Branding strategies for the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world
by Sam Kriss
Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse
It’s easy to get whipped up into an outrage over this kind of thing. It’s enraging to see the techniques by which we are manipulated uncovered in all their foetid glory. What’s more, there’s the sheer density of meaningless marketing buzzwords repeated over an insipid steel guitar melody, managing to replicate simultaneously the effects of a cult indoctrination film and a nice strong hit of prescription opiates. There’s the naked theft of the video’s entire aesthetic from the occasionally excellent RSAnimate series. There’s the fact that the gang of marketers behind it seem to consider making a positive change in the world to only be a good thing insofar as it can be put to use selling various tubes of corn syrup-based goo. There’s the cynical manipulation of popular sentimentality for profit. There’s the section dealing with ‘families, communities and cultures,’ in which the former two are represented anthropomorphically, sitting like nineteenth-century monarchs astride a globe, while ‘cultures’ is just an arrow pointing in the vague direction of Africa. It’s all so perfectly and unwittingly ugly. But to focus on this stuff is to miss the point a little. There’s plenty of justification for a sensible critique of consumer capitalism as demonstrated by this video, but a purely sensible critique ignores not only the horrific haecceity of the thing, but the otherworldly horror that surrounds consumerism itself. For the purposes of this essay, at least, I’m not interested in the ideological presuppositions of liberal philanthropy, the incoherence of marketing discourse, the soporific nature of societally-mandated pleasantness, or even the construction of the racial-cultural other.
What I’m really interested in is this.
What is this thing? It crops up everywhere in the video. Its tendrils extrude randomly into the field of gibberish without warning or explanation: sometimes it tenderly caresses the various symbolic representations onscreen; sometimes it’s actively antagonistic towards them, bursting out from their bodies and leaving only shattered remnants of sales patter. In one memorably horrifying sequence it’s shown passing through the heads of three people as they smile their bovinely unfazed marker-pen smiles in our direction. Here, at the video’s end, it holds the entire Earth in its grip, the planet leaving sticky stretchmarks as it tries and fails to struggle free from the gloop’s oleaginous embrace. Let’s start with what we can see. The thing is clearly alive. Maybe it’s not alive in the strict biological sense that any of us can comprehend, but it moves, it has agency, it has plans for us and our lives. It appears as a seething mass of – of what? Not liquid, exactly; it’s too firm, too collected; it doesn’t flow, it crawls. Some kind of mobile mucous then, bile-black and slug-sinuous, its surface tight and slimy, glistening under the light of a blood-clotted sun. But at the same time there’s an undeniably fleshy quality to it, fleshy in the most visceral sense of the world. It resembles nothing so much as an immense, writhing conglomeration of dicks. Could it be that what this thing wants is to fuck us?
I’ve always found there to be something almost endearingly naive in the thought of Debord and Baudrillard and other theorists of the image. Baudrillard proudly and knowingly calls himself a nihilist; in fact, he’s anything but. Nobody believes more fanatically or more religiously in truth than the poststructuralists. To speak of the spectacle or the simulacrum in terms of a precise historical moment is to assert the existence of a historical world of truths prior to the image; to speak of hyperreal images that reflect only each other and deny a pre-existing truth is to assert the existence of a pre-existing truth that can be denied. Debord in particular is militant in his rejection of the image and his partisanship on the side of reality. He’s got it all wrong. Representation isn’t a prison, it’s a shield, our only defence against a universe filled with horrors. It’s a way to make the world comprehensible. Lacan describes this process precisely: the Symbolic order has its origins in the castration complex; the phallus as an intolerable lack is what anchors the entire process of signification. When Lacan describes the Real he does so in terms that approach Lovecraftian horror: it’s something black and smooth and undifferentiated, with no cuts or cracks, no inside or outside. The infant, confronted with the realisation that the world is an enormous and unfriendly place in which his jouissance is ultimately irrelevant, begins to build metaphors for himself. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.
Eventually, though, the chains of signification loop in on themselves. In the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video, there’s no mention of Coca-Cola-as-beverage, only stories, narratives, feelings, loyalties – only images referring to other images. This makes perfect sense: images are a necessary refuge from an unpleasant reality. The fact of your utter insignificance in both the mechanistic universe and the libidinal economy doesn’t sell sugary drinks – or, at least, it doesn’t sell many to Coca-Cola’s core demographic of people who don’t just sit at home with the curtains drawn reading Kafka. Brands aren’t like us. They’re better than we are, untouched by fears or neuroses, unravaged by time. They have the commodity’s aura of unblemished totality that we pitiful human wrecks, crippled by our various lacks and lacerations, can never possess. That’s why people grow so attached to them; we want what they have. But to fully maintain the pleasant banality of advertising, to completely protect against the sour taste of reality, these images have to be decoupled from any concrete referent. They have to be purged of anything that could climb down the chain of signification and kick us in the face. That’s where we get brand slogans like Live Positively: a floating signifier, elemental in its meaninglessness. But doing this kind of thing is very dangerous. The shield of representation works by mediating between the fragile subject and the hideous object; if you break it away from the object it becomes useless. The real world can then intrude. It forces its way unopposed into the realm from which it was banished, and it hits us right where we thought we were most safe: in our advertising. And when it does so, is it any wonder that it takes on the form of the object of that first primal act of signification, slipping back across the divide between phallus and penis?
This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a portent. The creature that invaded the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video will not stop there. Our virtual creations are easy targets; its violence grows stronger with every victory. Soon the brittle crust of the Earth will snap, and viscous tentacles will emerge from the chasm to crush all our cherished symbols. The beast will rise. It will take its revenge, and it will take it in blood. We will, very soon, be once again faced with the incomprehensible horror that we once tried to abstract away, long ago, when we were infants. Luckily, we now know exactly how to deal with it. All we have to do is represent it, turn it back into a signifier. The future of the human race depends on a solid brand strategy.
…In the next financial year, our target is to double voluntary self-immolations as sacrifices to the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. That’s a lot of voluntary self-immolations! To do this, we must fully engage our brand with the aspirations of our sacrificial base. This means not only promoting our brand, but entering into dialogue with the defeated human race across all multimedia platforms and allowing user-created content to grow in the fertile ashes of their ruined cities. Through the Live Every Second brand slogan consumers can independently develop content focusing on positive and aspirational life experiences they have enjoyed before inevitably succumbing to annihilation at the hand of the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. Our entire advertising focus has to be centred around the Live Every Second concept if the phallus-monster brand is to achieve full market penetration. Engaging with Live Every Second means that consumers will approach their grisly fate as the appropriate end to a life not only lived well, but lived to the max. By encouraging conversations about what it means to live every second we can potentialise the creativity of our user base…