watched and censored are those that are visual and auditory. But it's not as if the word has never been censored.
When I was in my early twenties, there was a book published here by a Catholic press designed to introduce children to sexuality. It was filled with artfully produced pictures of children touching themselves, touching each other, little boys with erections, etc. It was considered to be a book you could look at it with your children, it was considered progressive, not sleazy. Today if you had such a book in your house, the karma police would break in. There's so much anxiety about the sexual lives of children that we have these cases of sexual harassment of a five-year-old girl and boy.
It's a repressive environment right now. That goes back to the problem of the advertising culture and that is that the advertising culture is filled with the promise of pleasure and this kind of eroticism, and in just about every other arena of life the taboo has sort of taken over. So where are we?