The BBC’s American television soap Mad Men offers a rare glimpse of the power of corporate advertising. The promotion of smoking half a century ago by the “smart” people of Madison Avenue, who knew the truth, led to countless deaths. Advertising and its twin, public relations, became a way of deceiving dreamt up by those who had read Freud and applied mass psychology to anything from cigarettes to politics. Just as Marlboro Man was virility itself, so politicians could be branded, packaged and sold.
It is more than 100 days since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The “Obama brand” has been named “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008”, easily beating Apple computers. David Fenton of MoveOn.org describes Obama’s election campaign as “an institutionalised mass-level automated technological community organising that has never existed before and is a very, very powerful force”. Deploying the internet and a slogan plagiarised from the Latino union organiser César Chávez – “Sí, se puede!” or “Yes, we can” – the mass-level automated technological community marketed its brand to victory in a country desperate to be rid of George W Bush.
No one knew what the new brand actually stood for. So accomplished was the advertising (a record $75m was spent on television commercials alone) that many Americans actually believed Obama shared their opposition to Bush’s wars. In fact, he had repeatedly backed Bush’s warmongering and its congressional funding. Many Americans also believed he was the heir to Martin Luther King’s legacy of anti-colonialism. Yet if Obama had a theme at all, apart from the vacuous “Change you can believe in”, it was the renewal of America as a dominant, avaricious bully. “We will be the most powerful,” he often declared.
Perhaps the Obama brand’s most effective advertising was supplied free of charge by those journalists who, as courtiers of a rapacious system, promote shining knights. They depoliticised him, spinning his platitudinous speeches as “adroit literary creations, rich, like those Doric columns, with allusion . . .” (Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian). The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote: “Many spiritually advanced people I know . . . identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who . . . can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”
In his first 100 days, Obama has excused torture, opposed habeas corpus and demanded more secret government. He has kept Bush’s gulag intact and at least 17,000 prisoners beyond the reach of justice. On 24 April, his lawyers won an appeal that ruled Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not “persons”, and therefore had no right not to be tortured. His national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says he believes torture works. One of his senior US intelligence officials in Latin America is accused of covering up the torture of an American nun in Guatemala in 1989; another is a Pinochet apologist. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the US experienced a military coup under Bush, whose secretary of “defence”, Robert Gates, along with the same warmaking officials, has been retained by Obama.
All over the world, America’s violent assault on innocent people, directly or by agents, has been stepped up. During the recent massacre in Gaza, reports Seymour Hersh, “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other hi-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel” and being used to slaughter mostly women and children. In Pakistan, the number of civilians killed by US missiles called drones has more than doubled since Obama took office.
In Afghanistan, the US “strategy” of killing Pashtun tribespeople (the “Taliban”) has been extended by Obama to give the Pentagon time to build a series of permanent bases right across the devastated country where, says Secretary Gates, the US military will remain indefinitely. Obama’s policy, one unchanged since the Cold War, is to intimidate Russia and China, now an imperial rival. He is proceeding with Bush’s provocation of placing missiles on Russia’s western border, justifying it as a counter to Iran, which he accuses, absurdly, of posing “a real threat” to Europe and the US. On 5 April in Prague, he made a speech reported as “anti-nuclear”. It was nothing of the kind. Under the Pentagon’s Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, the US is building new “tactical” nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.
Perhaps the biggest lie – the equivalent of smoking is good for you – is Obama’s announcement that the US is leaving Iraq, the country it has reduced to a river of blood. According to unabashed US army planners, as many as 70,000 troops will remain “for the next 15 to 20 years”. On 25 April, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, alluded to this. It is not surprising that the polls are showing that a growing number of Americans believe they have been suckered – especially as the nation’s economy has been entrusted to the same fraudsters who destroyed it. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s principal economic adviser, is throwing $3trn at the same banks that paid him more than $8m last year, including $135,000 for one speech. Change you can believe in.
Much of the American establishment loathed Bush and Cheney for exposing, and threatening, the onward march of America’s “grand design”, as Henry Kissinger, war criminal and now Obama adviser, calls it. In advertising terms, Bush was a “brand collapse” whereas Obama, with his toothpaste advertisement smile and righteous clichés, is a godsend. At a stroke, he has seen off serious domestic dissent to war, and he brings tears to the eyes, from Washington to Whitehall. He is the BBC’s man, and CNN’s man, and Murdoch’s man, and Wall Street’s man, and the CIA’s man. The Madmen did well.