Walt Disney cartoon characters, brought to life with exquisite skill by the original Nine Old Men, hand-picked by Walt Disney to head up his studio’s animation department, have been characterized as colonizing the minds of movie-goers around the world, in a process known as Disneyfication, which has parallels with McDonaldization.
The concepts of Disneyfication and McDonaldization bring to mind several authors who’ve focused upon the qualities and attributes associated with instrumental reason, rationality, and modernity including the philosopher Charles Taylor.
Along with Mickey Mouse, civic advocacy is a key attribute of the era or eras – they go by various names – that have superseded modernity
Endless propaganda (Rutherford, 2000)
The concluding chapter in a book discussed in a previous blog, Endless propaganda, seeks to contrast contemporary democracy with what it would look like in an ideal world as characterized by Jürgen Habermas among others.
In the ideal world descibed by Habermas, “ordinary people would engage in rational debate about common issues, and do so as equal and impartial participants who could transcent self-interest and their initial preferences.”
In such a world, one would have what’s described as a classic public space in which the focus, according to Paul Rutherford, is on “debating and deliberating rather than buying and selling.”
I preface my remarks in this blog by saying that the reference by Jürgen Habermas and others to an ideal democracy does not inspire me. The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that attempts to set up what key decision makers and thinkers picture as ‘ideal’ societies can lead to unfortunate consequences.
Rutherford refers to three aspects of civic advocacy – a term that he uses interchangeably with civic advertising – that are characteristic of affluent societies from 1970 to 2000, the period of history that his study focuses upon.
1. Ideas are communicated by a relatively small circle of interests including public-interest groups.
The book brings attention to civic advocacy by the Canadian government in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, for example, Health Canada started Participaction, which channelled vast amounts of money toward advertising aimed at promoting physical fitness among Canadians.
Although the claim was an exaggeration, which is not unusual in civic advocacy, the message had a strong impact at the time.
The results of the message, as Rutherford notes, were not long-lasting. In order to be effective, ads have to be repeated, and also in time need to be changed. Otherwise they wear out, because people stop taking notice of them.
2. There’s been a partial retreat of the state from civic advocacy
The emergence of a privatized form of civic advocacy in the United States and elsewhere is an illustration of a concomitant trend associated with the partial retreat of the state from this form of advocacy.
3. Issue or advocacy advertising has emerged as a key element in national politics
In the above-noted form of civic advocacy, a new series of non-public authorities has emerged. In the United States, these agents of advocacy have included, by way of example, champions of handgun control, nuclear energy, pro-pife and pro-choice positions, seniors, tac reform, the American flag, the Sierra Club, the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO. Such agents have focused on the broadcasting of issue ads to influence the national debate.
Having money made civic advocacy easier for some groups than others. In the absence of vast amounts of money, alternative means — such as moral weight or expert status — were used by some groups to establish a presence.
Rutherford adds that during the period covered by his study, the notion of television as an open forum “energized some groups such as Adbusters and cultural jammers generally, there was little prospect that their hopes would be realized. Extremists and outcasts, labelled as such by the media, were often censored, their images kept hidden and their voices silenced.”
The endless propaganda to which the title of the book refers emphasized “both hierarchy and exclusion, establishing that a very few voices would be far more significant than the rest.” Rather than open debate, there was competition among opinions.
“Marketing was,” notes Rutherford, “among other things, a technology of managing opinions. Marketing encompasses the two modes of visual power: polling constitutes surveillance, just as advertising becomes spectacle.”
As he approaches the end of his concluding remarks, Rutherford adds that:
“Propaganda [that is, civic advocacy as Rutherford defines it] can set the agenda (determine what issues are of importance), prime discussion (determine what critera are used to assess a person or issue), excite controversy (where news outlets take different stands).”
“Advertising as propaganda has colonized the public sphere with styles of rhetoric and imagery”
Advertising as propaganda — that is, civic advocacy — has, Rutherford concludes, “colonized the public sphere with styles of rhetoric and imagery, a way of perceiving problems and solutions, derived from the operations of the marketplace.”
Many things have been commodified, including politics, leisure, art, learning, and dissent, asserts the author.
As well, “civic advertising has also worked to subject its products, both public goods and social risks, to a moral logic, a calculus of right and wrong. That has proved the most effective way to package the sell, because a moral logic reaches across boundaries of class, gender, race, and belief. Issues, politicians, ideas, policies, and behaviours are all transformed into moral commodities. The results have been so promising that the practice of moralizing has begun to condition the selling of private goods as well.”
A subsequent blog post is devoted to the moral logic of civic advertising, a term that in Rutherford’s usage appears to be interchangeable with civic advocacy.