Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Buddhism, propaganda, anti-propaganda propaganda and so on

It seems like I've been discussing propaganda and the media a lot lately. A lot of it started when I watched Dove's new ad, Onslaught (posted on my friend Patia's blog). The ad made me feel sick to my stomach by first showing an innocent little red-haired girl (of course a spitting image of my future daughter) and then a flurry of advertising images aimed at women. It just gets worse after that with dieting images and then (worse!) plastic surgery... The commercial ends with our little girl and the words:

Talk to your daughter before
the beauty industry does.

"Wow.... Bravo," I thought, "way to go Dove for spending your hard-earned advertising budget on something positive." Now I'm not naïve. I know that this kind of advertising might just make it more likely that I will choose to by Dove next time I'm at the store (fact check: yep, I am a long-time Dove purchaser, but I think more because it's cheaper than other name-brands). But I figure that if their ads are actually a force for good, I'd much rather support them anyhow.
Then I read a post on The Situationist called, "Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR Parent." Apparently Dove is a subsidiary of a larger company, Unilever, which also makes Lynx body spray. And it just so happens that Lynx advertising is about as awful as it gets (you can see the ads in the Situationist post - picture hundreds of girls in tiny bikinis running at a guy with the words:

Spray more
Get more

displayed on the screen.

So... In effect Unilever is warning us against the evils of the beauty industry with its right hand and exploiting women and sexuality as a whole with its left. Pretty sinister, huh? Exploit sexuality, make money. Exploit the fact that a lot of us are fed up with the exploitation of sexuality, make more money. Next we'll see another Unilever company warning us against commercials altogether (at last!). And making more money (booo!).

I also discussed this a bit with, Lenart, one of my new flatmates. I said, "can't we just create commercials that teach us to see through all this corporate crap, to see that we're being brainwashed with images of beauty, masculinity, prosperity, and so on." He told me they tried that with young people [in Slovenia I think, where he's from]. But one problem: they underestimate the power of these industries. Even when people know that they're being brainwashed by it all, they are still affected.
So, on the one hand I'm being told that I'm too fat, too old, too poor (and all this would be solved if I just purchased X or Y-services) and that my fiancée is also somehow failing in every way that she isn't a wafer-thin twenty-two year-old rich model (really, they tell me this, I'm not making it up). That's one thing. I think I can even handle all of that. I love myself and my fiancée and I've read enough philosophy to know that youth, beauty, and/or wealth do not bring happiness.

But then this:

It's not that I'm opposed to the armed forces per se, but the glamorization of them really disturbs me.

Even more bizzare was this (from my new abode of England):

It mixes battle scenes, running with an injured person, and running across a tropical beach with (you guessed it) skinny, bikini-clad women. To give it credit though, at least it focuses more on what looks like the humanitarian aspects of the armed forces while the US ad just kind of pounds in the notion of Strength (which in itself isn't a bad thing).

Now for the 'anti-propaganda' propaganda. I couldn't find the original that this spoofs - I'd love a nice side-by-side comparison - but I'm sure you know the gist of it.

And, oddly equally stomach-wrenching (shouldn't it be more) as the Dove ad:

And this poignant rap:

The question: who to trust in the midst of all this? Nobody?

Yep. Nobody. As I meditate on one of the central themes in Buddhism, ignorance (Skt. avidya, Pali avijja), I see that both sides are filled with misconstruals of the truth (i.e. lies). And I, as a third ignorant party, have my own dilusions about the matters.

Considering the Dove ads, the biggest mistake would be to think that we see here 'both sides' of the industry or the beauty debate. Far from it. We're getting two corporate angles, two methods of selling stuff. As my friend Lenart pointed out to me, "at the end of the day, you're still getting the same message, that you have to buy things, or there is something wrong with you."

With the military/anti-military ads it is slightly different in that you're getting two radically different messages. But both distort the facts, both play with our emotions with graphics (and the music in that first one, sheesh). But in the end we could say they're both selling something, an ideology. And the ideology of militarism is one that will get more than a few bucks out of your pocket - it can get chunks of your life, perhaps all of it. And anti-militarism seeks no less (though I doubt they can recruit many, like Cindy Sheehan, that will put their life on hold for the cause).

So where does the Buddhist stand in the midst of all of this? A bit bewildered? Yes, quite likely. I don't recall if it was Lenart of me that suggested that we need a Buddhist advertising company - producing comercials that just tell us to be happy with who we are, to love those around us, to find contentment in a simple life, practice generosity, and so on.

Ahhh... but wait. (I think I blogged about just one such music video not to long ago)... Perhaps it's not quite perfect, but it's a start:
Based on the teachings of Mipham Rinpoche ("Mipham the Great", 1846-1912). It takes a minute to get into, but watch it (at least listen) to the very end - it's worth it.

may you be happy

may you be happy

may you be happy.

I'm sure this won't end our worries about beauty and war today, tomorrow, or in the near future. But it does seem to be the Buddhist answer. To quote from Bikkhu Bodhi on the power and importance of simply following the precept to abstain from harm:
The Buddha says that one who abstains from the destruction of life gives immeasurable safety and security to countless living beings. How the simple observance of a single precept leads to such a result is not immediately obvious but calls for some thought. Now by myself I can never give immeasurable safety and security to other beings by any program of positive action. Even if I were to go on protest against all the slaughterhouses in the world, or to march against war continuously without stopping, by such action I could never stop the slaughter of animals or ensure that war would come to an end. But when I adopt for myself the precept to abstain from the destruction of life, then by reason of the precept I do not intentionally destroy the life of any living being. Thus any other being can feel safe and secure in my presence; all beings are ensured that they will never meet harm from me. Of course even then I can never ensure that other living beings will be absolutely immune from harm and suffering, but this is beyond anyone's power. All that lies within my power and the sphere of my responsibility are the attitudes and actions that emanate from myself towards others. And as long as these are circumscribed by the training rule to abstain from taking life, no living being need feel threatened in my presence, or fear that harm and suffering will come from me.


Patia said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post. (Of course, I may be predisposed.)

Propaganda (or as we hacks like to call it, marketing) is unavoidable these days, no matter what side of the fence you sit on. I do think the only hope is to educate ourselves (and our children) to recognize the manipulations for what they are. Critical thinking has never been more crucial.

I thought the UK military video was hilarious -- blonde, bikini-clad babes on a beach! Does it get any more blatant?

I enjoyed the music video, too. I found the message -- "What about you?" -- to be very female/Eastern/yin. Don't you think? Not that selflessness is bad, but I think it should be tempered with self-concern to avoid victimization and mindless sacrifice.

Carla said...

Really, really good post! I liked the music video very much and understand the point. I do agree with Patia and wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea and go codependent in the attempt to cherish all living beings!

I haven't seen that UK ad yet. Have seen plenty of those Lynx ads, though. Actually, I thought they were funny! Guess I've been here too long!

Tom said...

Contrarian that I seem to be [but I'm not], I have this to say:

Not only, as patia says, do we need to be aware and wary of propoganda, [including, as you say, Justin, the propaganda of anti-propaganda] we need to see into how the "propaganda" also says things that are true, or how we may be over-reacting in our resistance to them.

For example, I would guess that it is probably the case that Dove and Lynx are operating separately and while Unilever is aware of the contrary messages, they are staying out of it. Generally, large corporations are centers of mayhem. Advertisers don't think of themselves as being unethical. They just try to target appropriate users of their products.

Re the Army Strong ad. ["Army Strong." I like that!] If you think of it as 'trying to find their audience,' rather than 'trying to spin what the Army is really like,' then I think you gain some sympathy for the ad. There are young people who are eager to find adventure/strength/teamwork/commitment that may thrive in the Army because it can be, at least somewhat, like what the ad depicts.

Also, there is no coordinated effort to tell us that we are too old, too fat, too poor by advertisers. Think of it: It is not just advertisers that make being 25, rich and having a perfect body the ideal. Fiction writers do that, too. AND our sexual interest focusses thereabout, not coincidentally. Movie stars are in their prime at about age 30 because younger people want to be that age and older people look back at the good-old-days when they were that age. The Dove ads work only because they are novel, not because they have any hope of ushering in a change of what is [biologically] appealing to the public.

But, yes, there is an overarching problem: Hammered by all this advertising, our society becomes a consumer wasteland, dedicated to the body beautiful creating a new underclass, significantly displacing the old underclass of women and minorities: people who smoke or are ugly or are poor or don't drink Miller beer, or whatever.

My 'problem' with the Bikkhu Bodhi quote is that it is, essentially, the credo of The Good Germans of Nazi times. The problem of Do No Harm is that it Does No Good. It is passive, ostrich-like. "All I did was stand and watch as the Jews were ushered into the trucks and hauled away. It's not my problem, man."

Don't Buddhists have an obligation to be "Everybody?" If we refuse to be soldiers, don't we need to have a prescription to deal with the world's problems that would work to confront or resist evil? Perhaps "Love conquers hate," but it doesn't work nearly fast enough. Resisted by mere love, alone, hate will easily take over the world.

Kelly said...

Hear! Hear! Babe, what a great post you've put together! I couldn't believe the videos and agree with Patia about the bikini clad babes on the beach. After teaching women's studies for a few years, I'm continually floored at the ways women are portrayed in media. It's like "Baywatch"!

Why? Why all this energy put towards this all the time? I really don't know what to make of it.

My only hope is that through grassroots movements, like starting with our own future kids, this fixation may neutralize and melt away.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Wowsers. So much to comment back about!

Patia - yes, yes for education. I just hope that, contra my flatmate's wisdom, we can actually educate ourselves to 'rise above' all of this. I think on the 'what about you' message it's hugely important to know that often the best thing we can do for those we love is take the best possible care of ourselves. This has been a big thing between Kelly and me lately - when one of us has just done too much and is worn out it really affects the other. I'll think on that some more for a further post :)

Carla - thanks :) I think the Lynx ads, funny, weird, or whatnot still impart the (perhaps subconscious) ideal of beauty and gender-roles. Do you think they still plant some subtle seeds in your mind, or would you say you're pretty much impervious?

Tom - First, yes you ARE a contrarian, yes yes yes. But I think I still agree with you - especially about society becoming a consumer wasteland. Bikkhu Bodhi does also note before the section I quoted that there are positive 'cultivations' to go with each negative 'abstention' - so I think we're all in agreement there too.

Kelly, Love! You're right - we have work to do :) Can't wait to get started - with our kids, and with teaching again. I LOVED the fact that part of the Intro to Buddhism course I taught was about Buddhism's potential as a counter force to the status quo. Onward, Upward!

cat said...

in a capitalist culture, everyone has purpose:

to purchase.

Tom said...

I wish to post in defense of the bikini-clad babes.

People who join the army aren't just taking on a job, they're taking on a life for a few years. I think it is in the realm of what's appropriate for the UK Armoured Infantry to make the case that guys who join up aren't becoming monks.

Baywatch the ad simply isn't. It is hardly a sexy, titilating few seconds -- especially when you consider what UK TV is like compared to generally purient US TV.

"rush, challenge, action, help, protect, serve, people, places, laughs, compassion, courage, confidence, a unit, team, for it all, together."

It is an open question how close a fit the ad is to the organization advertised. But for a commitment such as going into the army or going off to study at a university, I think it is appropriate to consider what one's full day is likely to be like during the committed period.

So, is it propaganda? Or is it a reasonably fair ad doing what advertising does, accentuating the positive, and, here, telling 20-year-olds a bit of what life, at its best, is like in the Armoured Infantry? Oh, all right, it's marketing [aka, propaganda], but I don't think it's objectionable for its genre.