Issue 7 Failure Summer 2002
Mm, Mm, Good: Marketing and Regression in Aesthetic Taste
In the week following September 11, a portentous apparition appeared on the campus of the liberal arts college where I teach. A hugely fat man dressed as a tin of Campbell’s soup greeted shell-shocked students and faculty on their way to the cafeteria. The red-and-white blimp was imprisoned in a tight costume splattered with his employer’s logo. He sweated under a carnivalesque mask that twisted his once-human features into a hideous, mocking grimace. His polyester uniform must have been a torment in the late-summer sun, but at first he bore the curses, taunts, and gibes of passers-by with something approaching good humor. As the afternoon wore on, though, his demeanor began to turn ugly. The winsome advertising slogans he sung degenerated into sullen mutterings, eventually shading into outright threats. The cheery smile with which he greeted the co-eds mutated into an aggressively salacious leer. Perhaps his gloved hands slipped; in any case one girl responded to his attentions with a sharp kick to the shin. Finally, as a group of simian fratboys began to circle him with violent intent, he slunk grumpily off into the sunset.
This monster’s visitation caused considerable consternation around the university, some of whose denizens were recently bereaved. I was one of those who complained about him to the manager of the “food court.” The response I received was quizzical, uncomprehending. Was the Campbell’s freak in questionable taste, a stunt better inflicted on a less distraught community? On the contrary, he had been summoned precisely because of the disaster, for the purpose of “cheering people up.” The representatives of the corporation that now controls our “dining services” simply could not understand why anyone should find this clownish spectacle unamusing. Commercial aesthetics, I came to realize, were regarded by these folk as unequivocally uplifting, and the thought that people numb with the shock of recent disaster should be anything but delighted by this ghoul had simply not crossed their minds.
In retrospect, it was probably naive to cause a fuss. The hapless soup-man was merely a local eruption of the general plague of marketing, packaging, and mind-control currently raging through the college campuses of the Western world. Naomi Klein describes this phenomenon in devastating detail in her book No Logo, but her protests are already buried beneath the billboards. The university cafeteria is now a shopping mall, where Starbucks and Burger King lord it over consumers. Where, the campus shop once provided good, cheap, homemade sandwiches, the students must now purchase an Asian atom-bomb of MSG from an outlet labeled, with presumably unconscious Hitlerian overtones, “Mein Bowl.” An enormous wall is being constructed at the edge of campus, with the dual purpose of housing The Gap and sealing off the university from the impoverished Puerto Rican neighborhood in which it is marooned. Needless to say, the bookstore has been taken over by Barnes & Noble.
We may ask ourselves: Well, how did we get here? The answer we will be given is that we wanted it this way. For a while, it was my habit to question the authorities whenever a new piece of capitalist propaganda defaced my working environment. Why, I used to say, are you doing this to us? The response never varied. A survey had been done, a poll taken, a study commissioned. The results had proved—proved—beyond all reasonable doubt that students desired, demanded, could not possibly live without, the comforting presence of multinational corporations. To object that Burger King is a purveyor of poison, or that Nike trainers are manufactured by six year-old slaves, would have been viewed as not merely unscientific, but actually undemocratic. In one of many forlorn and futile discussions with the campus decision-makers, I tried to explain that part of my job as an educator was to teach my students to think critically about the ideological structures upon which commercial advertising is built, and that having human tins of soup rampaging across campus tended to undermine my work. I was politely informed that while there was no desire to denigrate “your philosophy,” it was an incontrovertible and empirically tested fact that students took pleasure and succor from living in a brashly commercial, logo-soaked environment. This ambience, outside of which students would, I was assured, flounder like dying fish, was frequently said to generate a “branded feel.”
Obviously, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy, but the more I considered this ostensibly unlikely proposition, the more I found it to be true. Adolescents away from home for the first time probably do find it reassuring to be surrounded by the familiar signs and symbols, logos and brands, which gratified their desires as children. Why wouldn’t they? The “branded feel,” after all, is hardly confined to university campuses. I suppose that the traditional pedagogical mission of such institutions may once have protected students from what my colleagues in the Business College refer to as “the real world” for an unnaturally long time. When businesspeople talk of the “real world,” of course, they mean they world of money—that is, of imaginary value—and the phantasmogoric, hallucinatory techniques of advertising and entertainment that are necessary to induce consumption. Today, however, this hyper-real dimension can no longer be distinguished from the empirical world. The unreal has become real, and what we once thought of as the real world lying beneath the veneer of representation has been consigned to the unimaginably distant and exotic other country of the past, where they do things differently.
Soup is one thing, books are another. Being forced to eat Burger King and Campbell’s will not kill me—alright, it will, but probably not for a couple of decades—but I did think we could draw the line at the bookstore. When Barnes & Noble took over, they naturally revised the inventory so as to eliminate those books that appealed only to the tastes of a minority. The travel section, for example, shed its guides to backpacking in Africa and the Andes, directing customers instead to toney restaurants in London and Paris, or all-inclusive Caribbean resorts deemed suitable for secure Spring Breaks. In general, books that were obscure or idiosyncratic disappeared from the shelves. This seemed a pity to me, so I wrote in protest to the new manager. Her reply was disarmingly frank:I do not understand why this is a bad thing. We only have so much room in the store so why would I want to fill it with items that students/faculty/staff do not want? The goal of any business is to have what people want when they want it. Paralleling this to your profession: if a minimum enrollment for a course is not achieved it would be rare to never that a course would run (except as independent study?). In other words the course (product) that no one, or almost no one, wants is removed from the shelves (registrar list) and new products (courses) replace them in future semesters. Why offer a course that no one is interested in taking (paying tuition)? Why offer products that no one is interested in buying?
We find here the extension of the supply-and-demand ethos of neoclassical economics into the life of the mind. People are regarded as “customers,” not only when they go shopping in a mundanely literal sense, but also when they figuratively “shop” for the “products” of knowledge. Students choose their courses on the basis of cost-benefit analyses: how many hours of work will be required to achieve an A, and how much will this grade add to one’s starting bonus. Professors have grown accustomed to student complaints that, having put in the requisite amount of study-time, they have not been rewarded by adequate final grades. Office hours at the end of the semester are filled with a haggling and a wheedling that would not disgrace the Cairo souk. Intellectual trends confirm and support students’ self-image as consumers: according to the popular philosophy of “rational choice theory,” the principle of the maximization of marginal utility can, and should, apply to every field of human endeavor, up to and including romantic love, artistic creation, and education.
Appalled but intrigued, I wrote another letter asking how the Barnes & Noble takeover had influenced the day-to-day running of the bookstore. The manager once again responded with commendable honesty: “The biggest way B&N influences our daily lives is their customer service requirements… B&N has never lost a contract due to customer service… We have a motto we must follow: ‘Of course we can.’”
This “service” mentality is closely analogous to prostitution. Other forms of servility, such as those found in feudal societies, are manifested in the interactions of individuals performing clearly defined and mutually understood social roles. But in the world of “customer service,” servility is mediated through the medium of money. It involves an abject debasement at the feet of the “customer,” the need to “serve” him in any way possible, combined with absolute, intransigent, and—yes—principled insistence on the financial nature of the transaction. One hundred and fifty years ago, Marx pointed out that capitalism reduces all of us to whoredom. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 he observes that: “Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker, and since prostitution is a relationship which includes not only the prostituted but also the prostitutor—whose infamy is even greater—the capitalist is also included in this category.” In the 19th century, this “prostitution of the worker” was at least limited to the workplace. In the endless market of postmodernity, however, allurement, seduction, and enticement for monetary gain achieve the status of an ethical code, a morality to live by.
One way of illustrating the transition from the modernist to the postmodernist sensibility is to compare Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Both concern a middle-aged man, educated in the great tradition of European high culture, who is destroyed by his fetishistic fascination for a brainlessly beautiful child. But 40 years, a continent, and an entire aesthetic epoch lie between them. In Mann’s novella, the desire of the artist Aschenbach for the boy Tadzio has a heroic, self-sacrificing purity. It symbolizes the ancient attraction of Apollo for Dionysus, the lure that the erotic has always held for the intellectual. In Nabokov’s book, Humbert Humbert’s lechery is dirty, disgraceful, sick. The reason is not the age of the lust-object (Tadzio is barely older than Lolita), but its nature. Aschenbach’s boy is silent, enigmatic, distant, European. Humbert’s girl attracts him for the opposite reasons—it is her vulgarity, her brazenness, her venality, her American-ness that enslave him. In a word, Humbert is captivated by Lolita’s commercialism. He loves her preoccupations with movie stars and jukeboxes, comic books and bubble gum, motel rooms and Levi’s jeans. He loves her “branded feel.” We see it in the exquisite, melancholy poem he writes for her: “Where are you riding, Dolores Haze? / What make is the magic carpet? / Is a Cream Cougar the present craze...?”
Between 1912, the apex of high modernism when Mann wrote Death in Venice, and 1955, when Lolita appeared, the aesthetic sensibility of the Western world was changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty was born from the shotgun marriage of aesthetics and commerce. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank takes issue with the myth that the post-war “counterculture” was an oppositional or liberatory force. He points out that the revolution in taste and lifestyle celebrated by the baby-boom generation was accompanied—and even directed—by analogous revolutions in advertising and marketing. Capital learned to embrace aesthetic and even political rebellion: “the Revolutionaries are on CBS.” In fact, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” represents the moment when image replaced substance in music, and when youth seized the social and cultural prerogatives which once belonged to age. Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” a simple reproduction of two identical photographs of the King, announces the demise of the Platonic ideal from of beauty, which resided above all in uniqueness. The age of mechanical reproduction despises uniqueness, which it destroys as certainly and effectively as mass-produced hamburgers drive homemade sandwiches from college lunch counters.
To protest against the corporatization of campus is thus to tilt at windmills. But we should not be so innocent as to imagine that commerce is devoid of aesthetics, or of ethics. Although I am mercifully free of his unsalubrious sexuality, I could not but sympathize with Humbert’s poshlust (the wonderfully evocative Russian word that Nabokov translates as “attraction to the false”) when I received a written response to my recriminations from the “food court” manager, a nice lad who looks young enough to date Lolita. It is, I have come to think, very beautiful.Dear David Hawkes, I appreciate the time you spent in conveying this concern. Feedback to myself is imperative so we can make sound business decisions to improve our patron’s experience. In regards your soup question, the price of soup in the Food Court hasn’t be raised in the past 3 years. Whether or not we went with Campbell’s or the home made the price was going to be inflated either way to accommodate rising costs in the business. We introduced the Campbell’s program during the winter break last year and response from facility and staff was positive. The Campbell’s program offers consistency, name brand recognition, and also the fact that we could offer soup through all meal periods. In the past, we would rely on the board plan for distributing soup to the Food Court. If they had a busy lunch or dinner often the Food Court would have no soup to offer our dinner customers. With the Campbell’s being prepared fresh on our floor we would be able to offer soup at anytime to appease all of our customers. As far as pricing we compared our price to the local McDonald’s and they're offering a 12 ounce Campbell's soup for $1.69. I’m sure if you checked other local retail operations you would find our selling price for soup is very competitive to the local market. Again, we didn’t raise the price for 3 years. In two weeks we will be running a special promotion for our regular soup customers. We will be issuing Cards that the cashier will stamp after every soup purchase. After 5 punches our customer’s will receive a free Campbell’s soup mug and a re-fill price of $1.49 for the entire semester. I hope this answered your questions. Again, thank you for your concern and your patronage at the Food Court.
Professors of literature are in no position to mock the commercial aesthetic, which emphatically drives home its hegemony on a daily, nay hourly, basis. Perhaps the advocates of canonical art need to learn, like Humbert Humbert, to appreciate the beauty of the banal. Kant claimed that the experience of the sublime sprang from contemplation of the uncreated, of the natural, which he opposed to the idolatrous adoration of the Biblical “works of men’s hands.” He was wrong. In the 21st century, the sublime is produced by the seamless merger of aesthetics with the market, of desire with prostitution, of artwork with product. I’m off to claim my free cup of Campbell’s.
David Hawkes teaches at a university in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Ideology (Routledge, 1996) and Idols of the Marketplace (Palgrave, 2001), and his work has recently appeared in the Nation, the Times Literary Supplement and the Journal of the History of Ideas.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine