Category Archives: Popular Culture

The Yes Men Strike Again!

There is a tendency among scholars interested in media and social activism to focus on how social movements make instrumental use of mass media to enhance organization profile, to change public policy, to foster a sense of collective identity, or a combination of some or all of these things. Yet, before today’s media savvy activists were holding news conferences, the most accessible and fundamental mode of radical expression was public speech, and oftentimes ironic and satirical speech.  

Few activists are as effective in blending the spirit and practice of satire and radical rhetoric as the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who have successfully impersonated and thus “corrected” the identities of the rich and powerful. Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives, Yes Men activists delivered an outrageous keynote speech to 300 oil barons at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference, held at Stampede Park in Calgary, in June 2007. In November 2004, taking on the persona of a Dow Chemical executive, Yes Men pranksters conducted a live video interview with BBC News announcing that at long last the company was admitting its negligence in the 1984 Bhopal disaster that immediately claimed the lives of 3,000 people and contributed to the deaths of at least 15,000 more.

After a year of quiet, the Yes Men have struck again, and this time at the heart of the American media machine. New Yorkers awoke this morning to news that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq war had ended, that the U.S. government had established national public health care and education, abolished corporate lobbying and placed a cap on CEO salaries. The Yes Men arranged to have 1.6 million fake copies of The New York Times printed and delivered to several key locations across the Big Apple, where volunteers recruited through the prankster’s website were on hand to distribute the news.

The Yes Men’s pranks are a prime example of culture jamming, a form of radical speech which involves efforts to disrupt existing transmissions of information. Using a combination of hoax and banditry, the Yes Men endeavour to trip up, jam or block what they see as the overwhelming power structures that govern and control what we think and how we feel. In contrast to other media activists who wish to deny and denounce with a view of negating the cultural influence of mainstream media, pranksters like the Yes Men prefer to play with and subvert the hegemonic power of conventional thought. As Christine Harold puts it in her excellent paper on culture jamming, pranking is more about the “artful proliferation of messages, a rhetorical process of intervention and invention, which challenges the ability of corporate discourses to make meaning in predictable ways.”

While culture jamming is often celebrated as a postmodern phenomenon rooted in the Situationist Movement of the late 1960s, there is something quite medieval about the Yes Men’s use of irreverent laughter. In his notoriously grotesque novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 16th century, Francois Rabelais reproduced and valorized the speech of the village marketplace, a language quite remote from the purities of the literary intelligentsia, clergy and courts of the time. With mockery and humour, Rabelais celebrated those moments when the solemnities of religion and authority were ritually inverted by the common folk. Writing about Rabelais and his world, Mikhail Bakhtin said of laughter that it “clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world.” 


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Purple Pills and Puffery

This post is about promotionalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the ideas come from a paper I wrote a couple of years ago (This Ad May be Bad for Your Health) published as a chapter in my book Communication in Question. I was compelled to revisit some of the ideas that informed the paper after listening this afternoon to the latest podcast from White Coat, Black Art – Dr. Brian Goldman’s always stimulating and informative program on CBC Radio 1. You can stream the podcast at the CBC site here.

The section of the program that most intrigued me was Goldman’s Q&A with the vice-president of creative development at the Brand Institute, which bills itself as “the world’s premier healthcare, consumer and business to business (B2B) brand identity consultancy.” Among other services, the firm develops catchy names for drugs and the conditions they are designed to alleviate thereby helping pharmaceutical companies build brand equity and value. According to the executive interviewed, a number of important considerations go into the process of naming a new drug: the name should highlight the product’s unique selling features, it should include embedded concepts that can evoke emotion, it should be memorable and easily pronounced in multiple languages, and it should have a “pleasing tonality”. A case in point is the drug Lunesta, the popular prescription sleep aid – it connotes lunar images and has a soothing tonality that also affirms the product’s “inherent therapeutic properties.”  Roland Barthes must be spinning in his grave.

While you’re waiting for the podcast to download, here’s some promo from the Brand Institute’s website, broadcast as a news story a year or so ago on Fox Business and hosted on the agency’s YouTube page:

Of course, this story is about more than semiotics. Drug advertising is big business. The global pharmaceutical industry is the world’s most profitable stock market sector, with annual revenues exceeding $600 billion. Pharmaceutical sales in North America topped a staggering $265 billion in 2005, and in the United States, where 90% of the continental market is located, big pharma spent close to $5 billion that year on advertising alone. Millions of dollars can be made providing valuable treatment for genuinely sick people, but billions more can be made by convincing healthy people that there may be something wrong with them. Manufacture a risk, cultivate anxiety and deliver an easy treatment. It’s ontological security and a cool buzz in a bottle. 

For communication scholars, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, which I outline in the aforementioned book chapter. Most importantly, advertising is about more than just the promotion of goods or services that are designed to inform and educate consumers and pad the corporation’s revenues. It is a cultural technology that incorporates images, persons, and commodities into what is often a seamless discourse that blurs the distinction between products and people. The rhetoric of drug advertising encourages individuals to focus increasingly on their minds and bodies as sites of real or potential disease that demand constant attention and administration. Some argue that this serves as an effective tool of governance and as a potential technology for social control. It surely this demands more vigilance on the part of consumers to resist the promotional efforts of drug companies and advertisers, but it also requires more robust state regulation to protect citizens.

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Filed under Everyday Life, Health Promotion, Lifestyle Risks, Politics, Popular Culture