Monday, July 26, 2010

Capitalist hauntology

Capital represents itself to us principally through its advertising. Its presence is rendered in strictly non-materialist terms. Idealist, magical, or even downright theological thinking is at the heart of capitalist ideology - Smith's 'hidden hand', the religious mandate for 'improvement' of the earth in Lockean property theory, the 'reward-for-abstinence' theory of profits, and the 'golden egg' theory of investments and savings. So when capital represents itself to us, it is not as a set of material processes but as a benign Geist, a bearer of anthropomorphically enlarged humane values, an atmosphere of well-being, etc.. This study of turn-of-the-century corporate advertising and the ideological landscapes created by capital, devised by the author of this marxist analysis of Mork & Mindy, describes the self-representation strategies of capital as follows:

Since AT&T ran its first campaign aimed at massaging public perceptions of itself away from the imagery of a greedy monopolistic bully some 85 years ago, Capital has devoted some part of advertising to constructing its own self-representations. These self-representations have, in one sense, remained amazingly static over the years. Even with the advent of the television era, Capital for the most part chose to stay relatively invisible -- representing itself as a benevolent, almost ghostly, aura that manifested itself in music and imagery. In the 1970s and 1980s, legitimation advertising painted corporate capital as gentle, kind and caring. In other words, Capital was presented as not really Capital. Even campaigns for the notorious junk bond firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, sought to disguise its nature as capital in order to justify its activities.

Perhaps the most famous tagline associated with this style of advertising has been GE's "we bring good things to life." The long-running GE campaign springs to mind as an exemplar of this kind of self-representation of Capital as benignly invisible. In those ads, GE only exists only in the festive form of the happiness its products bring into people's personal lives. Though they've gone multicultural, GE's ads still have this flavor.