Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why So Many Celebrities? They Are the Masks that Humanize Corporations


The Coca-Cola organization without the smiling celebrity mask (source)

by Gaius Publius

On this side of the Atlantic, George Monbiot is an underappreciated writer. The piece I'm about to quote makes just two main points, but they are stunning. The subject under consideration: Why is the modern world awash in celebrities, from actors who've "done something" to people like the Kardashians, who appear to have done nothing at all but "be famous."

We've even just elected our second celebrity president, a man known more as a "brand" than as person, the first being Reagan. Why did we do that?

Why are there so many of celebrities, and what do they really do? Is it something about the media, or the 20th century nationalization of publicity, that creates these people — for example, via the earlier movie fan magazines and now television and the Internet? Or is media not the cause? Is the presence of all these celebrities in our media a result of something else, of something more hidden from us?

Monbiot thinks he has the answer to the question "why so many celebrities?" and I think he's right. His two main points:

▪ Corporations are lifeless predatory monsters. They need human faces to make them look like our friends. This is like putting a face-like mask on a robot before it asks you out to dinner ... to eat you. Celebrities act as their masks and supply those human faces.

▪ At the same time that celebrities humanize the corporations that use them, they themselves become less human, productized, marketed (by themselves and others) as things — masks or "brands" — good mainly for their utility to the corporate world that employs them.

As Monbiot puts it in his piece: "Celebrity is not harmless fun – it’s the lieutenant of exploitation." The essay is called "Imaginary Friends". Here are two excepts, each making one of the two points above.

Celebrities As Human Masks for Inhuman Products and Entities

About the first point, Monbiot writes (my emphasis):
The rise of celebrity culture did not happen by itself. It has long been cultivated by advertisers, marketers and the media. And it has a function. The more distant and impersonal corporations become, the more they rely on other people’s faces to connect them to their customers.

Corporation means body; capital means head. But corporate capital has neither head nor body. It is hard for people to attach themselves to a homogenised franchise, owned by a hedge fund whose corporate identity consists of a filing cabinet in Panama City. So the machine needs a mask. It must wear the face of someone we see as often as we see our next-door neighbours. It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living; her role is to exist in our minds. By playing our virtual neighbour, she induces a click of recognition on behalf of whatever grey monolith sits behind her this week.

An obsession with celebrity does not lie quietly beside the other things we value; it takes their place. A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007. In 1997, the dominant values (as judged by an adult audience) expressed by the shows most popular among 9-11 year olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the 16 values tested. By 2007, when shows like Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th; benevolence to 12th.
Which leads to two sub-points:
A paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies found that, among the people it surveyed, those who follow celebrity gossip most closely are three times less likely than people interested in other forms of news to be involved in local organisations, and half as likely to volunteer. Virtual neighbours replace real ones.

The blander and more homogenised the product, the more distinctive the mask it needs to wear. This is why Iggy Pop is used to promote motor insurance and Benicio del Toro is used to sell Heineken. The role of such people is to suggest that there something more exciting behind the logo than office blocks and spreadsheets. They transfer their edginess to the company they represent: as soon they take the cheque that buys their identity, they become as processed and meaningless as the item they are promoting.
An American example — the nameless person cast as "the most interesting man in the world" is needed to put a face to a product few can recall by name, especially now they've retired the old, nameless "most interesting man" and hired a nameless younger replacement.

You can even apply the idea to something much less bland and far more objectionable, like the Republican Party. You need a celebrity as outlandish as Trump to market that product, to take your eyes off what's really underneath. None of the other members of their vaunted "deep bench" could have done a tenth of what Trump accomplished as an obscuring mask for the vile set of policies known as "Republicanism."

Trump was a good mask because the party's "customers" saw Trump and not the party or its goals. With any of the others as the party's virtual face, most people would see right through them to the Republicanism beneath. As masks they'd be worthless, transparent, obscuring nothing.

Celebrities Become Products

Once they become masks for others, celebrities become products themselves. While they're busy humanizing corporations, corporations are busy productizing celebrities. Monbiot:
The celebrities you see most often are the most lucrative products, extruded through a willing media by a marketing industry whose power no one seeks to check. This is why actors and models now receive such disproportionate attention, capturing much of the space once occupied by people with their own ideas. Their expertise lies in channelling other people’s visions. ...

You don’t have to read or watch many interviews to see that the principal qualities now sought in a celebrity are vapidity, vacuity and physical beauty. They can be used as a blank screen onto which anything can be projected. Those who have least to say are granted the greatest number of platforms on which to say it....

[But as] soon as celebrities forget their allotted role, the hounds of hell are let loose upon them. Lily Allen was the media’s darling when she was advertising John Lewis’s. Gary Lineker couldn’t put a foot wrong when he stuck to selling junk food to children. But when they expressed sympathy for refugees, they were torn to shreds. When you take the corporate shilling, you are supposed to stop thinking for yourself.
When celebrities take corporate money, in other words, masking and humanizing the product or operation, they become products as well, marketable only to the extent that they don't intrude an identity of their own onto the scripted (painted-on) identity the "mask" is intended to project.

Corporations As "Imaginary Friends" 

As to Monbiot's title, "Imaginary Friends" — for Monbiot the friends are the celebrities, and they are indeed imaginary. Kim Kardashian could be as imaginary as the Marlboro Man, a person who never existed, and none of us would know it. Celebrities are real to us in our minds alone, and we do imagine they are our friends.

But considering their function — to put a human face on the inhuman machinery of exploitation — it's easy to see that our actual "imaginary friends" are really the corporations themselves, whom we are taught to imagine as human, likable, even friendly, but who in fact would kill us the minute the cost-benefit analysis went their way but not ours. Is McDonald's your friend? Is WalMart?

How about Coke, the company that makes the happy fizzy drink? The Coca-Cola company is a nonhuman, profit-seeking corporation that is guilty of murder to protect its profits. Only its paid, smiling-mask faces want to "teach the world to sing."

The mask hides the psychopath beneath. And that's why we have celebrities, to keep us from noticing all that we're surrounded by.


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At 11:52 AM, Blogger VG said...

~The rise of celebrity culture did not happen by itself. It has long been cultivated by advertisers, marketers and the media. And it has a function. The more distant and impersonal corporations become, the more they rely on other people’s faces to connect them to their customers.~

Coca-Cola. That got me started searching the internet. What Monibot is describing as “the celebrity culture” – is timely, but look back at some old Coca-Cola ads. Other people’s faces? More than that- relying other people’s bodies- women’s bodies- pin-up girls. Coca-Cola was using these images to associate its brand with happy times, sexual titillation, whatever.

Maybe some one wants to believe that Coca-Cola has become a more “distant and impersonal corporation” over the decades. I don’t. The same as it ever was. Tapping into the cultural ethos of the time. So, I see a continuum that goes much further back than the “celebrity culture”. Not imaginary friends, but imaginary sex.

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

VG makes a good point. This isn't new.

Used to be nameless bikini babes smiling the come-hither look to sell cars and beer. Now they have a name and if they have a name, they don't need to strip as often.

As the "culture"(?!?) evolves to almost entirely impersonal ("friends" you never meet and so forth), it is the deluded, imagined relationships that idiots form that attach them emotionally to endorsed products (or their delusion of a gawd... think about that). Thus you get the barely sentient (benefit of the doubt) fool bawling on youtube to "just leave Brittney alone" and so on.

But I remember a former spoiled brat tennis player hawking cameras with the tag line "image is everything" and a Blaxploitation movie with the title "get rich of die trying" and a thousand other bullet points in time over the past 50 years upon which you can plot the downward vector. ("more doctors smoke pall malls"??? anyone remember these?)

When I used to buy candy from a mom/pop store in 1962, the owners forged a relationship face-to-face with me. I spent a lot of my lawnmowing and snowshovelling money there because I liked going in. They'd say hi and remember my name. Sometimes they'd throw in an extra jawbreaker for free.

Now you get a franchise owned/operated by someone who is afraid you're going to steal from them, and they don't always speak very good English.

And I haven't bought a certain brand of car nor set foot in a Sears or Walmart in decades because the corporation either is now evil or once screwed me or my family as a matter of course for them. I will also never do business with citigroup or wells-fargo or goldman-sachs or chase for obvious reasons.

I remember hearing or reading an interview with an auto exec back in the '70s (?) where he admitted that they didn't HAVE to make a good car, they just needed to advertise it well and they'd sell all they could manufacture. Cost accounting is used to determine how many people they can kill and still save money over fixing a faulty product (recent takata air bags; years past - GMC pickups with sidesaddle gas tanks; many other examples).

Kudos to Intel who found an esoteric flaw in a processor (floating point arithmetic) and just fixed them all at their own cost. I doubt we'll ever see another such example ... ever.

When it gets so impersonal that they don't care if they screw millions of people, or kill a few, depending on the money algorithm... things have gone way too far.


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