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Swooshing the Presidency
by BK Loren PHOTOS BY ALISON JACKSON
"For years, we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company,
meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the
product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is
market the product. We've come around to saying that Nike is a
marketing-oriented company, and our most important products are our
-- Phil Knight, founder of the Nike Corporation
Blair Assists Bush
A young man dribbles a basketball. I mean, he really dribbles it.
As if by sleight of hand magic, the ball rises to chest-level,then rolls
from the fingertips of his left to his right hand in one beautiful arc,
then the dribbling resumes, no glitch in his ballet-like fluidity.
It's a top budget film you're watching, done in high-contrast
black and white, where the white is actually silver.
It is gorgeous to look at, even if you're not a sports fan.
One young man after the other dribbles the ball, and before your eyes
basketball turns into high art.
You're entranced. When the thirty-second ad ends, you want more.
The ad uses no words. It doesn't have to. It ends with a Nike swoosh.
This single brushstroke renders product information, substance, material,
ethical practices, quality, and language itself unnecessary.
You know all you need to know.
Swoosh. Product recognition. Product sold.
For his 2004 campaign George W. Bush just doubled the Nike swoosh,
extended the edges a bit and -- voila -- the now-infamous W appeared.
You saw it on bumper stickers, lapel pins, T-shirts, television.
Becoming one easily recognizable letter, George W. Bush
managed to simplify even himself.
Not a name, not a word,
not a complete and coherent sentence.
Just a logo.
W. The man. The myth. The prez.
No explanation necessary.
Americans have come to love their product names and logos.
Like a secret code, logos offer instantaneous, subliminal access
to concepts and unspoken understandings.
There's scarcely an American limb, trunk, appendage or orifice
not laden with corporate graphics, and with good reason.
Though we may rise from bed naked and unlogoed, should we walk
into the street like this our logolessness could wreak havoc.
What class is this being?
What are his beliefs?
What are her interests, her values?
It's only when she dons her DK jeans, her Revo shades,
or gets into her Jesus-fish-adorned SUV
that we can finally identify her. Relief!
There was a time not so long ago when we had to enter into conversation
to get to know one another. We bought a product because our mother used it
or a friend recommended it. Now, we would be lost without the quick little
signifiers that offer conventional "wisdom."
On November 3, 2004, a smidgen less than half of the American
population were stunned. We, who call ourselves liberals, radicals,
leftists, "progressives," scratched our heads.
We analyzed. We processed. We regrouped and remained positive.
We tried to comprehend how the other half of our fellow Americans
could possibly have voted for a man who denies evolution
but whose performance in the presidential debates nonetheless
suggested closer genetic ties to a lower order of...
No, I won't go there. It's unbecoming of me as a liberal.
I'm supposed to be compassionate, to process things rationally -
- even while right wing government warmongers hammer me with one
oversimplified insult after the other as they whittle away my rights
as an American; while the boots of "freedom"
are sent marching across the globe in my name and...
(Note to self: Stay on message.)
Thanks to the barrage of corporate ads that assault the American public
daily, American minds have been primed for W's oversimplified talking
points for decades. A group of folks in Middle America -
- 59,054,087 to be exact, if the votes were counted fairly -
- were able to vote for a guy they'd never met
and knew nothing about because they liked him.
Fear creates desire spiked with the illusion of need.
Philip Morris knows it. The purveyors of Viagra know it.
Keeping in mind that we're talking about the same Middle America
that banned Little Red Riding Hood because the wolf in that tale
was not just scary, it was Satan, picture this:
In the break between Wheel of Fortune and Fear Factor,
a deep green forest appears on your demographically-and geographically
-selected television screen. In the pitch dark, the trees are oddly
luminescent, eerie, glowing as if from the inside.
From behind one tree emerges a wolf, head low, hunting.
Your heart pounds, but, if you're like me, the majesty and grace of these
animals reminds you why you are an environmentalist in the first place.
Another wolf emerges. Then another and another. It's as if these trees -
- the same trees that cause those hell-like forest fires
(the fires that have nothing to do with global warming-induced drought
in the west that has exceeded the Dust Bowl by every measure) -
- are themselves giving birth to these now-sinister wolves.
The predators circle around you in your living room.
You are at the center, God's little lamb.
Darkness, wolves, fire, brimstone.
The Godlike voiceover tells you what you have by now suspected:
these are not wolves at all.
They are terrorists; and oh my, what big teeth they have, Grandma.
..I mean Satan...Saddam...Satan.
In living rooms across the region panic sets in,
until you see The Light;
The Swoosh; The W. All you need to know.
As any advertising pro will tell you, fear sells big.
Fear is Big Logo. Fear of being alone, fear of being an outsider,
fear of being unloved, fear of dying. Philip Morris knows it.
The purveyors of Viagra know it.
Fear creates desire spiked with the illusion of need.
But subliminal, archetypal fear in a political ad?
Terrorists, wolves-at-the-door, WMDs,
another 9/11, another 9/11, another 9/11.
Now that's good advertising.
In America, very few people really need anything.
The goal of advertising is to create a reality
in which your audience believes they need and want things
that shouldn't really matter to them at all.
You want to avoid giving too much information about the product itself.
The modern approach is to just be...like W.
Speak rarely and carry a big chain saw.
W does not give too much information. W is not too complex.
What it came down to for poor Mr. Kerry is that any idea
that could not be expressed in logospeak was just too intellectual -
- and November 2nd's vote was nothing if not anti-intellectual.
It doesn't make sense to vote for another four years
of unquestioned corporate rule, deeper lies, unfathomable,
extensive, irreversible environmental destruction -
- not to mention an unendable war (on W's terms, anyway) -
- all based on a tiny little double-swoosh insignia that conveys,
"This is what I stand for." 56% of the post-election American public
believes our country is headed in the wrong direction;
51% thinks the war in Iraq is "not worth fighting," and
52% does not approve of the job the president is doing.
A good portion of the 51.03% of Americans who allegedly voted for Bush,
then, voted for a president they didn't really want.
They voted for a logo.
Bush Reads the Koran
For years, America was thought of as a democracy-oriented country.
But now we, and the rest of the world, are recognizing that the most
significant thing the USA, Inc. does is market product.
We've come around to understanding, finally, that America
is a marketing-oriented country, and that our president is our most
important marketing tool. What's more, from our celebrity culture
to our Humvee-enforced "free" market democracy,
America has, in many ways, become the product.
In the beginning there was the Word.
In the 21st century there is the Logo.
It is worshipped, all-powerful,
and we are created anew every day in its image.
Are we forever doomed to this Purgatory of simplistic pop culture?
Or will the left-wing parties take back their roots, their liberty?
Will they reclaim "liberal" as a proud word synonymous with free?
Will history give W a "gate"
at the end of the multitude of scandals that surround him?
- Halliburtongate? - Saddamgate? - WMDgate? - RoadlessRulegate? -
Progressive, open-minded people, will keep trying to make sense,
to talk rationally, and I'll be among them.
But for the sake of bettering my country, I may also be willing,
just for a brief while (until we win back our real freedom),
to sink to new lows and simple logos. If it will give me a voice
in America; if it will give me back my home.
BK LOREN is the author of The Way of the River:
Adventures and Meditations of a Woman Martial Artist.
Her writings have appeared in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004
(Houghton-Mifflin), Rough Cut, and Parabola. Her last article for Orion,
Got Tape?, appeared in the May/June 2003 issue.
ALISON JACKSON explores the public's obsession with the cult of celebrity
in politics. Using look-alikes of public figures, Jackson creates images
that challenge the fantasies that exist in the public's mind -- and with
disturbingly accurate aim. Her most recent show, Election Year 2004, is on
display through December 4, 2004 at Julie Saul Gallery in New York City.
535 West 22nd Street. 212-627-2410. Images shown here are details.