Buy One, Get One Free: On Capitalist Propaganda

The more pervasive and unchallenged propaganda is, the more effective it is. Once it has completed its task, the population at large will not even see it.

As a salesman by trade, I handle a lot of promotional materials for the products we sell at my workplace (booklets and product samples). These range from decking to fasteners, all the way to kitchen faucets. I have a front row seat to the construction industry’s view of itself. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on one example: door slabs.

The Ecstasy of Masonite® Doors

In one of our slots is a thick booklet from the creators of Masonite® Doors. The front cover features a woman walking through one of said Doors, beaming…The Slab itself prominently displayed in all Its cleanness, beauty, glory. The next page we see another image, one of a father joyfully watching his two daughters run off to soccer practice. He is standing halfway inside a wood-grain texture Masonite® Door. The front of the house is pristine, clearly amplified by the gorgeous, gorgeous Door.

After a few pages touting the long list of benefits (one of the slogans we are taught to memorize at my workplace: “lead the customer to the benefits!”) we have a photograph of a family enjoying a meal in the dining room, all facing the camera, laughing, smiling! Spotless kitchen, and a gourmet meal. Behind them, a perfect Door. That Oxford Style Masonite® Door behind them sure helped bring joy to this family!

The message is crystal clear: “buy our product, and you will find joy”. This message rings everywhere in capitalist society. You cannot escape it. It calls to us on the roads, sings to us during our broadcasts, and is even present on the pump handles at gas stations. On the floors of the grocery store. In the aps on our smartphones. In our games. At our sports events. Even in Pride Parades.

As a social system, capitalism has been running the longest, most successful propaganda campaign in human history. In our time, we refer to this as “advertising”. Necessarily, capitalist propaganda goes beyond advertising into the news media, TV shows (“Cops” comes to mind) and from public officials themselves (who are often capitalists or former capitalists). But the vast bulk of this propaganda, and the heart of its focus, lies in advertising.

Advertising is the all-pervasive and unchallenged propaganda of our time. It has completed its task, for most workers do not see it as propaganda.

What Makes Propaganda, Propaganda?

Some skeptical minds will have read what I wrote above and remain suspicious. They say to themselves that this just can’t be propaganda. “Propaganda is a tool used by malicious governments to trick their populations. Individual corporations trying to make their way in the market are not propaganda,” they might object.

Yes indeed. History shows malicious governments having used propaganda to manipulate their populations. But to claim that this is what propaganda is in its entirety is false. Governments sometimes use force against their citizens; should we thus define “force” as the government making their citizens do things? Of course not. “Force” means much more than that. Propaganda means much more as well.

Properly understood, propaganda is a widely applied message, meant to frame a particular narrative (what is the story of our time?) and push an agenda (what should we do in our time?). Propaganda is inherently biased. Governments have used propaganda to push narratives and agendas, this is undeniable. But they do not have a monopoly on propaganda.

Example: FOX, CNN, Brietbart, etc. These are outlets which push through narratives with particular policy aims. These are not governments, though they often have close ties with government officials. Controlled or funded by capitalist institutions and individuals, they frame all issues on capital’s terms (pro-market, pro-business, etc.). These are outlets controlled by the owners of economic property in the interest of protecting that property from the many. They have an agenda (oftentimes attempts to get the working class to fight itself, or to justify the newest war) and will use narratives to push that agenda (oftentimes using racism, i.e. “immigrants cause all problems,” or painting a non-cooperative sovereign state as inherently irrational).

Even we communists, humbled by history, use propaganda. We have a narrative and we have an agenda. That is the narrative of working class struggle and the agenda of working class revolution. We don’t claim to be objective, we aren’t. We are biased towards the needs and aims of the working class (and all oppressed by capitalist accumulation, and the state violence which serves it). Since the working class is the audience of our message, we will not hide our aims from them. American communist and socialist organizations are by no means government organizations, and yet here for your free viewing it is: our propaganda.

Ads as Propaganda

If we understand propaganda in this way, then the endless barrage of advertisements we experience incessantly is the propaganda of a ruling capitalist class against a ruled working class. The narrative? “Our product(s) are amazing. Unquestionably!” The agenda? “Buy this thing and be happy/cool/upgraded”. The agenda is to promote the commodity they sell on the market.

This is all in the service of the private profit of the owners of corporations. If the stockholder, CEO, or business owner can get millions of people to obediently go to work and then take their money to the mall, they make moolah like kings. The capitalist system of commodity production, and profit for a few, sustains itself.

Advertisements are a deep layer of illusion that hides the real source of workers struggles behind a wall of gloss and glamour. It pretends that the workers can solve their problems by consuming another product. “Have a problem? Buy this!” This layer is buttressed up by a web of media organizations, owned by capitalists, who report the news on current events in a way that reflects positively on the whole for-profit enterprise, as well as calling on “experts” favorable to capital’s interests.

When you see an advertisement, that is the capitalist injecting a meme into your mind with the intent of opening your wallet and, consequently, blinding you to the fact that the commodity they peddle was created with exploited labor. But it also has the double, unspoken effect of singing the praises of a system ruled by property owners…but actually run by the mass of working people.

Work hard, consume, and don’t question the boss. Such is the mantra ever repeated from the capitalist class to the working class, in an endless barrage of noise from every screen and on every surface in every store. And on the wall at my own workplace. They don’t have to outright say it, but it is implied. You can’t, after all, get that new razor blade or video game without selling your labor to a capitalist first.

Surely, it must take a whole lot of effort to produce this barrage of advertisements. A whole lot of human labor. Well…

The Absurd Waste of Advertising

I suppose now is as good a time to remind everyone that one Superbowl ad can cost millions of dollars. For 30 seconds. Somehow though, caring for our sick is too much a financial burden in the United States.

Behold the efficiency of the free market: Where countless hours of labor, watts of electricity, pounds of steel, and land space is devoted to reminding highway drivers that… Sheetz has over 100 drink flavors.

So I, a person tired from a ten hour shift taking doors off trucks, really needed to know that? Thanks free market. I especially like the ones that are massive screens with animations. How many thousands of dollars a year are needed for this upkeep? Per road?

Next, what may seem like a trivial point: advertisements take up the resource of time. Millions of hours of your time, fellow workers, are gone. Where did it go? Into every commercial break and YouTube ad. Hours and hours and hours. Gone! That was part of our free time, the time supposedly meant for R-n-R, but is used instead to tell us to buy more things.

At my own workplace the waste is just silly. Every year we get updated catalogs of product lines for doors from two different brands. Generally speaking, the old ones are either kept in storage and collect dust, or they get thrown in the garbage. We also get multiple samples of trim and composite decking. To a certain extent these are very useful, since customers can take them home and compare. But we get new samples frequently. What are we to do with the old? Furthermore, we have multiple product lines with two or more companies competing to sell essentially the same product (Trex vs. Moisture Shield, GAF vs Owens Corning, etc, etc, etc, etc, all competing capitalists in the market). Each individually make their own promotional materials. Individually they have entire departments of workers dedicated to these projects. That is money, worker-hours, time, ink, and fuel for transportation of the materials.

It should be remembered that the thousands of workers who toil on, draw, animate, print, mail, and construct these advertisements across the globe are also exploited for their labor, just like every other worker (given a wage that sustains them, while the capitalist retains the fruits of their extra work as profit. In Marx-speak that’s called “surplus-value”).

The insanity of it all is that we as a species have the productive powers to make everything we need to live healthy and free lives with a minimum of work required. Instead workers are pitted against each other in the needless delivery of crap, as part and parcel of the capitalist process of commodity production, as well as a culture that encourages workers to see others as the enemy. (Salesperson at Lowe’s competing against salesperson at Home Depot; delivery driver for 84 Lumber must get to the job on time to stay competitive with the driver from Lezzer Lumber). So much human effort is absolutely wasted in this needless competition.

Clicks in the Service of Profit

Advertising gets weirder when capitalists use big data, and marketing, in the age of the internet. “Big Brother”, it turns out, was just Google’s marketing department. Orwell wasn’t exactly on the mark.

Information technology corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon use algorithms and immense amounts of collected data about your browsing and “like”-ing habits, and will then use this information as best they can to target ads specifically catered to you. Yes, you. The person reading this article. You have a name and an IP address. Thanks to Facebook and other websites they know your name and they probably also know what you like and don’t like.

The implications when we consider politics are chilling. For example: ever wonder why people live in their own bubbles, becoming ever more hostile and getting ever fewer opposed views on the world? This is why. Political ads targeted to particular audiences (carefully monitored and studied by teams of in-house corporate sociologists) is why. Algorithms which drive clicks for that sweet ad revenue, rather than expand our minds, is why.

Fake news? That’s money.

The business model is this: the selling of an audience to advertisers, i.e. a capitalist (Mark Zuckerburg) providing a service to other capitalists (Ubisoft, Toyota, etc) in the form of workers who will, after a long, tired day of working, want to sit back and scroll on their feed. In other words, willing eyes. Such services are also rendered to political representatives and their opponents in elections.

This sniper propaganda has been very profitable for the likes of Zuckerburg, who also happens to be one of the eight individuals who, collectively, control the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest of us.

Keep this in mind when we recall the US Congress voting to allow internet service providers to sell your browsing information to the highest bidder. It should make people question, who does the US government serve? In reality?

Mind you, there is no technological reason why the internet has to be designed like this. The internet is not an innate Big Brother machine. It is not necessary to track users information for advertising purposes, and then waste screen space on said advertisements. The internet is just computers talking to each other. Nobody needs to be listening in.

“Big Brother” as we have come to know it exists because the internet was created under a capitalist system. Necessarily, as it grows, the for-profit, class dominated system will shape it just like any new government, agency, or colony would be shaped by it. It will be used by the ruling capitalist class for their purposes, to say nothing of the state-run surveillance apparatus used to track, monitor, and control the working class. But not billionaires. Or the millionaire congressmen, noticeably.

If you are concerned about your online privacy, a communist government, or Skynet, is the least of your worries right now. Capitalism, has already destroyed your privacy in the name of advancing the capitalist agenda and its propaganda: ads. Do not forget, all those ads still need workers to make them, money to fund them, time to watch them, and take up space in our feeds.

The capitalist system is clearly unethical and inefficient. The internet would certainly get along just fine without all that dead weight.

What Would Happen Under Socialism?

For starters, the tens of thousands of workers who are trained to be predators of their fellow human beings at the behest of capitalists (i.e. salesmen and marketers like myself), can find something better to do with their time. Its not like provision for the needs of our lives–including entertainment–requires teams of human beings dedicated to injecting Final Fantasy ads into your Sudoku app.

The amount of labor that could be saved by the elimination of advertising in our daily lives would go a long way towards reducing working times in all other industries, by the rational redistribution of work based on human need, not profitability.

Furthermore, your bandwidth will be freed. I can guarantee you that with a planned internet that provides the service to citizens as a right-to-information, your internet speeds will explode. No more NSA collecting porn data. No more Double Click monitoring your google searches for advertising. No more animated ads for crappy games you don’t want. Just internet. We can still have free spaces where individuals or groups can make their own websites and have freedom of expression, but no longer will the maintenance of said websites require the grace of capitalist advertisers and all the junk that entails. Workers collectives (democratically run and operated by the workers) can maintain the integrity and safety of their own nets and servers. Big Brother will not have a home.

I could go exhaustively into detail about every little thing that could be improved with our lives once we ditch capitalism in favor of socialism. But that alone would warrant an article itself, and would be largely speculative, since I have no means of knowing what a united working class would do once they had complete power, as they should have.

It suffices, for my purposes here, to point out that the barrage of advertisements that envelop our lives, from dawn to dusk, are a symptom of a larger problem: an economic system where a tiny few who own massive property have unilateral control of both investment decisions and their employees. In market warfare with each other, they not only waste human potential, but push out what they consider the story of our time: “Buy something, and sate your desires.”  All for the benefit of who happens to own productive property.

We can express ourselves differently and more deeply. We can fill our world and our minds with thoughts that ultimately matter to our existence as fragile human beings, rather than to the existence of capital. Let us construct a new narrative, not one that pushes commodities, but one that upholds human existence as worth living on its own terms.  Advertisements don’t need to exist, and I look forward with great joy the day we all recognize this fact.