—-An essay by our member William:
When I first read Orwell’s “1984” as a teenager, the thing which most terrified me was that the totalitarian state he envisioned, existed with the full support of its populace. There was some physical coercion, of course; and relentless surveillance of potential rebels; but the great mass of the people wholly bought into the government’s propaganda. There is no way that each of these people could have been individually brainwashed, the way that the protagonists Winston and Julia ultimately were. No, this was some kind of mass thought control, not done through individualized torturing, but simply playing on what Orwell saw as popular ignorance and credulousness, by the use of mass marketing techniques.
That book was written before technology has unfortunately (in my view) come to dominate much of people’s lives. Computer programs can now do even better what the cynical marketers of the “Mad Men” era were trying to achieve with their slogans and jingles. I never bought any of those products because of ads, so I used to look at it all somewhat amusedly. They could do all the beer commercials they wanted, but I wasn’t going to drink beer. And I wasn’t going to buy a car because some slinky woman was sitting on top of it, purring to me about how sexy it was.
But the somewhat amusing but ultimately sinister world of TV ads of course developed into something even more sinister: the marketing of politicians, and the attempts by the same types of marketers to manipulate the views and votes of the populace. First it was developing a certain kind of look for the camera; or coming up with a slogan like “I Like Ike.” But as this field developed, and as computers were able to calculate and refine such things much more comprehensively than humans, it became much more insidious. Millions and millions of dollars were poured into marketing research, to find ways to seduce, coerce, or manipulate the voters into preferring one candidate over another. And not at all surprisingly, the bulk of this is increasingly being done by the Republicans, a party controlled by corporations which now have billions of dollars to spend; and which contemplate even more billions of dollars in returns, by getting their preferred corporatist candidates elected.
A frightening microcosm of this can be seen in California, where I live. California was a state which was once controlled by oil and railroad barons, who bought and paid for the entire state legislature. When the Progressive movement of early 20th Century America found its way to California, it resulted in the election of the one progressive governor in 100 years, Hiram Johnson. And he helped to spearhead the three populist voting devices of the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. These were intended to break the stranglehold of the corporate controlled state legislature, by letting people create Propositions which could go straight to the ballot, and be voted on, without the legislature being able to stop them. And people could vote to recall a politician who was felt to be guilty of malfeasance or ineptitude.
Well, as one might cynically expect, the good intentions of this system were eventually taken advantage of by billion-dollar corporations. First, they realized that they could develop and fund their own initiatives, and put them on the ballot. Then they would devise marketing schemes which would convince the people that they were not voting to benefit corporations, but that they were fighting against intrusive government, or “liberals,” or reducing their taxes. So some horrific propositions were put on the ballots. But actually, most of them were defeated, through some good, if underfunded, advertising by the “anti” forces. However, the corporations have been able to defeat virtually every populist consumer-based initiative, by swamping the airwaves (and I mean swamping; something like every five minutes, one of their ads would run) with messages carefully constructed to manipulate the opinions of voters, or make them think that “up is down,” the way that Orwell’s then-fictional totalitarian state did.
The typical buzzwords used (they are pretty easy to deduce, since we hear them all the time), are: “This will raise your taxes”; “We can’t afford to spend this money now”; “This will further damage a struggling economy”; “It will cost jobs”; “It is supported by the trial lawyers, who want to make money by filing frivolous lawsuits.” They have been tested and re-tested by the computer programs, and by immense marketing research. And very sadly, they seem to work. Most people just don’t have the time or even the insight necessary to sift through these messages and try to figure out who is paying for them. I always thought that the best way for the vastly underfunded consumer side of things to fight this avalanche of ads, was to try a little ju jitsu, by simply running a few ads saying, “All these ads you have been seeing, urging you to vote No on Proposition 58? Take a look at who is paying for them. Billion-dollar corporations which want to rob you of the ability to see what actually is in the foods you are buying. Stop them from duping you into buying genetically engineered and dangerous foods. Vote Yes on 58.” But no one actually runs such ads, and I don’t know if they would work, in any event. So the corporations spend $100 million to make $3 billion, a good investment for them. And this profit is poured into more of such marketing research and mind control manipulation.
Of course this has become pervasive in actual person-vs.-person elections as well. Both sides do it, but the Republicans, awash in corporate billions, have a lot more money to do so. And they are much more machiavellian about it. The Republicans have long ago abandoned whatever moral compunction they may once have had. They do not believe in science; they do not believe in facts; their sacred text is anything which can get them to win a national election. And very tragically, they are getting better and better at it. The fate of our democracy depends on people smartening up, and becoming more impervious to this evil marketing. And of course it depends on the reversal of the “Citizens United” decision, which opened the floodgates to “dark money” coming in to election campaigns, with no way for people to discern who is really behind it.
Now, as we know, the Republicans will do anything to defeat Hillary Clinton. Hillary is the greatest, and maybe the last, threat to their efforts to completely take over every branch of government, plus the media. At such a point, people would have no way to know what the truth was; they would just be brainwashed by the political leaders, supported by the corporate-owned media. We could be fighting Eastasia, or not; we could now be allies with Eastasia; who could tell? It is not really that difficult to create a totalitarian state, if you have control of all branches of government, AND the media; AND if you have trillions of dollars, and advanced computer metrics to show you how to keep this control.
So we are already seeing the results of these billions (and I literally mean billions) of dollars being spent on marketing research and advertising, designed to poison the voters’ minds against Hillary Clinton. We read that they are trying to figure out exactly how to get women voters to turn against Hillary. It is simply a marketing problem for them; like how to convince people not to buy a competitor’s detergent. They develop focus groups, and they try the various ads out on them. They found that the harsher ads were rejected by potential women voters, so they are going to try “softer” ads, all designed to change the minds of the women voters who originally favored Hillary. Will they be successful in this? Let us all fervently hope not. But we know that people are very susceptible to cleverly positioned ad campaigns. Just like in “1984,” the goal is to figure out what people’s greatest fear is, and then play upon it, to convince them that Hillary Clinton will cause the things that they don’t want. The accuracy of any of this is of absolutely no concern to them, just like it wasn’t to Goebbels in Nazi Germany, where his “Big Lie” technique was perfected.
And as we have discussed before, the Republicans believe that their best line of attack is the personal. They really don’t want to debate issues with Hillary Clinton. They want to convince people that she is a bad person, that she lies, that she cannot be trusted. All of these are nonsensical, but marketing research shows that you might be able to convince people of anything, if you say it frequently and cleverly enough. There is not one shred of fact indicating that Hillary has ever lied or misled about one aspect of political life; and probably not her personal life, either. But that does not stop the corporate marketers, who will run ads which say “she can’t be trusted,” over and over and over, like the Chinese Water Torture, designed to break the will of the tortured person. They will try to paint her as some kind of evil figure who wants to accumulate imperial power, when it is really they who want that power. They will doctor photographs of her to make her look unpleasant. And rest assured, they will seize on the most infinitesimal misstatement in any debate or speech to proclaim, ” You see! She lies! She misleads! You cannot trust her!” And the media, which is supposed to be a neutral and fair-minded watchdog, is really in the pocket of the corporatists, and will cheerfully aid them in this brainwashing technique.
We can still prevail in this election, and must do so. We cannot be overly dispirited by the misrepresentations in the broadcast and print media. But we have to provide the Clinton campaign with as much money as possible to help them to combat the Republicans’ insidious multi-billion dollar brainwashing campaign. It is a great shame that you need money to combat money; but right now, this is what has to be done. And then of course there still is a place for grassroots campaigning, where you can talk to the people one by one, and show them that billion dollar funded marketing lies are just that. We can all play a part in that, even as the main battles are inevitably fought in the media. Never in my life so much as now, have I felt that “1984” could become a reality. But it is not an inevitable reality, as long as we recognize the danger, and do not become paralyzed by fear or despair when confronting it.
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