my turn


Brand Advocate Kane

A friend of mine attended a City University of New York reading recently from a new anthology of Central and Eastern European plays from the 1980s. Three of the playwrights in attendance that Monday night -- a Slovenian, a Hungarian, and a Romanian -- shared their views. All had written as dissidents and subversives until communism fell. They said that behind the Iron Curtain, one knew one's enemies and those commanding one's life. But, as my friend recounted, their opinion was that now, in the West, "Do you know any longer who's in charge?"

You don't, was the answer -- and you are expected to like it. "Prescient thinking," said my friend, "and you can imagine how fast peoples' ears slammed shut on this at the reading." He repeated to me the Slovenian playwright's comment about the difference between social manipulation in the Communist-era East versus Western-style marketing: the East European totalitarian regimes claimed to be making "the new man," "while in the West, U.S.-style democratic pursuit is to create the perfect consumer," paraphrased my friend. The playwright, Dusan Jovanovic, was met by nods of assent from his fellow playwrights, and nods in the other direction from many in the audience.



The discussion got me thinking about the last time I -- or maybe anyone -- used the word "citizen" beyond the confines of a U.S. passport office or in reference to blogging. Occasionally, I'm tempted to use the noun in stories because it has become such an oddity, an antique -- a bit of whimsy that evokes grade-school anecdotes about three-hour-long debates between Lincoln and Douglas, and a time when Americans actually cared more about what their elected officials were doing in that "Hollywood for ugly people" -- Washington, D.C. -- than they did about their favorite celebrity's latest whatever.

As I usually write about marketers' efforts to find the perfect consumer, I also see that they are often in the business of creating that consumer to the extent that branding and social engineering are becoming interchangeable. If the word "citizen" no longer exists in American English, as a matter of practice it has been replaced in practice by "brand advocate" and its synonyms. In fact, the big national elections -- the ones that represent the top of the political purchase funnel -- are really about choosing a political brand. Unfortunately, when it comes down to being citizens who are involved in the intricacies, we are lost.

This is why it is so easy for someone with a large following to write on a blog that the health care debate is about, say, death panels, and get away with it. Like perfect consumers, we respond on cue to calculated semantics and engineered sentimentality and leave the facts to others to digest and give us advice. I guess someday, down the road, someone will look back and see written in our history an answer to whether the free market's efforts to cultivate good consumers and the polis' efforts to create good citizens are mutually exclusive.

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