You are on page 1of 8

TRANSCRIPT INTERVIEW SARAH BANET-WEISER VPRO BACKLIGHT: METAMORPHOSE OF A CRISIS (2011) Sarah Banet-Weiser will first read a section

of her own work, which was part of the readings that were discussed at the Aftermath Network meetings. The intention is that all the contributions of the members of the Aftermath Network will be published. I am interested in how advertising works to brand the crisis as an inevitable obstacle in the progressive march of capitalism. One that individuals are asked as both a moral and a national obligation to overcome. Recentering the nation and the individual citizens role in the nation in a brand narrative is one way to reassert cultural control over an otherwise destabilising crisis narrative. Advertising as a particularly rich and central vehicle through which to do so. The economic crisis of 2008 was about many things. One of which was the failure of brands. The job for struggling corporations in the aftermath of the crisis was not only an attempt to regain trust in cars and jeans for consumers. It became more importantly about how to restore trust in brands, the market, indeed in neoliberal capitalism itself. What better way for the United States to re-establish trust for consumers than to position the crisis as a brand. A brand about America, about consumer citizens, about the inevitable triumph of capitalism.

Could you first explain your role in the Aftermath Network? What is your background? I am a communication professor, not a sociologist, and I do cultural analysis and political economy studies on individuals and communities such as gendered communities, raced communities and so on. My role I think is as someone who kind of takes a cultural approach rather than a social approach. And my focus is the media. I kind of focus on how the media reacts to the economic crisis, how it was part of it, how it works in conjunction with it and so on. So more than a broad social approach, I think mine is a kind of more specific cultural analysis.

How would you characterise this crisis? What kind of crisis is it? I think that there is many different ways to characterise the crisis. I think that if for me, Id kind of answer that question by saying that there is no one way. Actually Im not meaning to give you a cheap answer here, but we can say it's a financial crisis versus an economic crisis. Which lots of people have done. That makes a lot of sense. Because it really was about the collapse of a global financial system. But, a global financial system is never kind of exist in a vacuum. It never exists on its own, neither does economy, neither does culture. So it's a cultural crisis. Social crisis, financial, and an individual one, in the sense that the kind of political economic climate that were in now focuses so much on the individual and on individual identity that it becomes kind of an identity crisis for individuals where they sit in the global arena. So its all those: deeply interrelated and multi-levelled.

What does aftermath mean to you? Well you probably hear a lot about how we try to think of a name to define our group, and we thought about aftermath because we wanted to think about a kind of, what culture looked like, post2008 economic crisis. But it needs to be clear that aftermath does not mean post. It does not mean its over, that we can now sit back and look at what happened and look at repercussions and look at impact. We don't know what those repercussions will be. They change every day. We don't know what the impact is going to be. So aftermath for me is dynamic, it represents a dynamic condition so

that were looking at things as they change by the day rather than looking at something like after a moment has happened. The moment continues to happen. Aftermath for me is the fact that the moment continues to happen and we have to think about these changes every day rather than assuming we know what they are.

In your paper you quote someone else who says that advertising is capitalisms way of saying I love you to itself. Then you say how this love is re-imagined. What do you mean by that? Well, I am quoting sociologist and communication scholar Michael Shedson there, who wrote 30 years ago about advertising and about what it does, and doesn't do. His argument was basically that it doesnt get people to buy things necessarily, but what it does do is that it establishes a kind of ethos or ideology about capitalism. It sells capitalism. So it is, as he talked about it, a kind of love message. Capitalisms love message to itself. So what I think is interesting in the current era, 30 years after he wrote that, is that advertising is not so much about capitalism saying I love you to itself, it is about trying to establish and create relationships with consumers and producers, a sort of a love relationship were consumers are also engaged in this effective and emotional relationship with ads. So after the crisis, what advertising at least in the United States needed to do, was re-establish that bond, if you will. And its very odd, the way its talked about because its like a human affective emotional bond. So advertising worked quite hard to re-establish that love. It wasn't just capitalism saying I love you to itself, it was capitalism saying I love you to consumers and consumers saying it back. So it was a whole love affair rather than just someones narcissistic understanding of love inside their own head.

And how have United States brands used the crisis in their advertising? How have US brands? Well so look in the paper at too broad campaigns. You know advertising responds differently in different economic crises. When in the Great Depression of the United States in the 30s and 40s was a whole move in ads to talk about austerity and being leaner, and not being ostentatious etc. During the 80s, 70s, during those recessions ads responded in a different way. Now, in the 21st century, I think that what brands do is more than ads. They go beyond ads to establish the fact that the crisis was something that was inevitable. In other words, it was just a moment in the great progress of capitalism. So what individual consumers need to do is figure out a way, individually not with help of the government or anyone else, but individually, figure out a way not only to rescue the crisis but rescue themselves from it. So it becomes these brands that use the crisis as a moment of opportunity to regain trust and loyalty, and capitalism.

So is this crisis the death of capitalism? Some have said.. Well not certainly big United States brands and global brands don't want it to be. I don't see it as the death of capitalism. I see that there is a way in which the ads I look at, I look at these Levis ads, who use this kind of apocalyptic tone to it, this kind of war zone feeling, in the visual aesthetics of the ad, that suggest that we should be weary. We shouldn't just go on as we used to be. Its a kind of a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, have a leaner sort of capitalism. Its not at all about the death of capitalism. Not for these companies. For goodness sakes it cant be because then they had no existence, right. But they also know that they cant just keep going as they did pre-2008. They cant keep selling products using the same kind of rhetoric and same kind of strategies that they used pre2008. So the post-2008 ad rhetoric is about capitalism, but about a kind of shifted way of thinking about capitalism: its focus is on the individual, it focuses on work and the worker. This is a kind of leaner, more austere version of capitalism.

Can you describe the Chrysler Super Bowl ad and how you came across it, what were your first thoughts when you saw it? The Super Bowl ad is a Chrysler ad in February 2010 and just for the context: ads that are aired during the Super Bowl are the most watched ads in the whole year in the United States, because we have the biggest TV-audience for the Super Bowl than for anything else. They are incredibly expensive, and they are very creative. Im not a football fan, but I do media studies and teach about advertising, so I watch the Super Bowl for the ads. Many people do. So I saw the Chrysler Super Bowl ad when I was watching the Super Bowl. And it was an ad that is an homage to Detroit, it uses the hiphop-singer Eminem and his song Lose Yourself which is kind of an iconic song about Detroit, from a movie and an album he made about Detroit as the kind of being a comeback kid, Detroit as underdog. And the ad just was absolutely about rebranding, really three things: rebranding the city of Detroit, the brand of Chrysler itself, which is one of the big three automobile companies and one of the first ones to ask for federal bailout money from the United States government, and rebranding capitalism. So again the kind of way I talked about capitalism as being imagined in these ads as leaner and more austere. You had this kind of paired down, it's a beautiful ad, paired down images of Detroit, nostalgic images of Detroit and a message about Detroit not being ostentatious. It says explicitly: this is not Sin City, referring to Las Vegas. This is not New York City, referring to the opulence and wealth of New York City, they say this is no ones emerald city. So they make this very specific gesture to not being ostentatious to not being a rich place. And then say this is the motor city, this is what we do. Its about work, a kind of a simpler time, its about rebranding capitalism as the thing it used to be. In this nostalgic frame. Saying this is what we have to do now. It was covered in the United States news media, that ad as almost a television event itself because it was so arresting and the YouTube video now has 12 million views. And gotten press attention and blogosphere people write about it, it is really kind of capturing the national attention in terms of Detroit.

Why is it so successful? I think it is in part because United States citizens are very aware of the fact that the big three automobile companies, or the industry in itself was the first sign of the crisis, when they failed. General Motors was a measure, this auto company was first asked to go bankrupt and ask federal bailout money. It really felt when the auto industry failed in such a spectacular way, it felt like it was the end of something, and it was in fact. It was also the beginning of something: of the crisis, global economic crisis. But this ad was successful because it took one of those companies and it took what everyone knows is a city that is beset by problems and has been forever, for many years, that at one moment was the motor city where Henry Ford opened his plants, the city, MoTown. Dancing in the streets. It has all these historical references and now, it is so economically depressed, one of the most economically depressed big cities in the United States. The school system is in complete disarray, racial tension is characterising every part of that city. The government and the governmental institutions are not working, the unemployment rate is higher than anywhere else, homes are abandoned all over the place, apparently the city is like a ghost town in certain ways. It kind of has this image in the United States imagination as this very broken city. This ad comes along, its beautifully shot, shows images from the past like Diego referral murals, Woodward Avenue, Fox Theatre, shows all these nostalgic images and says: Were back. Back to a simpler time, we can do this, regain confidence. We don't have to be in Las Vegas, New York City, Los Angeles. Were just little old Detroit. And: Were working people, we work hard, people who write about us and say we are broken they have never even been here. The ad says that they don't know what they are talking about. They don't know what it feels like to be in Detroit. So it was effective on an emotional level for

Americans even if they werent from Detroit. It is that quintessential American mythology. The Horatio Alter story: pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work your way out. That is who we are, workers, and you have this industry town, demonstrating that. And it used Eminem who is very popular and it tapped into United States paranoia about outsourcing labour, because the tagline is imported from Detroit, it got you on all sorts of levels. Emotional and effective levels in terms of feeling insecure and nervous about this crisis.

But why do people believe this? They know Detroit is in trouble, they lost their jobs, housing prices gone down.. Why does it work? Thats so amazing! Well the question is how does it work. Rather than why. I don't think anyone is going to buy that car. I don't even know what the car is.. Well I do because I wrote about it. Its not a particularly nice car. I don't think people are thinking we should go buy this car, although I will say that Chrysler sales were way up after this ad according to Chrysler itself. But I don't think its about buying products, I don't even think its about buying the ad. You are right. This is 2011, you have a media-savvy audience who create their own ads all the time. Who through DIY, consumer generated content, all sorts of social media, people are creating their own media. We don't need ads, they don't have the power that they used to in terms of persuading us. So why does this work, how does this work at this particular moment? I think that when ads have an effective quality is when people are feeling vulnerable. And Americans just like everybody else in the world practically, are feeling incredibly vulnerable at this moment. On the whole United States citizens have lost confidence in the president who promised hope, and change, but we havent seen a lot of change, we are losing hope, the economic recession.. Yeah there are glimpses that things are starting to get back to where they were, but not really big glimpses. Housing prices are down. So were very vulnerable and this ad, it was just, it just kind of registered on that effective level, on this kind of post-crisis wasteland aesthetic where we could identify with that and kind of be taken in. So the question of how does it work I am not sure there is an answer, I don't know that it did work. But 12 million have viewed this on YouTube. In the time that I wrote this paper for this in the last several months, that number has jumped by 2 million. So its not like its waning right. People are finding something and it taps into something, some kind of effect, and sentiment that Americans want to feel right now in the mist of this crisis.

Isnt it cynical that a company that escaped bankruptcy with a 15 billion dollar tax payer bailout spends 9 million on an ad to celebrate the crisis in a way? Yes it is cynical. Well it is cynical and hypocritical. Not only that they have spend 9 million on this ad after asking for 15 billion in bailout money, but also the automobile industries in Detroit in general have discouraged diversification of the economy there, which is one reason why when they crash, no one had a job. There was no other industry, very little industry in the city for people to find employment. Chrysler, the majority of the company is non-United States owned. The other ad campaign I talked about Levis, who makes a similar sort of appeal to Americans and American products, Levis does not even have a United States factory in the United States. So there is all sorts of ways in which these ads and their rhetoric are just rife with contradiction. The contradiction, ads though, work around contradiction. They work through contradiction, they have always been hypocritical, weve always known, we should have know, that if you buy a red Ferrari, youre not going to get the most beautiful woman in the world, just FYI, or if you wear Axe, if you use that soap girls arent going to be dropping dead at your feet because youre so gorgeous. We know this, ads don't work in that they persuade us to believe their rhetoric. This one doesn't work in that way either. But it does tap in to a larger kind of a paranoia, insecurity, vulnerability and its images and music, narrative really works to try to reassure that vulnerability.

Would it have worked if it wasn't the luxury Chrysler 200 but like a small, economy car that is good for the environment? Like a Prius? Its interesting. Because the car in the ad, it is not a very impressive looking car, from my own point of view, but in the ad it looks impressive: very black, very shiny, driving down Woodward Ave, its impressive and kind of a Im here to kick ass car. Its not a Prius. Not one of those green or environmentally friendly little cars that are the ones we should be buying or not buying a car at all. It is big, imposing, its muscle. The ad is about muscle, saying Detroit is about muscle and hard work. The United States labour, these ads interestingly tap into the American working class in a way that historically ads havent done as much. Because ads have been much more about the middle class, but these are really about the working person, class, and tapping into that to kind of remind people that how were going to get out of this mess, is by work.

Now if we look at the other campaign you studied, the Levis campaign, this is really about workers right? Yeah, the Levis campaign also kind of focuses on a city but it doesn't have the specificity of Detroit. It focuses on a city in Pennsylvania, that is, was, historically a bustling steel town. Its lost 90% of its population since 2008, since the steel industry has collapsed in the United States. So its also this kind of struggling revitalisation effort to kind of build up a struggling town. Levis their first kind of efforts at this campaign used the poetry of Walt Witman, so this quintessential American product, Levis, which have a great deal of history in nostalgia attached to them in the United States, with a quintessential United States poet. So you have this ad with the voiceover being some kind of scratchy nostalgic recording of Oh Pioneers. It tried to tap into that same kind of.. the poem itself says it, this is what we do. We seize the world. This is what we do we go out there and work, not afraid, strong, mighty. And it uses that. Interestingly some people found that the effort, use of Walt Witman was too cynical, over the top. Too deliberate in its effort to communicate sincerity. So Levis next ad actually went to Braddock Pennsylvania, and filmed real people and used real people in the ads rather than Walt Witman and Eminem. As a way to refocus on the United States working class, blue collar labour, steel industry represents blue collar labour and the United States in the working class.

In the story of the Levis ad, who is blamed for the crisis? Well the story so the voiceover in the Levis ad is a childs voice, so it immediately invokes innocence, purity, that kind of childlike joy and wonder. This child says in the ad that something got broken here, and we need to fix it. Its stunning in its abstraction that it wasn't corporate greed, it wasn't the failure of banks, it wasn't banks hoodwinking, the working people. Just something got broken. It absolutely abstracts the crisis out of any kind of individual blame or institutional blame, or state blame. It says something got broken and then immediately says but we need to fix it, and then invokes the language of the frontier. People say that there are no more frontiers, but there are frontiers all around us. That is what the voiceover says. So it uses the economic crisis as another frontier. And again, in United States ideology and history and mythology, the image and the concept of the frontier continues to have currency. And its something, frontiers are what United States is about. In this mythology. So it uses that kind of idea to recast and rebrand the crisis.

And was the America, the sign of America right? Its down and.. Yes, one of the ads starts with kind of a neon sign that is flickering because its broken and it says

United States of America and its literally sinking into a pool of water. That's the opening shot of the ad, and the ending shot is the America sign out of the water, brightly lit, apparently fixed. So again: this is Levis effort to not just rebrand Levis. Chrysler wasn't interested in just rebranding Chrysler, after they collapsed, but its really about rebranding the crisis itself as something that is not about blaming the banks or blaming the state. That is something, rebranding as an opportunity, in this kind of a way where we can go in as citizens and rescue ourselves and the nation and capitalism.

A very smart and deliberate attempt to do so? It is a very smart and deliberate attempt, I dont know, again back to your earlier question: its impossible for me to talk about whether or not ads work. Because it does work on an ideological level. In the United States people are generally not.. Certainly there are alternative movements and different lifestyles post-2008, but in general, the population is really ready to restart capitalism. And get back to a moment where they felt that they were being taken care of by the banks and the state. And the way that these ads are suggesting that they do so is through the individual worker, the individual entrepreneur. Again it distracts attention away from any kind of social system and a kind of state system and government, and the rebranding effort is about focusing on the individuals. It is really a moral obligation, national obligation for the individuals, to fix this.

So is this the aftermath of the crisis in America? Capitalism coming back with a vengeance and the crisis as a backdrop, stage, set for individual heroic stories? Certainly one aftermath and I would say that its one that branders, branding companies, marketing advertising corporate public relations, are really working hard to establish. They are trying to establish that this is the aftermath. Its not capitalism back with a vengeance. Its capitalism back not with a vengeance. I mean part of it is about this kind of.. The Levis ads are kind of scary, the lighting is scary, the hand held camera is meant to invoke a kind of amateur not slick, not professional sort of scenario, so its capitalism in that way. It uses fear and this kind of war zone aesthetic to remind United States about how fearful we should be about unregulated neoliberal capitalism. So its not capitalism back with a vengeance, its capitalism back: leaner and more austere. That we can handle rather than this kind of unregulated mess. That who knows how that happened, but it happened, so now lets fix it.

Alternatively one could say that Levis is feeling the Zeitgeist and seeing the revolution coming? Yes, I guess you could. The revolution being the revolution in capitalism?

No but also, there is talk about violence, fighting, getting up, its scary because of the undertone of violence which is also there in society I think and people are like you say, sad and depressed, but also angry. And this is also part of the Levis sub-text I think. That there might be a kind of eruption. Yeah and I think that part of that subtext is Levis attempt at authenticity. They work very hard to be the authentic brand in all that they do. Not just these ads. So they don't want to smooth over peoples anger and smooth over peoples fear because we obviously do have it for very good reasons. So I think youre right: they are feeling the Zeitgeist and they see the anger and fear and rather than giving us ridiculous ads with furry animals singing above our heads, theyre exploiting that Zeitgeist, that fear, that anger. But remember at the end of the ad, the America sign rises up. At the end, music crescendos, child says there are frontiers everywhere. And the images change from

the abandoned buildings and stark telephone poles and freight train driving by an empty field, to people embracing. Children jumping on their parents beds. Images of hope. So they run the gammon in those ads. They capitalise on this post crisis wasteland chique. And fear and anger on the part of citizens but also offer a recuperative message. The trick is that this recuperative message is directed at the individual worker, not at anywhere else. Not institutional, revolt or institutional reform, not at state reform, but at the individual. Its up to them. Its very clear in the ads that that is what they are saying.

Always a happy end? Yeah and about the individual. Always a happy ending but that only can be achieved through you. Not us, community, not even through the nation but through you, the individual entrepreneur.

What comes after the aftermath? Well I don't think that its going to be the brightly lit neon America sign rising above the water. Its impossible to predict what is going to happen. I think that as we know from participating in this group, there are many different points of entry into this crisis. Globally. Different nations, communities, politics have a different way of entering into the conversation and thinking about what its impact will be. I don't think like I said, that those press reports that kind of breathlessly proclaimed the end of capitalism were right, I don't think it is. Im hoping that the crisis itself will provide an opportunity for citizens to think about social change and pursuits of justice in ways that are different then pre-2008. That use as some of the people in the group are talking about social media as a way to kind of exercise citizen agency and so on, but as far as what I think its going to be for the United States, is the Unites States position in the world has changed. For sure. Im not sure what the effect of that change is going to be, but its certainly not going to be the kind of power that it used to be in a global economy.

Is that why this crisis is different? That is one of the reasons I think why this one is different for the United States than other crises. There are other reasons why this crisis is different but I think that its, back to your very first question, what kind of crisis is this, I think that because this crisis encompasses so many arenas of life, social, cultural, individual, financial, economic.. That its different in its scope. Its different in the way in which these layers are so deeply interrelated with each other so that we cant really predict how something that happens in the financial arena is going to affect the cultural arena, except to say that it will affect it.

Is there one idea emerging from all of these papers from this group that is so diverse, that you all have in common? Is there something you agree on as a cultural analysis of the crisis? Well we agree that there is one. A crisis. Yeah I think that one of the ways in which we all agree is that we do think that its broad in scope, global, that it is something that is multi-layered: that there are many different ways to approach it and I think that different ones of us have, not to be reductive, have either a more optimistic or more pessimistic viewpoint on what is going to happen. But I think that overall, we provide not just a kind of attempt at an explanation of different parts of the crisis but we also look at specific practices that have emerged from the crisis, like the practice of branding the crisis for me, or the practice of social media for others. So we look at both the explanation and the

practices that have emerged from this.

Which image symbolizes the crisis for you? If you think of one image which represents this crisis for you, which image is that? Well Im thinking of the ads I looked at because those are the images I have been focusing on for the last several months. Its not so much that these images represent the crisis for me, but the image in terms of what I am looking at in terms of this idea of branding the crisis, that image of the America sign falling into the water and by the end of the ad it rising up. That kind of trajectory: the worker and how the worker is positioned in between those two points, really is kind of emblematic of how advertising is branding the crisis. Not so much how I feel about it, but how I feel that brand culture is explaining and imagining the crisis.

So why are we not rising up? Why is there no revolution in this moment in time? This would be the moment, no? Well yeah this would be it and I think part of the reason, there is multitude of reasons for why there isnt a revolution, and Ive been angry as well as lots of other people as to its absence and whats going on and why we havent revolted, but I do think that one of the reasons why, is that the crisis certainly wasn't the beginning of this relentless focus on the individual as an agent of change. That's been happening throughout the last 30 years of neoliberal capitalism in Western cultures. And so that idea that there can be a collective approach to social change or the collective pursuit of social justice, I think is harder and harder for individuals to grasp because the ethos is one of such total individualism and individual as an agent of change. So there are ways in which people are protesting this. And people are revolting. But theyre smaller, more concentrated efforts. Not that widespread revolution or revolt that you asked about. They are more.. Because I think that its much more difficult for us to think in terms of collectivism at a time like this. Within the trenches of neoliberalism.

Tunisians can do it.. Yes, and its true. Its certainly not something that we can generalise about. Different groups have done it. In the United States, we havent been a protest culture in a very long time. And I do think that a lot of that has to do with a kind of narrowing in on the individual and a retraction from state obligation or responsibility for looking after its citizens and so to protest in a big collective group no longer makes the same kind of sense that it used to.