‘If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.’
The audience laugh, but Hicks insists that the statement isn’t a joke, that he is ‘planting seeds, you do what you can.’ Urging advertisers and marketers to ‘suck on a tail pipe.’ But the joke does of course come: ‘I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now: “He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar, that’s a smart market.”’ Protesting against this assumption, he corners himself again, “He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar.”
The skit finds him trapped in the bottomless cynical reasoning that no matter what he says, his words will be construed to be addressing a particular market from which he will gain monetarily. Advertisers and marketers, he contends, are unable to comprehend his words in any other way. At the heart of this joke is the notion that so-called neo-liberalism’s insistence on the primacy of markets has subsumed all human activity into some kind of profitable endeavour.
Here Hicks echoes the greed is good ethos expressed by Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Everything worthwhile, even an act of charity, Gekko maintains in a lengthy speech, is done for selfish reasons. While this reasoning can be easily brushed aside, there is a wide public perception that public acts all have a common denominator: personal gain.
In short: a public sphere has become a commercial sphere.
But the reason for this is not because there’s been some insidious take-over by scheming and greedy marketeers. It’s simply that we are surrounded by more media now (billboards, TV, the internet etc.) than ever before. This has changed our consciousness, we identify ourselves as parts of a market and it is that identification -the way we identify with particular publics- through which we largely shape our beliefs and attitudes.
This tribalistic modality is nothing new, what is new is how important a role consumer goods and services play in the way we identify. The consumption of consumer goods and services not only as a way of enjoying ourselves (which is a misnomer) but also as an ordering system is no more or no less rational than, say, animal sacrifices in ancient societies or gift economies of remote tribes. There’s no point in justifying consumer capitalism in a technological society, but there’s a lot of point in recognising that it structures our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Hicks’s moral point is based on a false notion of human consciousness, that there are rational and fundamentally well-meaning people who are actively deceived by marketeers. What Hicks doesn’t recognise is the way marketing and publicity make us what we are.
Marketing and publicity is the oxygen of enterprise regardless of its goals – from an arms maker to a communist political party. Hicks’s reasoning is as flawed as Gekko’s.
Our buying power (I mean this in a more abstract sense “buying in”, rather than a literal sense) is seen as much of a power than our political power as democratic citizens. This is why, to Hicks’s frustration, any public announcement is assimilated into the market, because the people themselves – not the marketeers – do the assimilating.