Even Dead Celebrities Sell

Carrie MacLaren is one of the few people I know with the subversive wit and tenacity to critique the scabrous assaults of market culture on our basic humanity. I first got to know her almost ten years ago as a fellow-copyfighter. She was about to launch a brilliant project, The Illegal Art Exhibit, which put on display dozens of images, music and text that had been declared illegal under copyright or trademark law.

Based in Brooklyn, Carrie had edited Stay Free!, then a magazine and now a website, since 1993. With a style that combines devastatingly satire with critical analysis of Madison Avenue’s warped practices, Stay Free! has consistently ridden into the gale winds of consumer culture with a sane, sardonic intelligence.

Now some of the most memorable articles from Stay Free! has been gathered together with new material in a new book, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture (Faber & Faber), edited by MacLaren and Jason Torchinsky. The book takes a brave march through the psychological manipulations of advertising and branding. The book shows just how sick our consumer culture really is.

For example, one chapter tells about “shopping spies” who furtively watch how shoppers in supermarket aisles make their choices. Another interviews a “Disneyaniac” who has watched The Little Mermaid dozens of times. In one hilarious chapter, Jason Torchinsky visits the Playboy Mansion as the guest of Johnnie Walker. Billed as “The Journey of Taste,” a few dozen twenty-somthings are whisked to the Mansion in order to taste-test Scotch whiskies as part of a faux-classy marketing scheme disguised as a sexy romp.

Other memorable chapters describe how Nutrament was secretly marketed as “a meal in a can for the urban poor,” especially drug addicts and the homeless. Another itemizes various marketing-driven “holidays” throughout the year, such as National Pizza Week in January, Daffodil Week in March, International Pickle Week in May, National Piano Month in September and Hunger Awareness Month in November.

The brute power of advertising to negate the meaning of even a famous person’s life is shown in a chapter on the use of dead celebrities as advertising hucksters. In his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., railed against the “profit motive [as] the basis for an economic system” because it “encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition.” Yet Coca-Cola, Coors, Sears, Roebuck & Co., and many others have nonetheless used MLK to shill their goods (thanks to the collusion of the MLK estate which sold the rights to use MLK’s words and image).

Che Guevara once said, “In culture, capitalism has given all that it had to give and all that remains of it is the foretaste of a bad-smelling corpse; in arts, its present decadence.” Still, corporations get the last laugh: Swatch watches and Che Beer, among many other products, have resurrected him as a mega-brand for anything rebellious. Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley — all critics of materialism and advertising — have nonetheless been “bought” and re-branded by advertisers.

Ad Nauseam has a chapter that explores the proliferation of ads on gas pumps, urinals, elevators and even live human bodies. The chapter brought to mind a hilarious satire in Stay Free! in which MacLaren made mock-serious overtures to marketers to rent her rectum as a space to advertise to doctors.

Amidst the raucous satire and commentary, Ad Nauseam contains serious insight. There are explorations of how kids “read” advertisements, how the aesthetics of entertainment affect courtroom trials; and how many ads indeed contain subliminal sexual messages.

For all the fun that this book gives the reader, it is somewhat depressing that MacLaren and Torchinsky concede in their preface that, in the face of all the advertising outrages they chronicle, “there is no grand panacea we can honestly prescribe. Instead…we’ve collected a few minor acts of protest: people who have found creative ways to subvert, exploit, or merely survive the marketing machine. None of these examples are going to change the world, but they at the very least suggest possibilities for entertainment not centered on consuming.”

Humor is a great place to start when confronting the beast. But clearly much more will be needed if its power and ability to co-opt change are to be neutralized. Ad Nauseam is a fierce candle in the wind that illuminates a wide, depressing landscape of cultural pathology. May it kindle a raging prairie fire of protest and new strategies to build advertising-free zones.