I have just eaten a Gü brand “limited edition” Black Forest Gateau. It was on offer, you know. On the back of the packet is the following text:
Pleasure is everything
Give in to happiness
Reject propriety; embrace variety
Prudence is sooo 1658
Life is fleeting; clasp it hard with both hands
Trust your impulses
Ordinary is pointless
All hail the Gü decadents
Naturally, this induced in me an apoplectic fury that will probably take some hours to fully subside. (In darker moments I suspect that marketing companies are deliberately trying to enrage people like me so that all our energies are spent shouting at adverts instead of doing something useful.) There’s nothing new in this text, but the concentration of awfulness is pretty special: I haven’t ever seen before such a long list of co-opted sloganeering, and the climactic branding of your identity as a decadent as specifically a Gü decadent is something of a masterstroke (if by “masterstroke” one means “nadir of corporate psychopathy”).
For those not used to parsing adverspeak and its ills, it’s worth for a moment explaining just what’s wrong here. (I grew up on a small island; only later did I encounter a landscape totally covered in adverts, and the result is the double affliction of both not being able to ignore them and being hyper-sensitive to their iniquities.) The lines here are deliberately written in the tradition of soixante-huitard graffiti, the byword for liberation. That particular register was developed in a contradictory chaos of ideas – the polar opposite of carefully-chosen corporate messaging. (The walls of Paris would see calls for decadence alongside denunciations of indulgence; that’s sort of the point.) And yet here we have the same language not only being used to sell a mass-produced product, but telling you that only through purchasing this particular line of such products will you achieve the decadence you are told to seek. “Ordinary is pointless” so you must “break free”, which could almost (almost) be a slogan drawn from Guy Debord, except here it is being used to peddle precisely the Spectacle which has us enthralled and enchained — and so like some Satanic brandy and kirsch-spiked morello cherry Ouroboros language chews its own tail to a bloody pulp.
But those aren’t even the lines I wanted to focus on. No, the most unique and telling is that bizarre “Prudence is sooo 1658”. Look at the “sooo”: the three Os, by themselves, indicate extraordinary degrees of self-reference — that is, they are embracing the cliché of the pretentious fashion victim, while simultaneously mocking it (hence the extra two Os), while knowingly indicating that they’re mocking it and embracing it at the same time, and then probably mocking that, and so on ad infinitum. Irony in the 21st Century is a strange loop that would give Douglas Hofstadter another decade of material. And let’s not even start on the way that juxtaposing the typographical eccentricity of a teenage diary with meticulously placed semi-colons both elevates and infantilises the reader, congratulating them for their grammatical knowledge just as they are being most brutally patronised.
And what about 1658? What is that date? Nothing much happened. I guess it’s like, about, Puritans and stuff? Those were the guys with the funny hats, right? Cromwell, that banned Christmas? He was sooo prudent. Yeah. Prudent.
As it happens, Cromwell died in 1658, but that doesn’t matter, and I’m sure the copy-writer didn’t look it up on Wikipedia, like I did. Again with the function of the “sooo”, and indeed the whole context of the copy: this isn’t history, this is the denial of history. The date was chosen totally, like, randomly. (“Random”.) You’re not so prudent as to think the date actually matters, right? Jeez, live a little! Break free!
So here I am, typing up a hastily put together blog at quarter past midnight, while America is having a genuinely exciting political moment, while most of my friends are defending Dale Farm or protecting public services or tweeting enthusiastically against the cuts. Because part of the whole system of desperate irony is that I’m supposed to sit here fruitlessly typing, honing a polemical phrase or satisfyingly hyperbolic insult or disentangling a mixed metaphor like some desperate Charlie Brooker wannabe, instead of actually doing anything.
The destruction of language by advertisers – that is, the untethering of every signifier so that it floats freely in a sea of product associations – is also the destruction of belief, faith, commitment. (When there are no words you can do without negotiating a labyrinth of irony, you struggle to describe your beliefs to yourself, or justify them; you lose yourself in the semiotic maze they have constructed.) I’m not being a conspiracy theorist here: this isn’t a systematic demolition project, just an emergent property of a century of pervasive advertising. More often than not, the people who write these things don’t realise what they’re doing to language, or why their use of language is so transparently inappropriate to everyone else. Sometimes they even write baffled open letters complaining of hurt feelings when you point out how awful what they’re doing is!
I’m running out of points now (and I’ve used up most of the things I wanted to say about Lion King 9/11 Tribute Art, so I guess I’d better throw that in now, because non sequiteurs are fun) and I’m being too hard on myself. Ranting about awful advertising has its place, even if it’s just to remind ourselves why it is that we hate capitalism. Sometimes, when listening to a particularly persuasive and charming liberal, I forget, and then I step into the street and see a billboard and remember. Being a privileged member of a privileged country, I don’t experience the real excesses of oppression and exploitation on a daily basis (though every system of oppression traps the powerful as well as the powerless), and even for someone sensitive and aware the problem of distance from suffering “out there” is a pernicious demotivator. But, for all the problems with the Adbusters lifestylist approach to reclaiming space, it is true that one of the ways capitalism most impacts me, my psychology, my wellbeing, is through its perversion of language, its total takeover of public space (with advertising), its undermining of belief and sincerity (through advertising), its creeping attack on and co-optation of everything that I try to care about. Words. Ideas. Liberation.
Guess next time I’d better make my own gateaux.