We, the target audience
When did America become a marketing proposition?
CAMOUFLAGE IS NOT the same thing as invisibility, which was too bad for the Army football team in the Army-Navy game earlier this month. The West Point cadets took the field in new uniforms designed by
Navy romped to victory, 34-0. It was Army's seventh consecutive loss to its archrival. But this was the first time the team had looked like a bunch of ninnies.
The uniforms were not just ugly (though they were very ugly); they were confusing. When the San Diego Padres occasionally wear camouflage baseball uniforms, it's goofy-looking, but it makes sense as a tribute to the military in a military town. To whom was the Army team's fake combat gear supposed to be a tribute? Themselves?
It wasn't the players' fault. Part of their job is to wear what they're told. They will be wearing camouflage helmets in earnest soon enough, and real boots on dangerous ground. Yet Nike and the West Point athletic department thought it would be fun to play dress-up with future Army officers, as if they were kids playing armyman, and to plaster them with slogans.
Nothing is off-limits from the dumb hard sell anymore - even things that aren't identifiably for sale. The long-lamented creep of commercialization has now crawled outside the bounds of commerce entirely, till real experiences and events have become promotional versions of themselves.
When public and governmental institutions are the ones doing the marketing, it's especially unsettling. The word for the government's marketing of its own efforts is propaganda. Everyone knows why propaganda is a bad thing, but alongside the familiar evils of the form - coercion, deceit, unaccountability - there is the simple estrangement that comes from treating citizens as consumers. Why is this bluster and flash being used to sell us our own country?
This salesman's combination of insecurity and insincerity, the sense of trying too hard, crops up everywhere. The pages of new United States passports now present a series of schoolhouse-patriotic images tinted pink and blue: snow-capped Rockies, a toiling frontiersman, a soaring eagle, amber grain, roaming buffalo. Along the top of each picture is a quote celebrating American exceptionalism or imparting a civics lesson:
"This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities."
- Theodore Roosevelt
"This nation has a banner . . . it is the banner of Dawn. It means Liberty . . . Every color means liberty, every thread means liberty."
- Henry Ward Beecher
"Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people."
- Harry Emerson Fosdick
On the old passport, these spaces were content to say "Entries" and "Departures," in three languages. That seemed to be a reasonable approach, given that the people who would be reading the passport were border guards. Did the officer who stamped an entry into the People's Republic of China really care or want to be told that the preamble to our Declaration of Independence says people are "endowed by their Creator" with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? The part in between about "inalienable rights" had already had the Chinese visa pasted over it.
Gradually, in fact, foreign agents and their visas have been turning the inspirational Americanisms in my passport into a chopped word salad: "morning for our country". . . "the country together" . . . "The God who gave us life." But who cares about meaning, as long as there's the appearance of meaningfulness? "E pluribus unum," says the lettering on the bottom of each of the 50 different state quarters. Next year, with D.C. and the territories, we'll be up to 56 separate varieties of 25-cent currency - our national identity as expressed through the fancies of state promotional committees.
We Americans not only have lighthouses, by way of Maine, but mustangs and more bison and a cattle skull, from our Western delegations. And mountains and soaring eagles and frontiersmen. And a sad ongoing little feud between Ohio and North Carolina about ownership of the Wright Brothers' airplane.
It's impossible to pick out the stray Canadian quarters anymore before you feed them into the washing machine, but at least the Mint is amusing itself. And have you seen the new series of presidential dollar coins? You haven't? Like everyone else, you despise dollar coins, don't use them, and pay them no attention? Well, they're almost up to William Henry Harrison.
All the new coins, the pictures in your passport, the football uniforms with words on them are more than an aesthetic problem. The language and philosophy of the sales pitch demand to be either accepted or rejected. Very well: Were duty and honor less valuable before, because West Point cadets didn't advertise them between their shoulder blades? Or is the current generation only embracing honor as a branding strategy?
At its most cynical and corrosive, this is the spirit that gave us the "Mission Accomplished" banner and the president in his fighter-pilot outfit. The anger that followed from that stunt was something more than partisan outrage - it was fury at the slogan itself, at the notion that the whole contentious subject of Iraq could have been boiled down to two words, like it or lump it. The only available comeback was "Mission Not Accomplished!," which didn't exactly do justice to the issues at stake either. The commander in chief (a term that has crowded out the civilian "president," in another tic of branding-speak) was accused of impersonating Tom Cruise from "Top Gun"; what people really sensed was that he was channeling Joe Isuzu.
The essence of advertising is distrust. This election year, Obama partisans could buy posters by the artist Shepard Fairey. Fairey built his career on playing games with propaganda: stickers and posters, illegally attached to buildings, issuing the vague and ominous command to "OBEY," accompanied by Soviet-style artwork - stern orders from a nonexistent authority. So when Fairey turned his over-heroic style to Obama, an actual candidate for an actual position of power, squaresville Republicans took the imagery as proof that a Stalinist personality cult was sweeping America. Perhaps all 69 million people who voted for Obama got the nuances of the conceptual joke - that the blunt authoritarian style would signal to a marketing-jaded observer that the poster wasn't selling the Obama-product in earnest. (Meaning, in this context, that it was therefore actually earnest.) At any rate, he got elected.
What's being lost is the power of understatement, the idea that some things don't have to be sold because they belong to us already. The traditional look of the Army-Navy game was deliberately plain - black and gold against blue and gold, with blank gold helmets on both sides of the line. For extra distinction, Army's helmets had a black stripe. To Nike and the marketeers, it must have all looked like bare ad space. The uniforms were so unassertive, they almost made it look as if the two separate teams in the clash, the Army and the Navy ones, were ultimately on the same side.
Tom Scocca is a writer in Beijing.