Just because we can choose from the menu presented to us does not mean we are free. Especially if we cannot choose what is on that menu.
Philosophers have long grappled with ideas of freedom, free will, causality, individual sovereignty and the like. In fact these discussions are so involved, subtle and broad that anyone taking even a brief look at some of this material comes away with the disturbed conviction that present political discussions of the concept are made by people who don’t really know what they are talking about.
To focus upon one subregion of this large philosophical continent, it has been established that freedom can’t really be discussed fruitfully without reference to power, nor to its opposite – servitude.
Especially that powerful servitude in which we are trained to enslave ourselves.
John Stuart Mill added a very potent argument to previous discussions when he spent much of his “On Liberty” discussing the possibilities of self-servitude. This was, I believe, a brilliant analysis of the ways in which we internalize our cultural memes and thereby censor our own liberty.
Entering a large warehouse store is a disorienting experience; crowds of shoppers pushing carts among an infinity of choices. This shopping would, to many, be the paragon of freedom. But there’s something deeply disturbing about this freedom. Interactions between shoppers are usually impersonal and anonymous. Few greet each other, even as they face off down the aisle; either one or the other will give the cue and push their cart to either the right or the left and pass without greeting or acknowledgement.
In the midst of this strange atmosphere of crowded non-community let us pause before the sodas and consider the choice between Coke and Pepsi. Douglas Atkin, in The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers says
Today’s most successful brands don’t just provide marks of distinction (identity) for products. Cult brands are beliefs. They have morals – embody values. Cult brands stand up for things. They work hard; fight for what is right… Brands function as complete meaning systemsOur freedom to choose between two almost identical, harmful to both our bodies and the environment, differently labeled cans of flavored soda-water has evolved into something that can’t really be honestly called freedom. And it doesn’t become freedom by being expanded to hundreds of varieties of the same basic flavored soda water. It is a choice between brands.
This is an empty caricature of freedom which denies the underlying sameness of the items on the menu. It is a choice between empty words.
Empty as they may be these words are valuable commodities in themselves. In brand rankings Coke tops the list. The words “Coca-Cola” and “Coke” have been valued at more than $67,000,000,000. Just the words. Not any actual syrups, or bottling plants or cans on shelves.
Choosing an image is choosing something. But it is a choice with very little individual sovereignty in it. If the choice were available to me I would choose to not waste the resources of the planet on such empty meaningless things and have soda manufacturers be tasked with job of providing adequate drinking water for the more than a billion on the planet who need it.
But this choice is not on my menu. The choice to use 60% of the earth’s resources in creating products to market to the 11% of the world’s population who can afford to buy them is not a choice I assented to. And the other 89% of humanity doesn’t matter a whit in these considerations to those who put together this menu.
When President George H.W. Bush attended the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 he made a very revealing and direct statement about our country’s participation in global environmental issues. He said :
The American lifestyle is non-negotiable.It was a powerful statement. Made more powerful by being backed up by the most powerful military force in the world. That powerful military had, the year before, forcefully ejected Saddam Hussein from the oifields of Kuwait and destroyed his army. It was clear that, since our non-negotiable lifestyle depended upon oil, we were going to use our military to protect our freedoms - many of which required burning lots of oil – even if that involved breaking things and killing people in other countries.
One of the political issues in this election year, 2012, is the price of gasoline. Politicians running for office are deeply concerned that if the price of gasoline rises too much past $4 per gallon the American people will become angry at this restriction upon their freedom to drive whatever vehicle they want, wherever and whenever they want to go.
The price we pay for this freedom, at $4 dollars a gallon, or even $5 a gallon is not its real price. Its real Price is being paid by the Ogoni and Ijaw peoples in the Niger delta who are suffering from a toxic swamp polluted by Shell Oil and being oppressed by corrupt Nigerian politicians owned by that company. The price of this freedom is being paid by the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, by the increasing acidity in our oceans and by the increasing temperatures of the whole planet. If we had to pay the real Price for the gas in our cars most of us would lose this freedom. Only rich people would possess the freedom to drive whatever vehicle they wanted, wherever and whenever they wanted to.
Ultimately these freedoms, these rights, like the right to shop for electronics made in sweatshops in China, are called into question by the fact that they increase suffering in the world. Can we really call it a freedom if it is purchased at the cost of the suffering and misery of others? This is almost exactly the opposite of the kind of freedom spiritual leaders speak of.
How is it we could become so confused? Victor Lebow, a retail analyst in the 1950s has an answer to this. He said:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.It seems here in “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” we have fallen into confusion about the difference between freedom of consumption – freedoms that enable us to accumulate possessions – and personal liberty.
Consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity here becomes a reflection of “lifestyles” that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label, as well as with attitudes and behaviors linked to where we shop, how we buy, and what we eat, wear, and consume.And in a little serenade called “Loyalty Beyond Reason” Kevin Roberts CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi “The Lovemarks Compay" tells us,
The identity politics of the 21st century is then part and parcel of the infantilist ethos. It mistakes brand for identity and consumption for character while treating Americans as consumers of Brand USA rather than as the free citizens of a democratic republic. – Benjamin Barber Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
When everything can be a brand - religions, reality TV shows, presidents - brands can't matter. But hold on to your hats. The next big leap lies ahead. The transformation of brands into Lovemarks. A brand that's irreplaceable and irresistible…"Loyalty beyond reason," being the goal of billions of dollars of investment, cannot be other than powerful and intensive opposition to freedom. It is violent opposition to liberty masquerading as "consumer choice." An attack on reason, as this can only be, is an attack on freedom. John Locke, one of the philosophers the Founders looked to when they were refining their ideas of freedom and liberty speaks to this:
Lovemarks inspire loyalty beyond reason… Remove a brand and people buy a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and you've got a protest on your hands…
The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst brutesIn pursuit of "loyalty beyond reason" corporations and their advertisers stand in direct opposition to another building block of a free society: informed consent and the education necessary to give that informed consent. We are encouraged not to think but to be "irresistibly" drawn to those products we feel good about. A 15 year old buying and smoking cigarettes because being a "Marlboro Man" appears to him the best way to meet his deeply emotional need for acceptance among his peers is not making an informed choice. But he is an ideal consumer, especially if he becomes addicted to the product and spends his (shortened) life identified as a "Marlboro Man."
As immoral and unethical as these manipulations are, their purveyors still have some standards.
In a piece written in 1999 at Stanford the authors found that
The current state of political advertising has aroused considerable concern within the world of commercial advertising. Major advertising firms and professional associations have widely deplored the lack of accountability of political advertisers and their unwillingness to adhere to a code of ethics (see Advertising Age, April 29, 1996; New York Times, April 29, 1996; Washington Post, July 30, 1996). What exactly is Madison Avenue concerned about? Perhaps commercial advertisers fear that the apathy -- and all too frequently, aversion -- induced by political advertising campaigns may damage the credibility, and ultimately the persuasiveness, of more traditional forms of advertising. As Alex Kroll, former chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, put it: "We must stop politicians from ruining our reputation."And this reputation is being ruined because, unlike the whole propagandistic exercise of consumer marketing, politicians, being concerned with more than just sales – namely power – use these well established manipulative forces to denigrate the brands of their opponent. This is ruining the reputation of marketing propagandists because, as the Stanford study tells us,
Perhaps the amount of negativity featured in political campaigns is designed to shrink the "market" rather than increase the sponsor’s relative share. Discouraging people from voting is much more feasible than persuading supporters of one candidate to vote for the opponent. It is well known that most Americans hold fast to their partisan attachments and that the act of voting generally serves expressive (as opposed to instrumental) needs (for a review of research on political participation, see Rosenstone and Hansen, 1992). Since people acquire their affiliation with the Democratic or Republican parties early in life, the probability that they will cross party lines in response to an advertising campaign is slight. And since the motivation to vote is typically symbolic or psychological (in the sense that one’s vote is unlikely to be pivotal in determining the outcome of the election), increasing the level of controversy and conflict in ad campaigns is bound to discourage voters from making a choice and casting a vote. In effect, negative campaigns create an "avoidance" set within the electorate (see Houston et al., 1998, 1999).So, advertisers worry, political marketing may be decreasing the effectiveness of all marketing. So, when McCain used McCann for his branding campaign he was harming the sales of L’Oreal and Nestle, who also used McCann.
And the Obama campaign won the Association of National Advertisers“Marketer of the Year” for 2008.
It is this political brandscape which gives us our menu to choose from as we exercise our freedom and vote.
Yet, I know I don’t get to vote for what really matters. I get to choose a brand that has spent a lot of advertising money campaigning for elections. A brand that gets this money from those who have much more of it than I and which is thus much more receptive to those wealthy and powerful donors than it is to me.
And together they write the menu which I get to choose from. A menu that has no real solutions for catastrophic climate change, no repeal of corporate “personhood,” little or no support for viable alternatives to fossil fuels – in fact which offers subsidies to fossil fuel industries… I could go on and on.
In the name of the “Freedom" brand, in the name of the “Free Market” brand we are bringing an end to the fabric of social and environmental connections which support and sustain us. Funds from such brands as “Exxon/Mobile” are being spent in large quantities to obfuscate these cold, hard facts and to urge us to remain in our warm, fossil-fueled state of "liberty." The future they tell us, a future brought to us by brands like “Beyond Petroleum,” will be one of fabulous freedom and consumer choice. We will be happy in this future.