There was this French guy named Guy Debord who had some weird notions about how we interact with reality. He’s dead now and doesn’t think these things anymore (one would presume), but when he did think them, he wrote of this thing he called Spectacle. Spectacle is difficult to explain. It’s almost like a layer of reality governed by the ruling economy--a miasma of images born from commodity fetishization. Every experience we have is distorted by the spectacle, and what’s worse is that there is nothing more real beyond it. The spectacle is the new real and it swallows everything which attempts to stand outside it.
The smug acceptance of what exists can also merge with purely spectacular rebellion; this reflects the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon as economic abundance could extend production to the processing of such raw materials.
-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Debord is saying that even rebellion against the spectacle will be commodified and sold. Look at the clothing store Hot Topic. Its entire business model is to take various artistic rebellions, turn their insignia into clothing and accessories. Then it’s sold to kids in malls looking for ways of expressing their rebellion against spectacular artifice. From Iggy Pop to Che Guevara, all the rebels are for sale.
That’s all well and good, but what’s that got to do with the price of rice?
I started thinking about the spectacle again when I saw this Nike ad. It’s part of their new Equality campaign. Apparently, the campaign was kicked off by Tiger Woods, who tweeted some inane bullshit because he was paid to.
The tweet read, “IF WE CAN BE EQUALS IN SPORT, WE CAN BE EQUALS EVERYWHERE.” All caps. Because champions don’t use lower case.
This is a really weird statement because we’re obviously not all equal in sports. My understanding is that the whole point of sports is to see who’s better at doing the sport. If everybody was equal and all sports were tied, nobody would watch.
But this puzzling statement was later elucidated in the context of Nike’s new commercial, which features, LeBron James, one of the Williams sisters, and presumably other sports people I don’t know. Still, none of it makes any sense, but at least now there’s context.
Apparently revolutionary rhetoric is the new hot trend in advertising. I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. I was getting drunk by the railroad tracks and throwing rocks at trains. But people tell me the Super Bowl ads were co-opting all sorts of revolutionary fervor to sell their respective garbage. The spectacle is moving faster than usual to neutralize dissent.
This Nike commercial here was forced upon my consciousness without the Super Bowl context, and I think I started yelling at my computer. Nike was taking the tone of Black Lives Matter and other equality movements to sell their sweatshop shoes. The commercial implies that on basketball and tennis courts, everyone is equal, and if we could only extend this physical meritocracy to broader contexts, all our social ills could be mollified.
Even a cursory exploration of this thesis renders it false. In a plutocratic utopia, Lebron James is more equal than a 12-year-old kid with advanced cerebral palsy. Remember in elementary and middle school gym classes when the kids who were good at sports were treated exactly the same as the kids who were bad at sports? Yeah. Me neither.
And it seems like, since elementary school, Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and the like were telling me that in order to be good at sports, I needed to buy their newest and best stuff. So inside the internal logic of Nike ads, wouldn’t a person who has more money to pay for the latest in Swoosh technology be better equipped to play the sport ball than poor folks?
I would also add, (with the caveat that I have not checked with a lawyer on this), that no governments that I know of on the city, state, county, or federal levels, recognize basketball/tennis court sovereignty. Cops, sheriffs and federal agents are all legally allowed to go on these courts as anywhere else. And once they get there, black people on that basketball/tennis court are still 2.8 times more likely to be shot, three times more likely to be arrested, and three times more likely to be searched as the white folks on that same court.
But even if we are to take this commercial’s ableist, classist, and myopically oversimplified view of equality as true, the conclusion, “If we can be equals here, we can be equals everywhere,” commits the logical fallacy of drawing a universal conclusion from a particular premise. Like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the middle step between acquiring the underpants of sport egalitarianism to gaining the profit of universal equality is conveniently left out. That middle part is hard. That middle part might mean paying its sweatshop laborers living wages. It might mean everybody has to be paid a living wage so that everybody can now afford the fair trade Nike shoes. It might mean having to dismantle capitalism and Nike altogether. Wouldn’t it be strange if Nike is actually calling for the demise of their own welfare in this commercial? Maybe that’s what coming next in their new Equality campaign. Something tells me that’s unlikely.
SURE, MARTY, BUT IT’S NOT LIKE THIS IS THE FIRST TIME A COMMERCIAL HAS SPOUTED UNQUALIFIED BULLSHIT. WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
I listened to a podcast about Guy Debord, where a bunch of smart British guys talked about the philosopher. They say Debord places the genesis of the spectacle at 1927, but I think it pre-dates back to August 1914, the beginning of the Great War.
During World War One, the leaders of all countries concerned couldn’t tell the truth of the matter. They couldn’t say that a bunch of nobles was having a spat due to a complex treaty system that nobody fully understood except for the guy who orchestrated them, and he was now dead. That was no basis for millions of people to die. So they had to appeal to the emotional side.
The Germans, whom they called The Huns, were portrayed as awful baby eaters and murdering rapists. This was by no means the first time propaganda was utilized in war, but like everything in WWI, it was the first time it was ramped up to such grand industrial scale.
America came in late to the war to help that extra push in the last year and a half of the four-year conflict. Part of the reason the US didn’t wade into the quagmire was because the general public didn’t want to have anything to do with it. There was a man named Edward Bernays who helped change their minds.
Bernays was highly effective as a wartime propagandist. And as peacetime came, he decided there must be a way to use propaganda after the war. But since the word “propaganda” had such a negative connotation, he coined the term “public relations”. And he hit his stride at just the right time.
After the war, America was staring down the barrel of one of the inherent contradictions of capitalism: how do you have infinite growth on a finite plane? The working class was buying really well-made products for strictly utilitarian purposes. At this rate, demand for products would soon diminish because everybody would have all the stuff they need. That can’t happen if your economic model demands constant growth.
The answer to this problem came twofold. One way was for manufacturers to intentionally make products which were of lower quality, so they would break sooner and thus the demand for more stuff increased. This was called “planned obsolescence” and it’s totally a real thing.
The other way to drive demand was to shift consumers from the mentality of need-based purchase to desire-based purchase. In 1927, a year the spectacle is said to begin, an American journalist wrote:
A change has come over our democracy. It is called Consumptionism. The American citizen's first importance to its country is no longer that of the citizen but that of the consumer.
This is the American duty since. It is not a novel concept to remark on conspicuous consumption. This is something stated repeatedly for nearly a century. Such now that we can’t even conceive of the idea of a shoe commercial stating simply, “Here are shoes. They’re comfortable and they’ll last a long time. Here’s where you can buy them.”
Instead, there must be an ever-evolving exploitation of the mind to coerce one into buying the shoes. Ed Bernays pioneered this coercion by using the works of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to sell to people’s deeper desires, rather than their needs.
The spectacle has grown a deep, abiding disdain for facts, and it’s selling our own rage back to us.
WHY NOT BUY THE WORLD A COKE?
Our cognition wants to reject advertisements. They act as a sort of mutating virus that must constantly change itself to get past our immunity to their claims. At the hippie decline and cultist rise of 1971 came one of the most successful commercials of all time. The hippies were tired. It had been a rough stretch of years they were fucking and getting high for revolution. Their genitals were raw and they were strung out beyond repair. So rather than go through the trouble of a real revolution, buy the world a coke, right? That’s powerful mojo. Cokes are cheap. If universal harmony can be achieved by buying one, that’s a good deal.
Now 45 years later, our generation is feeling pretty antsy with the revolutionary mojo, but we’re way more pissed off. We’re not into flowers so much as smashing Nazis. And we don’t want to buy the world a coke. We want the military budget to be cut so it can buy us a future. We want cops to stop killing folks with impunity. We want education. We want a living wage. We want some motherfucking ice caps. Fuck a coke. And fuck your shoes, Nike. Your shit’s not that hot. We can get some chronicles from somewhere that doesn’t try and reappropriate legitimate anger to sell slave labor.