Buy one, get one free: On capitalist propaganda

June 2018 BillboardBy ANDY BARNS

The more pervasive and unchallenged propaganda is, the more effective it becomes. As a salesman by trade, I handle a lot of promotional materials for the products we sell at my workplace (booklets and product samples). These range from decking, to fasteners, all the way to kitchen faucets. I have a front-row seat to the construction industry’s view of itself. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on one example: door slabs.

In one of our slots is a thick booklet from the creators of Masonite® Doors. The front cover features a woman walking through a door and beaming. The slab itself is prominently displayed in all its cleanness, beauty, and glory. On the next page, we see the image of a father joyfully watching his two daughters run off to soccer practice. He is standing in a doorway with a wood-grain texture Masonite® Door. The front of the house is pristine, clearly amplified by the gorgeous door.

After a few pages touting the long list of benefits (one of the slogans we are taught to memorize at my workplace: “lead the customer to the benefits!”) we have a photograph of a family enjoying a meal in the dining room, all facing the camera and laughing! Spotless kitchen, gourmet meal—and behind them, a perfect door. That Oxford Style Masonite® Door behind them sure helped bring joy to this family!

The message is clear: “Buy our product, and you will find joy.” This message rings everywhere in capitalist society. You cannot escape. It calls to us on the roads, sings to us during our broadcasts, and is even present on the pump handles at gas stations.

As a social system, capitalism has been running the longest, most successful propaganda campaign in human history. In our time, we refer to this as “advertising.” Necessarily, capitalist propaganda goes beyond advertising into the news media, TV shows, and from public officials themselves (who are often capitalists or former capitalists). But the vast bulk of this propaganda, and the heart of its focus, lies in advertising.

Advertising is the all-pervasive and unchallenged propaganda of our time. It has fulfilled its task well, for most workers do not see it as propaganda.

What makes it propaganda?

Some skeptical minds will remain suspicious. “Propaganda,” they might say, “is a tool used by malicious governments to trick their populations. Individual corporations trying to make their way in the market are not producing propaganda.”

Yes, history shows malicious governments having used propaganda to manipulate their populations. But to claim that this is propaganda in its entirety, is false.

Properly understood, propaganda is a widely applied message, meant to frame a particular narrative (what is the story of our time?) and push an agenda (what should we do in our time?). Propaganda is inherently biased.

Governments have used propaganda to push narratives and agendas, this is undeniable. But they do not have a monopoly on propaganda. Example: FOX, CNN, Brietbart, etc. These are outlets that push through narratives with particular policy aims. These are not governments, though they often have close ties with government officials. Controlled or funded by capitalist institutions and individuals, they frame all issues on capital’s terms (pro-market, pro-business, etc.).

These outlets are controlled by the owners of economic property in the interest of protecting that property from the many. They have an agenda (often attempts to get the working class to fight itself, or to justify the newest war) and will use narratives to push that agenda (oftentimes using racism, i.e. “immigrants cause all problems,” or painting a non-cooperative sovereign state as inherently irrational).

The socialist movement also uses propaganda. We have a narrative and we have an agenda—the narrative of working-class struggle and the agenda of working-class revolution. We are biased towards the needs and aims of the working class (and all who are oppressed by capitalist accumulation and the state violence that serves it). Since the working class is the audience of our message, we don’t hide our aims from them.

Ads as propaganda

If we understand propaganda in this way, then we can see that the endless barrage of advertisements we experience incessantly is the propaganda of a ruling capitalist class against a ruled working class. The narrative? “Our product(s) are amazing!” The agenda? To promote their commodity: “Buy this thing and be happy/cool/upgraded.”

This is all in the service of the private profit of the owners of corporations. If the stockholder, CEO, or business owner can get millions of people to obediently go to work and then take their money to the mall, then they make moolah like kings. The capitalist system of commodity production, and profit for a few, sustains itself.

Advertisements are a deep layer of illusion that hides the real source of workers’ struggles behind a wall of gloss and glamour. It pretends that the workers can solve their problems by consuming a product.

This layer is buttressed by a web of media organizations, owned by capitalists, who report the news on current events in a way that reflects positively on the entire for-profit system, as well as calling on “experts” favorable to capital’s interests.

An advertisement not only has the intent of opening your wallet, but it also has the unspoken effect of singing the praises of a system ruled by property owners, though actually run by the mass of working people. Work hard, consume, and don’t question the boss! Such is the mantra ever repeated from the capitalist class to the working class, in an endless barrage of noise from every screen and on every surface in every store. And on the wall at my own workplace.

They don’t have to say it outright, but it is implied. You can’t, after all, get that new razor blade or video game without first selling your labor to a capitalist.

The absurd waste of advertising

One 30-second Superbowl ad can cost millions of dollars. Somehow though, caring for our sick is too much of a financial burden in the United States. Behold the efficiency of the free market—where countless hours of labor, watts of electricity, pounds of steel, and land space is devoted to reminding highway drivers that Sheetz has over 100 drink flavors.

Moreover, advertisements take up the resource of time. Millions of hours of your time, fellow workers, are gone. Where did it go? Into every commercial break and YouTube ad. Hours and hours—gone! That was part of our free time, the time supposedly meant for R ’n R, but is used instead to tell us to buy more things.

At my own workplace the waste is just silly. Every year we get updated catalogs of product lines for doors from two different brands. Generally speaking, the old ones are either kept in storage and collect dust, or they get thrown in the garbage. We also get multiple samples of trim and composite decking. What are we to do with the old ones?

Furthermore, we have multiple product lines with two or more companies competing to sell essentially the same product (Trex vs. Moisture Shield, GAF vs Owens Corning, etc.) Each makes its own promotional materials and has entire departments of workers dedicated to these projects. That is money, man-hours, time, ink, and fuel for transportation of the materials.

It should be remembered that the thousands of workers who toil on, draw, animate, print, mail, and construct these advertisements across the globe are also exploited for their labor, just like every other worker (given a wage that sustains them, while the capitalist retains the fruits of their extra work as profit—what Karl Marx called “surplus-value”).

The insanity of it all is that we as a species have the productive powers to make everything we need to live healthy and free lives with a minimum of work required. Instead workers are pitted against each other in the needless delivery of crap, as part and parcel of the capitalist process of commodity production, as well as a culture that encourages workers to see others as the enemy (the sales guy at Lowe’s is competing against the sales woman at Home Depot; the delivery driver for 84 Lumber must get to the job on time to stay competitive with the driver from Lezzer Lumber). So much human effort is absolutely wasted in this needless competition.

Clicks in the service of profit

Advertising gets weirder when capitalists use big data, and marketing, in the age of the internet. George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” it turns out, is just Google’s marketing department.

Information technology corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon use algorithms and immense amounts of collected data about your browsing and “liking” habits, and will then use this information to target ads specifically catered to you. Yes, you. Thanks to Facebook and other websites, they know your name and they probably also know what you like and don’t like.

The implications when we consider politics are chilling. For example: Ever wonder why people seem to live in their own bubbles, becoming ever more hostile and getting ever more opposed views on the world? Political ads targeted to particular audiences (carefully monitored and studied by teams of in-house corporate sociologists) are one reason why. Algorithms that drive clicks for that sweet ad revenue, rather than expand our minds, are why. Fake news? That’s money.

The business model is this: the selling of an audience to advertisers, i.e. a capitalist (Mark Zuckerburg) providing a service to other capitalists (Ubisoft, Toyota, etc) in the form of workers who will, after a long, tired day of working, want to sit back and scroll on their feed. In other words, willing eyes.

Such services are also rendered to political representatives and their opponents in elections. This sniper propaganda has been very profitable for the likes of Zuckerburg, who also happens to be one of the eight men who, collectively, control the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest of us. Keep this in mind when recalling that the U.S. Congress voted to allow internet service providers to sell your browsing information to the highest bidder. It should make people question whom the U.S. government really serves.

Mind you, there is no technological reason why the internet has to be designed like this. The internet is not an innate Big Brother machine. It is not necessary to track users information for advertising purposes, and then waste screen space on advertisements. The internet is just computers talking to each other. Nobody needs to be listening in.

“Big Brother” as we have come to know it, exists because the internet was created under a capitalist system. Necessarily, as it grows, the for-profit, class-dominated system will shape it just like any new government, agency, or colony will be shaped by it. It will be used by the ruling capitalist class for their purposes.

What would happen under socialism?

For starters, the tens of thousands of workers who are trained to be predators of their fellow human beings at the behest of capitalists (i.e., salesmen and marketers like myself) could find something better to do with their time. The amount of labor that could be saved by the elimination of advertising in our daily lives would go a long way towards reducing working times in all other industries, by the rational redistribution of work based on human need, not profitability.

Furthermore, your bandwidth would be freed. I can guarantee you that with a planned internet that provides the service to citizens as a right-to-information, your internet speeds will explode. No more NSA collecting porn data. No more double-click monitoring your Google searches for advertising. No more animated ads for crappy games you don’t want.

The barrage of advertisements that envelop our lives, from dawn to dusk, are a symptom of a larger problem: an economic system in which a tiny few who own massive property have unilateral control of investment decisions and their employees. In market warfare with each other, they not only waste human potential, but push out what they consider the story of our time: “Buy something, and sate your desires.” All for the benefit of who happens to own productive property.

We can express ourselves differently and more deeply. We can fill our world and our minds with thoughts that ultimately matter to our existence as fragile human beings, rather than the existence of capital. Let us construct a new narrative—not one that pushes commodities but one that upholds human existence as worth living on its own terms.

Advertisements don’t need to exist, and I look forward, with great joy, to the day we all recognize this fact.