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Lost in the Super Market

In the age of business, questions of good and evin come down to a choice between brand names.



Soaring bombast and over-the-top Americanism are the stuff of which Super Bowls are made, of course, but still I was taken aback by the grandiose reachings of the MCI commercial that ran early in this year's game.

Against a screeching alternative-rock sound track and a rapidly flickering montage of young girls and nonwhite adults--all obviously intended to signify MCI's outsider credentials--the commercial runs through the standard 90s list of oppressions and encourages us to imagine a world without them: "there is no race...there are no genders... there is no age...there are no infirmities." This noble, problem-free world is not just idle, iridescent dreaming: thanks to the Internet and the heroic efforts of MCI, the revolution is in full effect. "Is this a great time or what?"

I wonder how the newspaper workers in Detroit would answer that question. But then, they don't get to run commercials during the Super Bowl. And for those who do, this is more than just a "great time." If there is a unifying theme of corporate culture in the 90s, it's just the sort of world-historical hubris that MCI drives home so obnoxiously. Thinkers like Francis Fukuyama declare that history is over, that the great issues have been decided for all time; journalists routinely assume that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, the political direction of the world has been locked in, that there's no longer any doubt about the ideal form of social organization, that it's only a matter of time before such recalcitrant states as France and China are brought round by the market's stern rebuke. Consider the staggering arrogance of modern corporate commonplaces: the "World Wide Web," IBM's "solutions for a small planet," Microsoft's imperial query, "Where do you want to go today?" As everyone from Newt Gingrich to Wired magazine informs us, we are witnessing a renaissance of profit and privatization, the dawning of an age in which business is the only legitimate social institution.

Not that the masters of the new economy believe all our problems have been solved. On the contrary, they freely admit that the myriad oppressions of American life are all still with us. That, in fact, is precisely their point. For in the age of the businessman, all the old ideas of struggle are reconceptualized as corporate categories: it's MCI versus racism, sexism, ageism; Volkswagen and Packard Bell versus the regimentation of modern life; Sprite, Volvo, Pizza Hut, Reebok, Doublemint, and Saab versus conformist consumerism; and Nike in a full-blown "revolution" against...well, against everything. The fight between good and evil has become a contest between brands, or between corporation-states, or, at its most banal, between tyrannical businessmen (Coke) and sensitive businessmen (Pepsi!).

The battle between good and bad businessmen is the theme of the recent film Jerry Maguire, whose popular success is a telling testament to the pervasiveness of the new cultural values. While Jerry Maguire is both a fairly standard romantic comedy and a fairly standard sports drama, it is above all else a management fable, an epic of revolt and redemption in the white-collar workplace. The title character, played by Tom Cruise, is no less despicable a figure than an agent for professional athletes, a calling dominated by phonies, poseurs, liars, crooks, and thieves. But Jerry, as we suspect from the moment he first flashes his ingenuous killer smile, is possessed of a certain instinctual nobility, and he commits one of those acts of corporate existentialism that we read so much about in the works of Tom Peters and Ron Heifetz: he pens a sentimental "mission statement" calling his colleagues back to some sort of primal honesty-in-agenting. With its plain cover, he notes, the document "looks like The Catcher in the Rye," and if that's not antiestablishment enough for you we hear testimony for Jerry's reforming ardor from the attendant at Kinko's--a witness, no doubt, to many similar acts of corporate derring-do. Unfortunately Jerry's colleagues, being fallen creatures, respond by seeing to it that he is swiftly and efficiently cashiered.

By the end of its first half-hour the movie has taken up a position from which, had it been made in the 60s or 70s, it could have been counted on to drive home any number of points about the soullessness of corporate life and/or the meaningless masquerade of professional sports. It even begins to address issues of social class: Cruise's love interest, played by Renee Zellweger, is a struggling single mother on the brink of poverty. A second-class citizen of the businessman's republic, she enters the movie making envious remarks about the occupants of an airplane's first-class compartment. But all such ideas are quickly dropped. This is a film of the 90s; years ago, maybe, our hero would simply have declared his disgust with the salesman's lot and walked away from it, but today he responds by becoming a better salesman--a salesman with soul.

As Jerry works his way back to the top (he's an entrepreneur this time, a foot soldier in the Gingrich legion), he discovers a strange thing: his mission statement was right. The solution to a bureaucratic and malicious corporate establishment is...leadership from the heart! Sports agents don't have to be like the knaves and cannibals back at the old firm; Jerry actually does his job better when he's humane and caring, putting his very being into his efforts and coaxing his one remaining client to show enthusiasm and express his joy by dancing in the end zone when he makes a touchdown. Salesmanship, properly practiced, can be the key to a balanced and rewarding life, putting us in harmony with the spirits of both football and multiculturalism. Even Jerry's reconciliation with his wife is expressed in terms one might apply to a successful sale: "You had me from hello!"

If Jerry Maguire is a moral fable of the new businessman's republic, its political manifesto is Disruption, a new book by French ad exec and rainy-day cultural theorist Jean-Marie Dru. Dru is more of a capitalist Hegel than a capitalist Salinger, imagining a global-historical millennium in which values, social movements, and even nation-states are subordinate to corporations and the eternal struggle to define brand image. "Companies must create new worlds," he announces on the book's first page; a company's brand "transcends geography, adapting to diverse cultures, leading them to share the same expectations." More alarmingly, "people perceive brands as they do countries"--which must have been what led Poland to hire Malcolm McLaren, "the inventor of the punk movement," to remake its image, a move of which Dru wholeheartedly approves.

"We have entered the 'all-cultural' age," Dru proclaims, a time in which "whether it's perfume or yogurt, the value of meaning will prevail over material value" and "the battle of brands and products will be, above all, a battle of ideas. Consuming a product will be tantamount to adhering to or, better yet, voting for a brand's culture."

How will the admen/statesmen of this brave new world fashion successful brand cultures? For Dru the answer is a simple three-step process: first, identify a smashable "convention" (one of those "ready-made ideas that maintain the status quo"); next, destroy it in an orgasmic process called "disruption" ("Stir the pot, alter the rules, wake up the consumer and create change"); finally, figure out a way to align the brand with some larger "vision" of human liberation. Successful brands, then, are those that declare themselves at war with social conventions of all kinds. Dru lovingly describes commercials in which puritanical old folks are humiliated by pleasure-loving youngsters (Levi's), young nonconformists discover "a new way of expressing their own individualism" (Guinness), and old-fashioned hierarchical management ideas are derided (Macintosh, an "antiestablishment company"). One convention, though, is specifically off-limits to the corporate disrupter: brand loyalty. "In fact, there is no paradox, no contradiction between Disruption and increasing brand loyalty," Dru reassures us. "If companies and brands do not disrupt, there is an increased risk that consumers will become blase and lose interest in brands. With Disruption, their interest and loyalty is renewed."

Dru's formula is at once mundane and apocalyptic. Every management writer these days is calling himself a "revolutionary," but Dru has something much greater in mind for the businessman's republic: the corporate takeover of nothing less than the alluring notion of social justice. For a brand's vision to succeed, Dru asserts, it must be "audacious," it must be "made of dreams," a quality that he illustrates with nods to figures such as Martin Luther King, George Bernard Shaw, and Robert Kennedy. See, now that the social movements that such people built are in terminal retreat, a whole array of glamorous and disruptive cultural niches has been opened to corporate occupation. Dreaming of a better world is now the work of business. Dru blithely presents a catalog of successfully disruptive brands that says more about the decline of the Left than a dozen PBS specials about Rush Limbaugh: "The great brands of this end of the century are those that have succeeded in conveying their vision by questioning certain conventions, whether it's Apple's humanist vision, which reverses the relationship between people and machines; Benetton's libertarian vision, which overthrows communication conventions; Microsoft's progressive vision, which topples bureaucratic barriers; or Virgin's anticonformist vision, which rebels against the powers that be."

And so it goes. The Body Shop owns compassion, Nike spirituality, Pepsi and MTV youthful rebellion. We used to have movements for change; now we have products.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Peter Hannan.

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