Sunday, January 25, 2009

Brand awareness

Aaron McGruder, creator of the brilliant and hilarious black animated sitcom The Boondocks, has been the subject of some recent misreporting regarding some comments he made about Barack 'change has come to America' Obama. Now that the 21st of January has been and gone without the crisis predicted by Colin Powell, we can feel safe again to discuss the double standards involved in the coverage of the new President. Though technically Joe Biden's similar prediction may still turn out to be accurate, I don't think we've too much to worry about. McGruder had been reported by, the website of the Richmond Palladium-Item, to have said that Obama wasn't black because he wasn't descended from a slave. Though the article does initially report McGruder's scepticism accurately, this one misrepresented comment has caused quite a stir. In an interview with the Washington Post he noted that:

"Sadly, it no longer matters how carefully you choose your words -- you said what the dumbest person in the audience said you said...this new kind of 'gutter news' from sites ... [is] going to make it extremely difficult to engage in any sort of intelligent discourse." - Washington Post
The saddest thing about this is that the controversy over something McGruder never even said have overshadowed the very important things he was saying.
"It was a simple conversation about the differences between race, ethnicity, nationality, and trying to draw distinctions that most of the media and public seemed to be casually ignoring. That somehow became me calling someone who is obviously black not black." - Washington Post
The majority of the coverage of the new President has made primary reference to his being the first black president. While it is a historical first, and in terms of its symbolism a positive development, this story with McGruder is an allegory for how the issue of his race and what it means has dominated the discussion to the detriment of any genuine attempt to discern what, if anything, Obama can do to alter the course of the world's first and only truly global superpower. This is amusingly illustrated by some commentators who reminded us during the campaign that in 2001 Bill Clinton was honoured as the nation's first black president at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Awards Dinner. It is ultimately policy, not skin colour or blood, that will determine whether or not Obama is black in the same political sense that got Clinton such an honour. Though I'm no great fan of Bill Clinton, I can certainly understand why after twelve years of Reagan and Bush he was considered by some black political circles to be a great improvement.

The author of the article misquoting McGruder, Rachel Sheeley, seems to have no great background in reporting on the subject of Obama, so it's unlikely it was a deliberate ploy to skew the media coverage of the new presidency. However, it does reflect the broader emphasis of that coverage, particular here in Europe. The day after Obama was elected, the BBC's flagship news discussion show Newsnight featured Jeremy Paxman interviewing Dizzee Rascal, something of a joke in music circles let alone on the subject of politics.

Mr Rascal had little of interest to contribute, as one might expect he was full of comments like:
"I think a black man, purple man, Martian man can run the country ... as long as he does right by the people." - Dizzee Rascal
Despite this, Paxman was criticised by some for his treatment of someone who never should have been on the show in the first place. Singer Estelle accused Paxman of treating Mr Rascal 'like an idiot'. Paul Moody of the Guardian, a music journalist by trade, wrote a lengthy piece slamming Paxman as some sort of 19th century colonialist.
"Could you see this happening in Britain ?" barked Paxo, clearly livid at having Britain's premier MC on the show to add some street-level zing to the debate. - Guardian
The reason why Mr Rascal was on the show was indeed to add 'street level zing'. Not credible opinions from a black commentator, just street level zing. Of course, people on the street are on the street at 10:30 p.m., not at home watching Newsnight. It was a woeful decision by the BBC to even put Dizzee Rascal on the show, so even if Paxman's attitude was dismissive I can sympathise somewhat. Why wasn't Paxman interviewing Trevor Phillips, chief of the Commission for Racial Equality? Or what about the young black MP David Lammy? Or Chuka Umunna, an upcoming hope for the 2010 parliamentary election? Or any number of other writers, academics, commentators, political activists? Or, and this is a radical idea I know, some ordinary people who just happened to have some worthwhile things to say?

No. Instead we get actors and rappers. Not that actors and rappers never had anything interesting to say, but it speaks volumes about the prejudices of the media that when discussing a historic day in the development of African Americans they seek out only people who fit conventional black stereotypes for success. The only thing missing was a few basketballers. Oh, hang on, here's Charles Barkley endorsing Obama. Though it's amusing to read that DMX wasn't even aware that there was a presidential election or a black candidate, the absence of credible, interesting, articulate black people talking about what this might mean is doubly frustrating when just such a person, McGruder, is misquoted and consequently the significance of his comments is lost. Likewise when even a relatively respected interviewer like Paxman shows some discomfort at having to interview people who are largely clueless regarding the issues at hand he is criticised for stepping out of the accepted boundaries of this discussion.

Obama's race (though ambiguous, since technically he is mixed race) is key to what marketers call his brand image, as this Fast Company magazine article shows. Not only does it refer to him initially as a 'black man', it goes on to say:
"Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand," says Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide. "New, different, and attractive. That's as good as it gets." Obama has his greatest strength among the young, roughly 18 to 29 years old, that advertisers covet, the cohort known as millennials -- who will outnumber the baby boomers by 2010. They are black, white, yellow, and various shades of brown, but what they share -- new media, online social networks, a distaste for top-down sales pitches -- connects them more than traditional barriers, such as ethnicity, divide them." - Fast Company magazine
New, different and attractive. Certainly, anything other than a white upper middle class male makes him new. Different? Basically the same as 'new'. Attractive? Indeed, in that he's black enough that African Americans will see him as one of their own, but not so black that tacitly racist white liberals will have any problem feeling good about themselves for supporting him. Or arranging for rappers to be seen endorsing him, and so on.

Not that his race is the only aspect to the Obama brand that succeeded. As noted by Newsweek:
"Obama is the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand." - Newsweek
While it's certainly true that marketing techniques have long been used to sell presidents as products, the Obama campaign set a new standard, even using chain-letter style e-mail strategies. As shown in this 1970s feature by John Pilger, we can go back at least as far as Kennedy in the use of advertising to further political careers.

However, the impact of the Obama brand is like nothing seen before. It is now being used to sell a
huge range of merchandise, from t-shirt and medallions to barbecue sauce and action figures, and Ben n Jerry's ice-cream have launched a new flavour, deliciously named 'Yes Pecan'. Even heroin dealers have got in on the act.

As amusing as all this might be, it is a brutal indication of how politics by consent in the world's wealthiest democracy is nothing more than a nice sounding idea, and the reality is that even the candidates representing change are as carefully packaged and marketed to us as high fashion or a blockbuster movie. The election itself is more like the Superbowl, in that it primarily consists of adverts and there's no discernible competition.

Another illustration of this increasing symbiosis between politics and marketing is the War on Terror, as it was initially labelled by George W Bush. This became 'the long war' after criticism, most beautifully from former Monty Python member Terry Jones:
TERRY: The “War On Terror” is nothing more than the act of declaring war on an abstract noun. Now you could say, “No, we’re declaring war on terrorists, not on abstract nouns,” but a terrorist doesn’t even exist until he’s committed a terrorist act. Just substitute something else for the word “terror” to make you see how ludicrous this is. Let’s say you declared war on “murder.” “Now we’ve declared war on murder and we’re not going to rest until ever murderer and every would-be murderer has been caught and brought to justice.” This is completely ridiculous! You can’t catch every one! Besides, they’re not even murderers until they’ve actually murdered someone! You can’t stop something happening before it happens! It’s a very dangerous situation that we’re now in and the people behind Bush, with his concepts of pre-emptive strikes around the world. They are a recipe for permanent warfare, disaster, chaos and I’m sorry to say, more terrorism. - Herecomethewilddogs
The name 'war on terror' was officially dropped by the US in July 2005, rebranding it then as the 'struggle against violent extremism'. The aim was not to clarify the situation, but to downplay the ongoing military aspects of the war. It was officially dropped in Britain in December 2007, though as the BBC notes the British and European media never took the phrase, often employing quotation marks when using it. Around this same period the portrayal of Al Qaeda changed, from being a hierarchical network to a 'brand', as MI5 head Jonathan Evans called it. The importance of this is that even those with no connection to Bin Laden, Zawahiri or any other leading Al Qaeda figure could still be considered a target in this war. As the Boston Globe pointed out:
Though distinguishing between groups that are officially part of Al Qaeda and those that are not may seem like splitting hairs, recognizing that not all jihadist groups or individuals are members of Al Qaeda helps us to understand that the "war on terror" is not just a war on Al Qaeda or groups affiliated with it. Rather, the war on terror is a war on a global jihadist movement of which Al Qaeda is only a part, albeit extremely influential. The common thread between all jihadist groups is that they share a similar ideology. Because this ideology does not derive its legitimacy from Al Qaeda or bin Laden, the jihadist movement will continue to exist whether there is a group called Al Qaeda or not. - Boston Globe
In August 2008 an internal British government document 'obtained' by the press revealed that it has become official policy to spread propaganda, both online and in more mainstream media, to 'taint the Al Qaeda brand':
The campaign aims to "channel messages" through internet bloggers and chatroom members as well as major media outlets such as the BBC.

It will seek to persuade people that the terrorist group is "in decline", and its operatives are "not heroes".

The strategy has been drawn up by the Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU) - which was set up by former Home Secretary John Reid and is staffed by officials from several Whitehall departments...

...However, the document stresses that the West should "avoid suggesting that AQ is no longer a threat". - Daily Mail

Indeed, this leaked document came in between Home Secretary Jacqui's Smith's warning in April that the threat was 'growing and severe', and Security Minister Lord West's claim in October that the security services are monitoring a 'great plot' by Al Qaeda. Strangely, Lord West was criticised for revealing such sensitive information, but hardly anyone said a word when two heads of MI5 and the Home Secretary essentially did the same thing. Moreover, a clearer example of official doublespeak you will not find - a counterterrorism unit is out spreading the news that Al Qaeda is weakened but all the while we're being warned that the threat is real and menacing. Al Qaeda really does show incredible flexibility as a brand, in that it seems to mean whatever the various vested interests require it to mean at different times.

More consolidated is the Obama brand, though in McGruder's response to being misquoted he showed great brevity and honesty in illustrating that there are cracks in the new president's carefully manufactured image. Initially he posted a brief message on his myspace:
Hey guys, never said Barack wasn't Black... please don't bother me with that bullshit. - myspace
However, he felt the need to clarify things further, and I for one am glad he did because his comments are right on the money not only regarding how his words have been treated by the media, but also on the corruption of the American democratic process and how little power the president has in the face of elite corporate-governmental institutions like the Federal Reserve.
For a long time now, I have tried to keep my opinions on the election and Barack Obama to myself. I occasionally do speaking engagements, which are not open to the press, and unfortunately some of my comments have been twisted around in a silly manner. The claim that I asserted our new President was not Black is categorically false. I have seen an endless stream of Black pundits on TV pontificating about the significance of President Obama’s election - many of them making reference to the 3/5th’s clause in the constitution regarding slaves. The point I was making is that this is not an accurate comparison. Barack is the son of an immigrant, not the descendant of slaves. It’s like comparing a half-Japanese man to the oppressed Chinese who built the American railroads. Yes, they are both Asian, but it is not an honest or accurate comparison. We all share the common experiences of being Black in America today - we do not all share a common history. A history that in part makes us who we are - and in some cases (as with the psychological damage that still lingers from slavery) holds us back. These are not, I believe, insignificant distinctions. I did say I was cautiously pessimistic about Obama’s Presidency - but this is simply acknowledging the reality of an American Empire that is out of control and on the verge of collapse. Let us not forget that on the eve of the election, we witnessed a near trillion dollar robbery of the US treasury. That robbery is still taking place. I do not blame President Obama, but I do not believe the financial and corporate interests that own and control this country will fold so easily. I do not question the integrity of the man as much as the power of his office - which I believe has greatly diminished over the years. I believe the Federal Reserve Bank, the Military Industrial Complex, and the massive corporate interests that run this country have more power than our new President. I hope I am wrong. After 9/11, I witnessed most of this country become obsessed with squashing dissent and silencing critics. I hope this election does not turn Black America towards this same, fascist mind state; but already I am starting to see it, and it saddens me greatly. I absolutely wish our new President and his family success and safety. But after all I have witnessed in my lifetime, and especially in the last eight years, I am not ready to lay down my skepticism or my outrage for this government. To do so would be unwise and, ironically enough, anti-American. - McGruder statement in full, Dailycartoonist
I have a feeling it will be some time before the mainstream press manages anything as intelligent and succinct as this on the subject of high and deep politics. In the meantime, enjoy one of the best episodes of the Boondocks, where Huey and the rest go to see Soul Plane 2.


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