Buying Freedom

Unidentified photographer, "Beauties of Today", Cigarette card, Britain, C1937

Edward Bernays was the nephew of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He is renowned, like a spin doctor of consumerism, for taking Freud’s ideas about the subconscious desires and drives of human beings and reconfiguring them into seductive advertising.

Bernays understood that you could abandon pragmatic advertising — simply telling the potential consumer what the product does and why it is of use — using symbols and phrases designed to prod the uncertainties of identity that people feel, in order to get them to buy things and more so buy into things, that they don’t need or even harm them.

So you don’t just buy a car to get you from A to B, you buy a car because it makes you more attractive, more successful, more powerful.

Effectively, he manipulated people into being irrational spend-heavies, whose purpose in life was to be driven into purchase after purchase. And to have them believe that this was the source of their happiness and self-esteem and even their purpose in life.

To give you an infamous example, Bernays was asked by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) how he could use advertising to influence women to smoke outdoors — at that time, a taboo. It was just something women didn’t do. Couldn’t be seen doing. And that restricted the firm’s profits.

Of course Bernays did not simply tell women that smoking outdoors was OK — that it was not immoral or unfeminine — and hope they’d respond. He needed something more insidious.

The cigarette was believed, by the Freudians at least, to be the modernist symbol of phallocentricity, hence power. It was 1930 and 12 years postsuffrage, amid a culture of women’s growing taste for emancipation. Indeed, in some circles, it was already believed that smoking was a sign of the women’s movement, symbolising women grasping at male power.

Bernays purposefully leant on that notion when he managed to attract some debutantes to parade with lit cigarettes on the streets of New York. They called it “lighting the Torches of Freedom.” The event, the purported “protest,” made national press, and helped in lifting the taboo. And from then on? Cigarettes became a symbol of women’s urban, liberal sass.

Now, of course, one does not wish to subject women to taboos. But the re-imagining of such an unhealthy, obsolescent and, ultimately, enormously-profitable-for-a-tiny-minority thing as cigarettes into a form of political power and social freedom, was dubious to say the least.

Nonetheless, now freed, those elegant white sticks found themselves dangled between the red sofa lips of starlets and models everywhere, littered in abundance on film posters and in commercial advertising. Of course all it meant, in material terms, was more women spent more money on something they didn’t actually need. It was almost as though the proto-feminism of the day had been sold a pup.

Now the known health consequences of a life “lit-up” have overwhelmed the strong arm of the tobacco companies — in Britain at least — and the culture of seeing smoking as a form of liberation has long since been scattered into the ashtray. But the usefulness of manipulative advertising — in the form of sound bites and sleight of hands, come-hither and cockamamie aesthetics — to sell bogus ideas of female empowerment, in the service capitalist interests, has not gone away. It’s just taking new forms. And the so-called “beauty industry” is one of the most notorious of perpetrators.

Advertisements for cellulite cream, shampoo and lipstick have purposefully played to the diluted tune of a sort of magazine feminism, a type of cultural politic so rejecting of rigour, so faddist in nature as to be feminism in name alone.

Take the 2014 “buy a lot of make-up!” campaign by cosmetic brand Cover Girl, “Girls Can.” To a winsome, who’s-got-talent soundtrack, celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Pink smash the patriarchy by telling the girlz that they can do whatever the boyz can do. Be funny, be smart, be active. But, this you-go! you-go-girls-ing is conditional. You have to do it buttered-up. Prettified. You want to be a sports hero? You can, so long as you crisp up your lashes with a mass of mascara. You want to make people laugh? You can, but as long as the mouth that gives exit to the funnies is slicked in industrial layers of lipstick.

In a style of skulduggery that would make Bernays proud, the ad does not literally have to tell its audience to buy the products. The insistent layering of image after image, depicting women-who-can, so deftly manicured so as to be beyond recognition to that woman they see in the bathroom mirror every morning, is enough.

The ad explicitly sells you the idea, and implicitly sells you the cosmetics as a proviso.

After the “you-go!” rhetoric has been pounded out and the gold medal-winning track dips down, the real message emerges. Before Ellen walks off camera, she tells the newly empowered consumers to “make the world a little more easy, breezy and beautiful.” And there it is. Its thick thumbs laid heavy on our socialised-to-provide angst.

Society will now let you have a shot at its activities, so long as you remember you are women first and last. Being a woman means providing the world around you with entertainment, comfort and service, and being beautiful is a part of that.

Feminism, of the kind that actually wishes to liberate females from the bonds of servitude and performative femininity, has come far enough to make most women suspicious at the idea of being a hat-doffer to the male gaze, but not far enough that avoided the suspicion cannot be at the deft hands of consumer capitalists.

It’s an obvious point, but one worth repeating. Any form of cultural, declarative feminism which promotes the mode of consumption as a means of thwarting the patriarchy, should be met with a healthy glut of cynicism. Whether it’s smoking, face-painting or corseting, we cannot buy our way out of subjugation. Particularly when the brave new world on offer looks so curiously similar to the old one.


Originally published in The Morning Star

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