So good to come across and read this piece in the Guardian that brings some focus to the phenomena of advertising as a causative element in the eco-emergency. It does this also as a general and high-level critique of the reality and impact of advertising from its concomitance as a core machine of capitalism to its neurological impact on our understanding of the world and its formation.
A few years ago South Park ran a theme through their 19th season that involved humans unknowingly involved in a crypto-war with advertisements being revealed essentially as an alien invasion. It was a very effective story that utilised science fiction filmic lore recurrently to portray ads as an alternative life form, using scenes from Blade Runner to Alex Garland’s brain blasting AI wake up call Ex Machina. The latter of which utilised as a reference during a scene where one of the characters is attempting to communicate with an ad in human form for the first time under an interrogation style scenario (the ad-in-human-form in this instance being the character Lesley).
‘I feel something for you I have never felt before, i think its trust’… (Ad) Lesley
This episode, with its impetus of a group of News men who are onto the advertising takeover simultaneously re-purposes the structurality of News delivery-tonality by having a team of TV Newsmen attempting to fight back against the ads after realising that their medium has been taken over and colonised by adverts. This intermingling also happens to give us the equivalency of fiction/fact, advert/news, unequivocally upending ‘the’ news’ story of the authenticity of its own univocity (although the existence of Fox news has more or less diluted such a concept beyond recognition in recent years anyway). Capitalism is only interested in packaging ‘news’ as another product anyway (surely the brouhaha over Facebook’s newsfeed and more recently Twitter’s algorithmic slant shows this). One of the most potent and dangerous emergences from the last presidential cycle in the USA has been the utilisation of story-as-reality as a demagoguic and autocratic tool of perception-manipulation and control from the political centres to the society.
‘ok, whose idea was it to revitalise the shitty part of town into an arts and foods district called Shi Tpar Town’? Principal Victoria
‘I thought I could keep it contained!’ Randy Marsh
‘It can’t be contained…’ Principal Victoria
Bringing gentrification (there is a narrative battle going on here also with preferences for words like ‘regeneration’ in its place) into things adds another dimension. The process of social segregation by economic power driven by profit motive is rampant in so much of the global north and yet missing from the main highways of the social narrative of awareness. It simultaneously reinforces a hegemonic of acceptance that includes only relative wealth as the qualification for a stability and an access to the artisinal or crafted (as opposed to the mass-produced, industrialised). Thereby also re-appropriating the facet of craft from its rural or populist historical origins and inserting it as a high expense artifact-sign representing authenticity and desirability in an acceptably re-configured apprehension of home-spun simplicity.
These broad sweeps can tend to ignore the singularity of life, character and reality of those living in these situations, both inside and outside the bounds of their limit (the same old-new segregations of economy). It doesn’t however do, to hide the connection between the operation of capital in a force of never ending binaries of inclusion / exclusion alongside a marginal utility line of (practically) never-ending wealth-power potential to find the price of something. In respect of which, it is the side of this equation that provides the outcome of people’s desire (or where they position what they consider acceptable to live with/in) as exclusions in societal (geo-)formation that is the main regressive tendency and outcome. It paves the way for ‘comfortable’ and security-frontiered and delineated ontological spaces which indirectly persecutes to specific roles and appearances, any underclass elements which are permitted.
In this respect its surprisingly the Stallone vehicle ‘Demolition Man’ from 1993 which is perhaps most relevant here (and here’s a good review from RLM). As has been pointed out before, its depiction of a corporate/capitalist ‘idyll’ of sanitised sun-lit cities suburbanised and with manicured green spaces (where ads have replaced songs on the radio) includes an entire underclass living in the sewers, invisible to the city dwellers above. Perhaps its most effective potentials as critique are mitigated by its own adherence to the most formulaic in film corporate capitalism (and the most egregious of product placement and buy-in deals regardless of how satirised).
‘…Marsha thank you so much for your call, you just got yourself a heck of a deal on this one, you there Marsha?’
‘I’m lost, walking on a freeway…’
‘Alright, you’re lost walking on a freeway, enjoy the Tiger’s Eye Aquamarine Bracelet.’
South Park have been forthright on targeting related areas before. In their 16th season, they made Cash for Gold (above) attacking the phenomena of shopping channels. By now rampant capitalism is so ingrained in our shared media of experience that the severity of Kyle’s response to a shopping channel presenter (later in this episode) ‘Kill yourself… Just kill yourself’ maintains its sense of being commensurable with the ubiquity and emplacement of its target (shopping channel predation on the infirm and unbalanced) as a barely concealed main vein of capitalist functionality. Of course it misses the point to some extent that the presenter themselves may be as trapped and as in need of being ontologically extricated as the persons they are helping to be preyed upon.
South Park doesn’t necessarily give you the nuance of perspective with which to approach or work out the morality knots it usually works with, instead it tends to give you the intent and perspective of those embodying the different story components. Randy just wants to have a Whole Foods supermarket in town, the PC brigade (a cover for a Fraternity) just want to help minorities and ‘check privilege’ while also enjoying ‘Pussy Crushing’ (which Jimmy outs in the school paper as their true motivation and what he interprets ‘PC’ to stand for). This however often ends up giving you the dynamic of the situation anyway (albeit that these perspectives are personified or played out in a South Park specific mimicry of wider societal problems).
Still its hard not to be taken in on some level by the efficacy of their approach and characterisation, albeit that they tend to have a somewhat brutal streak (sometimes redeemed). For example, when SodoSopa and then Shi Tpar Town become overrun with homeless people (much to the annoyance of Randy and others who have to step over them), but the police have been driven out of the new gentrified areas (‘We’ve only had a Whole Foods for a month and we already don’t need the police’). Of course the specific way this plays out is typically dark, Barbrady the local officer accidentally shoots a child early on in the episode and becomes the catalyst for this ostracising of the police, only to be redeemed by the populace when they need someone to shoot the children later on, whose Ninja disguises and activities have driven the homeless out of Sodo Sopa and into Shit Tpar Town. It is a typically stark South Park move, the people, confident in their neo-utopian space reject policing (the state’s segregatory powers of the inconvenient and unwanted – as well as the dangerous) only to re-embrace it when those socially outcast return to litter their beautiful new, gentrified lives. Inadvertently this gives us the notion that simply excluding and removing the socially and economically unacceptable does not resolve anything – even while their response is perfectly consistent in returning to the now homeless Barbrady and recruiting him to shoot children whose Ninja outfits have convinced everyone they have become Isis combatants (the real reason the homeless and others were scared out of Sodo Sopa). Of course the truth is revealed in time and Barbrady only injurs one of the children when his gun is accidentally discharged. However it reveals the fixedness of track in the mentality and thinking of those in the town. When the police refuse to help deal with the ‘Isis-ised’ children having been themselves ostracised – the response is to welcome Barbrady back as the agent of the unpalatable but necessary function of social cleansing (through murder of the radicalised children).
It becomes clear why South Park has won both Emmys and a Peabody award. All of which somehow makes their advertising-as-alien-invasion arc that much more thought-provoking.
In another biting moment, after its revealed that Jimmy has an unparalleled capacity to tell adverts and news stories apart (even upto identifying that Lesley is an advert in human form) he begins to soften his stance towards Lesley after one of his interrogations:
‘I’m beginning to think that maybe all ads aren’t so bad’. Jimmy
‘Jimmy, you’re thinking with your dick… I know how you feel, ads promise us things, ads are perfect, but make no mistake, all ads lie and all ads deceive’. News anchor
It also never shies away from maximising the impact of the logic inherent to the situation. As when Randy secretly takes out a second mortgage and suggests the family relocate as they are now not wealthy enough to live in the area he has been instrumental in gentrifying.
In the war with the adverts, there is perhaps only so much Parker and Stone and the team can do in terms of South Park and its story structure to resolve what they have opened and at the end of the season – it dissolves into a gun frenzy of all the children and other characters deducing they need guns to survive. They do however leave us with at least one more gem when character Nathan is explaining to Jimmy why he has helped the ads (he has expensive tastes).
‘What is PC but a form of verbal gentrification? Spruce everything up, get rid of all the ugliness in order to create a false sense of paradise….‘ Of course this misses the point somewhat that PC is also about taking on the weaponisation of language that reduces people to characteristics usually through denigration. It does however circle back around as Nathan explains ‘only one thing can actually live in that world… <of gentrification>…ads’.
Perhaps the harshest way of understanding the playing out of this story comes through once more at the denouement (a Gun show where the guns are treated like dogs at a dog show) and its explained again that Ads ‘have become sentient… they’ve taken human form.‘ Which taken on at the level of intent suggests that to varying degrees human beings are themselves being taken over by adverts, are having genuine and individual traits and qualities exchanged like code for a reality and subjectificatory structure that is formed from the desire structure of capitalisms endless story of the life it sells you that you want or need. ‘You can’t tell what’s human and what’s an ad anymore‘.
Its also not as if South Park’s writers are not aware of the real intrinsic dilemma in identifying ads as an invasive, incursive phenomena that replaces and re-forms people’s desires and (to some extent) structuralities of consciousness – these are after all something that humans are essentially doing to themselves. At the Gun Show’s denoument in which PC Principal returns to punch a hole through Lesley’s head, Randy and others intone that to beat the ads people will need to be better, to communicate better and care more about each other. After all if one of the most destructive but defining statements of Thatcherite neo-liberalism was that there is no society, only individuals – a move necessary to free up a more unfettered consumerism of atomised individuals acting on their newly ‘freed’ desire, then it is a counterpart understanding of the enmeshed nature of our lives that is required before actions will become truly effective for both a social and an ecological return.