Selling Power | Essay | Chicago Reader

Selling Power 

The genius of "stealth" marketing is that it divorces the product from the sordid realities of work and production. With Moonlight Tobacco, RJR has developed an entire aesthetic of fake.

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Politix stink. They make me sick. I've learned my lesson and I'll never go near them again.

Could a Pavlovian aversion to politics be the consumer response R.J. Reynolds had in mind when they introduced their new brand of cigarettes recently? It seems unlikely, and yet when I talked to Dirk Herrman of the "Moonlight Tobacco Company," the Reynolds division that produces Politix and a number of other whimsically named new brands, he spoke quite openly about the relationship of Politix to actual politics. It's not meant to be the straight Pavlovian relationship I experienced, in which the smoker learns to associate political activity with illness; that was just me and my fragile lungs. But there is an ideological symbolism at work. The brand is supposed to "speak to the whole politics of smoking," Herrman told me. "It's gotten kind of out of scale, and the whole concept of Politix is 'lighten up, join the party.'" Politix may be the beginning of an interesting new trend in packaging: consumer products that actually advise us to take it easy, "lighten up," stop thinking, and relax for a gentle slide into consumer apathy. As Herrman puts it, "Aren't we kind of overthinking every aspect of our lives a little bit?" Aptly enough, the design chosen by Reynolds for its venture into the world of antipolitics centers on what Herrman identified as a "peace symbol," the gesture that every American would once upon a time have identified as the "victory" sign.

Blissful unthinking peace for consumers, victory for corporate America. The symbolic equation is almost too perfect a statement of the age-old consumer dream of total detachment from the ugly and sordid (and very, very political) issues of work and production. You know, the dream that has replaced downtown with the mall, that will soon replace the mall with the virtual malls, and that has transformed so many peculiar fantasies (crackers that are made by elves) into real-life marketing ploys. As historian Stuart Ewen has written of advertising strategies in the early years of consumerism, "the success of consumerization depended on the ability to obfuscate the work process, to create an understanding of the industrial world which avoided any problematic reference to production altogether."

Politix may be the most interesting Moonlight Tobacco product, but the entire Moonlight line (as pictured in the glossy, full-color insert that's been in the Reader and other alternative papers lately) has been clearly designed with this obfuscation in mind. First, Moonlight cigarettes make exemplary use of the latest device in the culture of evasion, the advertising strategy that the New York Times calls "stealth parentage." Who manufactures Moonlight cigarettes? The ads don't mention R.J. Reynolds (although the packages do): they imply, rather, that the cigarettes are made by friendly Dirk and his partner Diane, who are "working overtime for you." Similar stealth strategies have appeared in many sectors of the consumer economy over the last few years: items with peculiar brand names that loudly proclaim themselves to be the products of tiny, home-grown operations but are in fact the usual conglomerate through-put. The tactic has been used in the music industry for a long time, with each of the culture giants spawning or, better yet, acquiring a fake independent label just as soon as the "alternative" craze began to seem reliably exploitable. It probably reached its apogee in the beer business, where pressure from microbreweries has forced the majors to spin off all sorts of mysterious (but still flavorless) subbrands like Ice House and Red Dog, products of the friendly "Plank Road Brewery," which just happens to have the same address as the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Stealth marketing is even found in such unlikely corners of the economy as greeting cards (Hallmark's "Shoebox" line) and automobiles (GM's Saturn). The genius of stealth is not that it tricks people or that it hijacks hip, but that it helps to render the ugly details of production increasingly remote and invisible: these are products that appear from nowhere and are said to be made by fictional characters. There's not a multinational corporation in sight.

The corporate masterminds behind Moonlight Tobacco have taken this transient marketing fad quite a few steps further, developing from it an entire aesthetic of fake. For example, inventive packaging, rather than contents (the tobacco stuff), is what distinguishes Moonlight from other RJR lines. "I believe that there is an opportunity to let people be a little more expressive with their smokes," Dirk Herrman says. "There are very few products that people carry with them, you know, pull out of their pocket 20 times a day." This is not an innovation in itself: cigarettes have long been sold almost entirely by image. What is remarkably strange is the precise image that is for sale here. What Moonlight offers is not a fun-loving couple or a suave sophisticate but, again, that curious fancy at the heart of the consumer daydream: ironic detachment from the realities of social existence, pure and total. There's Politix for the smoker who wants to snicker at the idea of political transformation, and there's City for those who prefer old-fashioned notions of social life as ironic fodder. A long, slim brand called Metro, Moonlight's answer to Virginia Slims, offers women what must be the ultimate ironic frisson of imminent death, its packages depicting a society dame of some long-past era stepping insouciantly in front of a locomotive. (You're not afraid of danger--you've come a long way, baby!) Cities, politics, and cool death are now lifestyle signifiers as distant and as dreamy as the cowboys of Marlboro and the castles of Kent: things so far removed from everyday life that they have meaning only as smoke, a statement you pull out of your pocket 20 times a day.

This reduction of politics is hardly a monopoly of cigarette manufacturers. In journalism it is represented by the arrival of the omnipresent magazine George, which aims to discuss politics exclusively in terms of the culture of celebrity. In fashion and avant-garde art circles, which are increasingly indistinguishable, political commitment has long been a matter of conspicuous posturing. Somewhere in the Moonlight smoke I smelled the involvement of a full-fledged artist--someone who finds ironic amusement in commercial banality and who takes Interview magazine seriously--and sure enough, I was informed by a Reynolds spokesman that the whole project is "art-driven," that an array of artists (including Chicagoans Ed Paschke and Tom Van Housen) were called in to help and asked "'What kind of packaging would you do [for cigarettes], absolutely no boundaries...'" As it always does, the involvement of artists is said to have allowed "all of us to break out of our own paradigms" and to have led to all sorts of smashed rules and rampant creativity. And apparently the results work almost as well as art as they do as packaging: some of Van Housen's renderings were featured at a recent opening at the David Leonardis gallery and are reproduced for the public benefit on selected walls in the hippest neighborhoods of the north side.

But as politics becomes a matter of packaging, fashion, and pure smoking pleasure, one wonders if this scoffing spirit will ever be turned on concepts a little closer to the corporate heart. It's easy for the tobacco industry to promulgate a product called "Politix," to raise the "peace" sign and cajole us to "lighten up," when it's under such fierce political attack. (Indeed, the entire campaign might well be a scheme to indirectly mock the Democratic tormentors of R.J. Reynolds.) But somehow I doubt that Moonlight will ever offer conceptual brands called "Temp" or "Unemployed" or "Helms" or "Subsidy" or even "FDA."

In terms of sheer audacity, Moonlight's detachment fantasies are bush league stuff compared to the grand strategies of the Nike corporation. Politix? Peace symbols? Hah! Nike's laid claim to no less a term than "revolution," enlisting over the years the songs and voices of the Beatles and William S. Burroughs to drive home their curious conviction that "revolution"--you know, when the economic and political order is overturned--is somehow related to athletic shoes. Nor do they use the term in any vague, obviously sold-out sense ("The Revolutionary New Supra"): Nike insists that it's selling the real stuff, that selfsame "revolution" all the New Lefters used to fantasize about back in the rockin' excellent 1960s. From the shocking photography of Benetton to the hand-held cameras of AT&T, authenticity is the name of the game in advertising these days, and Nike's got the genuine goods, as explosive as a Weatherman manifesto, as menacing as Mick Jagger's randy leer.

Just to make this point as clear as possible, Nike ads feature only the most revolutionary of revolutionists, constantly pushing the boundaries of commodification. The latest installment is, naturally, the most extreme: KRS One's bombastic rendering of Gil Scott-Heron's 1974 anthem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which accompanies footage of six young basketball stars playing in an empty auditorium. The superficial message is that real basketball, which is a "revolutionary" thing involving heavy and conspicuous use of Nike products, is not played for cameras, is not preceded by a "laser show or a mascot that jumps off small trampolines." (Yes, some of the lines are actually funny.) But what makes the commercial work is the refrain "The revolution will not be televised," repeated again and again in mock-threatening tones along with lines like "the revolution will not fail" and "the revolution is about basketball, and basketball is the truth." Revolution, according to Nike, is a matter of working hard and playing something well, a definition that would make everyone from Donald Trump to Jack Kemp an insurrectionist of the first rank. Real political change is unthinkable in Nike-world: whatever dissatisfactions you might feel must either find expression on the court or go unspoken.

The genius of Nike's campaign is its brazenness. It anticipates what is obviously going to be a widespread negative reaction--My God, this is the most hypocritical load of shit I've ever seen! What was Gil Scott-Heron thinking?--and stuffs it down your throat. They're saying "The revolution will not be televised"--on television! They're claiming to speak for "truth" and some kind of Platonic basketball form--and they're doing it to sell shoes! They're talking about "revolution"--and they're a multibillion dollar corporation, a shameless exploiter of quasi-slave labor in Indonesia! But forget it: there it is on television, and there you are, staring like a moron. The Nike-athlete is Ubermensch, he is supercompetitor; he can kick your ass now like he did on the elementary school playground, and he and his corporate pals own your puny "revolution." The effect is stunning.

There are some in academia who have spent careers searching out and celebrating linguistic practices of this kind, believing them to be inherently liberating, the strategies of oppressed subalterns who are able to turn the words of their masters against the dominant order. The Nike "revolution" commercials offer a spectacular rejoinder: sure, people can and will interpret this commercial any way they please, but the campaign plods inexorably on, remaking our language as it rewrites Scott-Heron's song. Nothing you can say or think will stop it; it will outlive any objection you make; and if you aren't careful, one of these days you'll wake up and find that "revolution" has ceased to stand for anything transformative or tangible. Power is, as ever, the only thing that matters, and Nike has it--you don't.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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