Marketing 101: “What’s Left?” March 2014, MRR #370

Now, that’s marketing.

My wife and I recently went to see a movie at The Kabuki, a local cinema that’s now part of the Sundance independent movie theatre chain. The Kabuki is a multiplex in San Francisco’s Japantown, with a couple of big auditoriums and several smaller theaters, reserved seating, and food service that includes alcohol in certain over-21 areas. We were there to see The Book Thief. Hard to imagine someone making a bit of sentimental smarm out of an anti-Nazi subject, but there you are. Anyway, the building was thronged due to two near-simultaneous showings of the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second part to the trilogy that tracks with the young adult novel series of the same name. The place was jam-packed with adolescents, mainly teenaged girls, with some of their parental chaperones. I hear that this movie does have appeal to older people. When I was maneuvering through the crowds, headed to and from the bathrooms, I noticed a couple of teen clusters giving each other the film’s distinctive assignation, a three-fingered salute touched to the lips and then held out that comes to represent a sign of resistance against the ruling regime in the movie. Along with the four-note tune called “Rue’s Whistle Song,” and the mockingjay symbol worn by the lead protagonist Katniss Everdeen, these have become symbols in the movie of the failed rebellion against the government. “The odds are never in our favor” is the graffiti summing up the film’s theme. Talk about the clever marketing of rebellion to an adolescent demographic.

Produced by the studio Color Force and distributed by Lionsgate, they should have taken a page from the folks who market those Guy Fawkes masks. Based on a stylized representation of that English terrorist and folk hero who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 and was executed for his temerity, Guy Fawkes also became associated with the celebratory bonfires set on November 5 to commemorate what was called the “Gunpowder Plot.” Guy Fawkes Night featured grotesque effigies of the man, and soon children used similarly masked effigies to beg for money around Britain. Eventually, cheap cardboard masks of Guy Fawkes were sold for Guy Fawkes Night festivities.

Then came V for Vendetta, the graphic novel and the film based on same. The main character in both wears the mask, which is manufactured by Time-Warner as a movie-related product. The initial sightings of the mask’s use seem to be somewhat random, beginning with its appearance in a YouTube video connected with “Epic Fail Guy,” a stick figure that fails at everything he/she does. But it soon became associated with protestors hoping to hide their identities, or to make a point. When the hacker group Anonymous adopted it, things took off. Anonymous started using it in their public events and PR releases, and the hacktivist community at large became associated with it. The mask appeared in graffiti and was worn at protests and demonstrations around the world, from Poland and Ukraine to Brazil and Turkey, from various countries involved in the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street actions. V for Vendetta novel writer and anarchist Alan Moore has said that he was “quite heartened” by the mask’s uses and impact in popular protest, almost like “a character I created 30 years ago has somehow escaped the realm of fiction.” Illustrator and co-creator David Lloyd is quoted on BBC News (10-20-12):
The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way. My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism – V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system. We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary.

All the while, the Guy Fawkes mask as marketed by Time-Warner has become a top selling product on Amazon.com. “It’s quite ironic, actually. In their attempts to take down large corporations, Anonymous actually pads the pockets of one of them.” So reports Time Magazine on 8-29-11 (“How Time Warner Profits from the ‘Anonymous’ Hackers,” Nick Carbone). “But there’s one unintentional consequence – their disguise is earning big bucks for a major media conglomerate. Warner Brothers, the Time Warner subsidiary who produced the movie, owns the rights to the Guy Fawkes mask – and they earn royalties on every sale.” The original New York Times article (“Masked Protesters Aid Time Warner’s Bottom Line,” Nick Bilton, 8-28-11) concurs: “What few people seem to know, though, is that Time Warner, one of the largest media companies in the world and parent of Warner Brothers, owns the rights to the image and is paid a licensing fee with the sale of each mask. […] Indeed, with the help of Anonymous, the mask has become one of the most popular disguises and — in a small way — has added to the $28 billion in revenue Time Warner accumulated last year. It is the top-selling mask on Amazon.com, beating out masks of Batman, Harry Potter and Darth Vader.”

Imagine itching to join your favorite protest wearing your trendy Guy Fawkes mask, only to learn that your local costume shop is back ordered until Monday. Stores can’t keep it in stock. Balking at lining the corporate coffers of Time-Warner, some activists are even having faux Guy Fawkes masks mass produced in Asia, according to CNN (“Guy Fawkes mask inspires Occupy protests around the world,” Nick Thompson, 11-5-11). But are these replica masks sweatshop free?

I’m sure glad some enterprising group of anarchists hadn’t managed to copyright, trademark and then market the anarchy symbol.

Thomas Pynchon wrote about a conflict between two secret, underground mail services in his uncharacteristically slim novel The Crying of Lot 49. Thurn and Taxis, once an actual 18th century postal system, is at war with the fictitious Trystero/Tristero, which is symbolized by a muted post horn that surfaces at odd moments and locations throughout the work. Every time the Trystero post horn appears, the book’s main character, and indeed the reader, senses that something conspiratorially mysterious, and perhaps entirely wonderful is about to be revealed.

That’s akin to how I felt, growing up, when I saw the circle A symbol. An anarchist myself, I felt a part of some covert movement, some exotic liberation struggle, whenever I encountered the circle A scrawled as graffiti in public. It was extremely rare in the 1960s and 70s and, as such, highly provocative. Your average citizen had no idea what it meant and thought anarchism to be synonymous with chaos and destruction. Most folks versed in politics didn’t have a clue either, with the exception of a few highly cognizant individuals―left, right and center―who almost universally denounced anarchism as hopelessly idealistic, if not outright dangerous. The Left back in the day, specifically hardcore Marxist-Leninists, utterly disdained the politics and people behind the symbol. I felt smug, an insider, someone in the know, part of a conscious elect out to change the world whenever I came upon the circle A symbol.

Today, of course, the circle A is ubiquitous. There are literally scores of businesses and consumer products sporting the circle A as part of their logos or marketing strategies. Elements of the ML Left, discredited by the practice of “real existing socialism” throughout the 20th century, now take anarchism seriously, if only for the purpose of recruiting, but often ideologically in formulating a “leaderless Leninism.” People versed in mainstream politics are also familiar with what the circle A symbol means, with certain libertarians even describing themselves as anarchist capitalists (see my last column). And the general public is also well aware of the circle A―spray painted as it is on virtually every wall, building and sidewalk in most urban areas―if not the symbol’s implications. Thanks to the bullshit perpetrated by certain tendencies of anarchism in the Occupy movement, most people consider anarchists to be anything from childish idiots to inept wanna-be terrorists. Me, I now cringe whenever I see a circle A.

I no longer call myself an anarchist, or left communist, as readers of this column are well aware, and for reasons other than current events. But the sheer amentia of anarchism’s insurrectionary vanguard, responsible for the smashy smashy excesses of Occupy Oakland, would have gone a long way toward driving me out of anti-authoritarian politics. The so-called strategy of these insurrectionists amounts to fucking shit up 24/7, a pathetic excuse for politics, or in this case, anti-politics. Symptomatic of the ideological exhaustion and decay of our time, a consequence of multinational capitalism’s global triumph, anarchism’s insurrectionary dead end now can’t give away ice cream in hell, let alone convince radicals that the anarchy symbol amounts to shit.

Now, that’s anti-marketing.

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