The Culture Industry and the Selling of Cyberspace

By Christopher Locke
My hat is off to Lisa Banon, a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Every once in awhile, a business writer elicits an on-record quote that provides genuine insight into the corporate mindset. In her July 5th story, "The Hyped and the Hypeless: Fate of Two Films" Banon unearthed a real gem. Speaking about the promotion of the movie Congo, Arthur Cohen, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing, dropped this little soundbite:

"You have to make the American public believe that they're not good people if they don't go to this movie."

The unvarnished truth always has shock value, especially when the speaker -- as I suspect in this case -- forgets he may soon be reading his off-the-cuff opinions in print. But perhaps Mr. Cohen is not embarrassed to see this view so widely broadcast. Maybe even now he's having his secretary make lots of xeroxes to send to his close pals in The Industry. Maybe he's proud of his articulation of the unspoken Holy Grail of advertising: mass guilt and its attendant trashing of self-esteem. This is what moves product!

In cases where the product is out of range -- how many inner-city kids can fork over the seven-to-ten bucks to watch Paramount's latest spectacle? -- the message still gnaws at the gut. What's wrong with me that I can't see this movie? And with respect to higher-ticket items: can't buy the car, can't get the girl, can't give her diamonds, and therefore couldn't keep her anyway. And man, I don't even have a fucking computer!

It's working -- all over America, all over the world. The populace has been artificially inseminated with desire, and the body politic is giving birth to monsters.

Gang bangers and lily-white militias are arming to the teeth to get their "fair share" of whatever they think they're missing out on in this American Dream gone bad. Resentment seethes in the streets, more deadly than the poison gas unleashed in any Tokyo subway. Hatred and envy seem more natural inclinations than any hankering for a piece of Mom's Apple Pie. Bad people, Mr. Cohen, and they want a piece of you. So don't come crying when the seeds you and your pals sowed with all those billions of advertising dollars come to harvest.

The Culture Industry that generates this soul-destroying message -- "You're not good enough" -- in all its myriad forms is now headed full-tilt for the Internet. The feeding frenzy for easy money has arrived online with a vengeance. And unfortunately, most of it is based on Mr. Cohen's axiom: it's not only possible, but highly desirable, to make your market feel they're bad people if they don't buy your product or service.

With this insanity reaching endemic proportions, what what are our governments concerned about? That we not be subjected to pornography on the Internet. The law makers responsible for floating these purported protections should specify sexual pornography. If it doesn't already, the term should certainly be extended to cover the prurient interests driving and being generated by Cohen's Premise.

This is bad joss, for real. Bad karma. Bad vibes. It's also bad business, and -- especially in this new medium -- doesn't have to be this way. On my more hopeful days, I think it won't work at all. When I'm on one of my manic upswings, I believe that cyberspace can't be co-opted. You can make isolated couch potatoes feel guilty about their lives because they're not wearing your fragrance or anti-perspirant, don't have your credit card, didn't buy your car, junkfood, "alcohol beverage," or operating system. But it's a lot harder when people are connected to each other and even one of them (like me for instance, right here, right now) can respond to these veiled implications by simply saying, "What a pathetic load of crap!"

Group therapy is powerful stuff. When people share their experiences and reactions, they often discover they are not as isolated as they had thought. And they take courage from the fact. They begin to behave less like passive victims of circumstance and more as active participants in the processes that shape their world and mindspace.

To me, the promise of "interactivity" is that many of us will wake up from the dream the Culture Industry has been dreaming for us through its hypnotic mass-media channels, and begin weaving our own visions together: more interesting, more inclusive, more life-affirming. Howard Rheingold frames both dark side and potential ever so succinctly in his sig:

what it is ----->is------>up to us

Copyright 1995 Christopher Locke and Entropy Gradient Reversals. All Rights Reserved.