The Profanation of the Logos
Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (available online) by the French sociologist and “Christian anarchist” Jacques Ellul is often cited as the go-to book for students of propaganda, although Ellul is probably more widely known for his controversial critiques of the technological system (The Technological Society and The Technological System).
Ellul also authored another book entitled The Humiliation of the Word, a follow-up to his book on Propaganda, that has, unfortunately, been priced out of reach of most budgets. Ellul was the favourite of my supervisor at University, but I was skeptical of Ellul’s more theologically inclined writings. As such, I never got around to reading The Humiliation of the Word. I think Ellul could have benefited greatly from familiarity with Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy. But what brought to mind, once more, The Humiliation of the Word was the recent discussion of profanation, because that’s pretty much what it means.
So, now I regret not having read the book or securing a copy earlier, particularly at a time when propaganda and advertising now aspire to become a theology in the present form of “brand religion” or “holistic branding”. It seems Ellul anticipated that from his study of the general thrust and trend of propaganda and the progress of technology.
“The Profanation of the Logos” could just as easily be substituted for “The Humiliation of the Word”. In that respect, I think Ellul probably has something very important to say about the commercial or political exploitation of the human spiritual, or the usurpation and expropriation of those themes previously left to the realm of theology or mysticism.
Profanation and mystification are probably interchangeable terms. At least, for William Blake they were. State, Religion, Commerce were all profane as far as Blake was concerned because they were all alike mystifications that distorted or obscured the truth — the works of his false god “Urizen”.
Since coming upon this apparent innovation in branding called “holistic marketing” or “Marketing 3.0” I’ve felt a need to return to my propaganda studies, as it appears to mark a shift from an emphasis on the “psychological” to an emphasis on the spiritual, and my need to situate this development and its meaning within the 100-year long development of advertising. I turned to a book by American historian Stephen Fox called The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators, an excellent history of advertising that has sat unread on my bookshelf for over a decade. Fox’s book is an historian’s attempt to answer the question of whether advertising is “mirroring or mindbending”, and it provides a wealth of useful information for any student of propaganda or advertising.
One of the things I was surprised to learn from Fox’s book is that religious themes, motifs, or influences have always played a more or less implicit role in advertising. It’s surprising how many of the early pioneers in developing advertising technique were lapsed preachers or otherwise men destined for the pulpit who were diverted into advertising, and how the language and idiom of Gospel and Scripture becomes part of the in-group jargon of the advertising trade, raising the question, of course, of what it is about advertising as a career choice that attracts the religious and arouses such enthusiasm, even when, in private, they had real misgivings about it. One of the early pioneers of advertising technique, Bruce Barton, even wrote a book entitled The Man Nobody Knows (1925) in which he recast Jesus as the world’s greatest salesman and advertising man (and followed that up with another book entitled The Book Nobody Knows (1926), which apparently recasts the Bible as the world’s greatest advertising guide and manual — or how to sell anything to anybody). But, like a lot of admen, Barton in private life was quite conflicted about it all.
There is even a saint for advertising and advertisers — Saint Bernardino of Siena, noted for his missionary zeal and described as the “patron saint of advertisers and problem gamblers”. (I’m unsure if that was intended humourously).
We have to recall, too, that the word and practice of “propaganda” began as the handmaid to theology — with the founding in 1622 of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide: the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or, presently, “The Congregation for the Evangelisation of the Peoples” charged with “spreading the good news” or Gospel. And it is in such terms of “spreading the news” that commercial advertising justified itself. In those terms, then, theology has always been an influence in the practice of propaganda, commercial or otherwise. It’s always had the same ends — to enthuse, arouse, inspire, motivate. But with increasing secularism, advertising simply took over this role from the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. Advertising is the glue that holds commercial or economic society together and is its main form of public discourse or, as McLuhan once put it, the main outlet for most intellectual and artistic endeavour in our time.
So, in that sense we can ask the pertinent question: what’s really new about “holistic branding” or “Marketing 3.0”? It seems to be a cycling back to propaganda’s original roots — the spreading of the “faith”. Only, what has changed is the meaning of “news” and “faith”, so that when adman David Ogilvy speaks of advertising’s “articles of faith”, or Fox refers to an advertising “catechism”, we’re in some kind of strange, surreal semantic landscape.
Between 1622 and today, what has changed? I’ve often said that Late Modernity is turning round and devouring its own roots, living off its past capital, as it were, and “markeing 3.0” looks like a reactionary return to the past as much as neo-classical economics. But what seems to typify both is rampant cynicism. It’s the one common mood that seems to stand out so completely in Fox’s history of the advertising profession, and cynicism, as Nietzsche pointed out, is just another form of nihilism. Fox reports a rather remarkable statistic in that regard: In the 1950s, when the average American life expectancy was 67 years, that of the average advertising man was only 59 years. Advertising, it seems, is very bad for your health.
One thing is becoming clear, though. Advertising is an essential and crucial part of the system of production and consumption and the present economic system could not exist in its present form without it. It’s the “middle man” between production and consumption, systematically organising both demand and the supply. It is, in those terms, the principle form of communication for the mass consumption society, and preserving and sustaining that structure relationship is the number one message of all advertising — i.e., we live in the best of all possible worlds.
In that respect, Stephen Fox quotes another early pioneer in industrial advertising:
“The chief economic problem today,’ said Stanley Resor, ‘is no longer the production of goods, but their distribution. The shadow of overproduction, with its attendant periods of unemployment and suffering, is the chief menace to the present industrial system.”
Therein lies the fundamental rationale for advertising and its self-consciousness (in its more sober moments) of its function in mass society. It must motivate consumers to consume, even to consume beyond their means, in order to preserve the present mode of production against the threat of surplus and over-production. It must keep the machine running. And for that big business is prepared to pay very big bucks — enough bucks, in fact, for your typical contemporary advertising and public relations agency to staff itself with all the specialists and resources of a university, because “public education” is, in fact, it’s main function. But it is the nature of this “education” that we should be worried about.