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  I am a propagandist
by Aaron Michael Gordon
The world in which I propagandize is the one I want to escape from -- but where to?

Have you noticed that everything and everything is marketing these days? It’s pretty damn scary when you think about it. The movie you see is designed to sell you toys based on the movie, which also has a book adaptation for the “literate,” and a cereal to get you full branded for breakfast! I know this, because I am a chief propagandist: I am an ad writer.

Here are some notes from the enemy camp. Hopefully, they will make you wiser, but more likely; this will wash over you, like water down a duck’s back — so that I can make more money off of your apathetic weaknesses. (I’m kidding.)

When I ventured into advertising, it was kind of a fluke. I had written some plays and was struggling as a theatre artist. One day, a former improvisation teacher of mine caught a show of mine and offered me a job. Having no real money or direction, I took it — and it stuck.

It’s profound irony: one who hates advertising and marketing, one who fast-forwards through commercials and changes the radio stations not only writes the ads, but may in fact have found a “calling” of sorts in advertising. I’m quite good at it! So presently, I’m part of the problem, and the very real dilemma is not a question of how to reach a solution, but rather, is a question of whether there is a solution that can be reached. The world is a synergized place of advertising! Wherever you go, there you are.

The most obvious answer, on a personal level, is to merely leave the advertising profession. Why do I have to be the person to convince you to buy something that you don’t need and can’t afford? You might suggest writing for a newspaper, or creatively for television and film; perhaps a Great American Novel is waiting to emerge from the folds of my brain. Yet, all of these are met with the same difficulties: they are all advertising in one way or another. One person’s treatise on a product is another’s film of that treatise, is another novel describing that treatise, and so on.

Let’s start with my part of the chain. “We’d like you to figure out a way to sell this particular product according to our brand image.” Every creative brief, every production meeting, and every brainstorming session begins with a variation on that theme.

This assignment is always two-fold: how to convince you to buy whatever product it is (makeup, clothing, sand) and how to convince you that a purchase of this brand of makeup, this label of clothing, or this vial of sand is somehow transcendent, will somehow make you a better person for the purchase. That the product is merely a redress of an earlier version of itself (or worse, a carbon copy of the competition’s,) is incidental. The product is not important. The brand is.

My initial reaction to the cult of the brand was of disbelief: “This can’t possibly be the focus you want us to take! Does anyone really buy this crap?” Sadly, we do. Shirts that cost 15 cents to make sell for $70 — due to the label. Automobiles that are essentially the same sell for cost differences in the thousands, because of the make. And I’m the person who is responsible for the convincing. You’d think that this would be a difficult job for an atheist whose background is in theatre and who always found himself to be the non-conformist.

The unfortunate truth is that it is not. I excel as a propagandist. A great deal of that is a product of work paired to talent, and that the phrase “you can never underestimate the American Public” is an axiom of truth. A few clever words, some correct brand imagery and wham! You bought a premium vial of sand! The truth behind the emptiness of my career led me back to school, but also into the fields looking for another method of creative expression. What I’ve found is more of the same: everywhere you look, the brands are there.

Here’s what I mean. Try writing for a newspaper. That newspaper is owned by a media conglomerate which is dependent upon advertising to stay afloat, so don’t rock the boat. No anti-media, anti-corporate stories, please. “Can you make it more human interest, with a few key ‘mentions’ of sponsors?” Jump into television and film. You have the same situation. Too much meaning is frowned upon. Action, adventure, and the possibility of franchise are the keys to the kingdom.

Plus, since many movie houses now own magazines, even if my movie sucked it would probably get a rave review. Does Joey Flopset and the Magic Shrub get praised by Movies-Each-Week because its brilliant, or is that praise a result of the movie and the magazine being under the same conglomerate’s grasp?

In the end, they’re all corrupted by this world of logos and mantras. And I wonder what happened to the idealistic me — and what happened to the collective us. Is freedom of speech such a mild right that we don’t mind that NC-17 movies are not “encouraged” in production? That recording artists are encouraged to write for the Giant-Mart crowd? And that a struggling writer should garner positive experience and artistic growth from the perpetuity of this very loud, very authoritative, and yet very quiet evil totalitarianism?

Advertising is much maligned as this garish explosion of manipulative images. But at least I’m honest about the propaganda that I create. But beneath the skin of every “successful” writer, actor, novelist and musician is an advertiser peeking out. And a branded conglomerate eager to suck you in. | 22 February 2003

Aaron Michael Gordon is a 28-year-old professional advertising writer in South Florida. He wrote the short story "Depth," and the plays "Venus Descending" and "Emotional Alimony."

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