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Excerpts from Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods.

Paul Rutherford

In his 1973 essay "The Public Sphere" Habermas argued that the new basis for democracy must rest upon "a rationalization of the exercise of social and political power under the mutual control of rival organizations committed to publicness in their internal structure as well as in their dealings with the state and with one another."....The practice of debate depended upon the "institutional core of a civil society," that is, "voluntary unions outside the realm of the state and the economy," from churches and sports clubs, groups of concerned citizens, and grass roots petitioning drives, to political parties and trade unions. Also, he now believed that education and the like had enhanced the ability of a pluralistic, internally much differentiated mass public to resist or refashion the messages of authority. Habermas had reintroduced an element of struggle into the routines of the contemporary public sphere. (258)

Colors #47
One grand source of propaganda was and remains the state and its many agencies. The exercise of state authority in the classic public sphere had been subordinated to the "requirement of democratic publicness." But a phenomenon of the times has been the expanding scope of governance or, rather, the collapse of so much that was once private into the public sphere, out of which the interventionist state waxed strong-for a while. During the 1970s and 1980s the Canadian state was the world leader in the use of civic advertising to make its citizens aware of the public import of their private actions; it ranked at the top of the list of ad spenders in the country. In 1971 Health Canada, for example, started Participaction to cajole a lazy public into becoming fit…Government agencies, provincial as well as federal, used communications to fight drugs and smoking, to end domestic violence, to rehabilitate the image of disabled persons, even to sell the country. (260)

More recently, a second phenomenon of public advocacy has seen the partial retreat of the state. The process has been interpreted as the withering away of the public sector. But at another level it has meant a privatization of direction, and the innovator in this regard has been the U.S….The Americans built necessary ensembles of different interests, assembling money and expertise and passion in agencies that exercised public power. The story of the National Crime Prevention Council and the McGruff advertising campaigns illustrates how state agencies, business, and non-profits could coalesce behind specific projects....It was accredited by governments, and by all levels of government, but it drew its authority from the representation of an assortment of interests and the alliance with even more. It was elitist, playing a leadership role, and constructing the citizenry as subjects who required guidance. It employed expertise, analyses, calculations, all sorts of procedures to identify risk and then to manage the problem of crime. One of these procedures was a constant but tailored propaganda disseminated through the most important of the media, television. (262)

A third phenomenon has been the escalating importance of issue or advocacy advertising in national politics. The technology of persuasion pioneered by corporations was soon appropriated by governments. During the late 1980s for example, the Thatcher regime used advertising to sell such policies as privatization. But again the most important agents became a series of non-public authorities. One of the most spectacular interventions in Canada's political history occurred during the 1988 federal election when business interests spent an estimated $19 million to sell the Free Trade Agreement to the electorate via an assortment of promotional vehicles. During the 1990s, pro-life/anti-abortion associations mounted one the longest TV campaigns on record to alter American attitudes-and laws. In the 1996 U.S. election, the champions of handgun control, nuclear energy, pro-life and pro-choice positions, seniors, tax reform, the American flag, the Sierra Club, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, all and more broadcast issue ads to condition the national debate. (262)

Action is infectious: the more agents employ advocacy, the more their opponents feel the need to match such efforts....To a degree, the new order required organizations to recognize the import of publicity and polling, or else their ability to exercise power would suffer, a situation that the Labour Party in Britain came to recognize after the mid-1980s. Ironically, by the late 1990s a very savvy Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister, was being accused of trying to "rebrand Britain" as "Cool Britannia" in an effort to construct a new sense of national identity. (262)

In Canada…the well-financed National Citizens' Coalition, founded in the mid-1970s, earned notoriety by running newspaper ads and funding posters against big government, overtaxation, and left or liberal villains, including the unions. In the absence of such resources, agents required alternative means, particularly moral weight (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or expert status (groups like the American Medical Association), to establish a presence....Extremists and outcasts, labeled as such by the media, were often censored [Adbusters for example], their images kept hidden and their voices silenced. North American television does not sell time to drug lords, no matter how much money they command. The gatekeeper role of the media in particular ensures that propaganda is mostly a tool of what Habermas called, with some disdain, "authorized opinions." (263)

Propaganda can set the agenda (determine what issues are of importance), prime discussion (determine what criteria are used to assess a person or issue), excite controversy (where news outlets take different stands), or generate support (where the media elaborate its message). Whatever its impact, the result is productive-of comment, argument, and discourse. (268)

Advertising as propaganda has colonized the public sphere with styles of rhetoric and imagery, a way of perceiving problems and solutions, derived from the operations of the marketplace. That might be counted part of the successful effort to commodify just about everything in the late twentieth century, including politics and leisure, art and learning, even dissent--a commodification that is by now a familiar motif of postmodern commentary. The so-called mass democracies are fast becoming market democracies in political as well as economic terms; or, to be more exact, they are marketplaces of democracy. But signifying yet another triumph for the commodity is not the end of the story. For 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 behaviors 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. (268)

Let me return to one acclaimed comment of Walter Benjamin: "The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life." The obverse of this much-quoted assertion has not been recognized, however: that the thrust of the aesthetic into the public sphere fosters a brand of despotism, at least when despotism is defined in terms of style rather than ideology. Habermas likewise linked spectacle and authoritarianism. Civic advocates have, as it were, "practiced Gramsci" They have sought to construct what amounts to a moral hegemony in the public sphere, to ensure that their conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong become the official norms, if not common sense. (272)

In some ways, advocacy advertising has seemed a necessary response to the depoliticization encouraged by popular culture. But this soft power of persuasion has undeniably corrupted the practices of democracy. Perhaps a medical analogy will help here: civic advocacy constitutes a kind of virus which debilitates the body politic. If the public sphere has retained its discursive character, propaganda now shapes and suppresses debate. The sphere remains the site for the production of public opinion that is given concrete form by surveys and polls which, to a degree, actually fashion the opinion through the process of asking certain questions (and not asking others). Because of an excess of goods and risks competing for attention, the sphere continues to be a contested arena; however, much of the excess is manufactured by people and institutions with money, moral clout, or other forms of power. The mass media play out a double role here, both as the vehicle of competitive spectacles and as the source of news, a different kind of discourse, though again a monologue and now contaminated by the ubiquity of publicity. Popular participation is restricted, usually being limited to the response people as consumers and spectators have to the commodities and sights on offer. Illusion more than substance, manipulation but some resistance, both indifference and militancy, are all part of the complex environment fostered by propaganda and its associates. Postmodern democracy, in short, does have something of a "refeudalized" quality. (275)

Excerpted from Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods , Paul Rutherford. Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 2000. Fair dealing applies.