Driving us to distraction in land of logos

“Why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion?”

That line from the Fugazi song “Suggestion” has always haunted me. The song is not about advertising. It’s a song written from a woman’s point of view as the subject of men’s sexual desire. However, I heard this song about the same time I saw the 1988 Rowdy Roddy Piper movie “They Live”, and I drew my own interpretation. In “They Live,” an alien race had infiltrated society and was using subliminal messages to steer the actions and thinking of Americans in the 1980s. When the protagonist, Piper, put on special sunglasses, he could not only see the aliens, but could also read the subliminal messages on everyday objects. For example, billboards now said, “Marry and have many children” and money now said, “Exalt your new god“… or something like that. It’s been 20 years since I saw the film.

I live in California. From day one of moving here 10 years ago, I’ve noticed that this is the “land of logos.” We are clogged with chain stores and their corporate-approved colors, while stickers on car windows push clothing companies.

I was painting a mural in a coffee shop in Oceanside, and a customer was exchanging pleasantries with me while I worked. I mentioned that this coffee shop had the best coffee in San Diego, and she asked, “Is it as good as Starbuck’s?” as though Starbucks was the standard for good coffee. This mentality likely comes from the belief that Starbucks is everywhere, so they must be good. Since the “market decides” what is best, then Starbucks must be top shelf.

In my time working as a cook at Applebee’s restaurant, I always wondered why on Earth customers continue going to a restaurant where soups come boil-in-a-bag and steaks are microwaved. (Note: that is a true business secret of Applebee’s. Steaks are grilled just long enough to leave lines on both sides and then thrown in the microwave.). A co-worker told me that he believes familiarity draws in the crowds. Applebee’s is a nationwide chain. When folks see this sub-par, “crazy-crap-on-the-walls” eatery, they are reminded of home, normalcy and welcoming, mediocre familiarity.

I live in a town with a Big-O Tires and Firestone Tires, as well as a dozen tire outlets all called simply “Llantera” (Spanish for “tire shop”). All perform the same duties, but the llanteras are often ridiculed for not having a snappy name.

I spend a great deal of time reading history and watching documentaries. It is educational, but information is a commodity. It has the ability to be skewed, bent, disregarded, hidden, disposed of, exaggerated, nostalgized, and outright invented to sway opinion or coerce emotion. If I turn on the television, I am bombarded with Cold War style reports about attacks from “terrorists,” with no one mentioning that there were only two attacks on the territorial USA since Pancho Villa’s raids in 1916. Since that date, the USA has militarily invaded or occupied 45 other nations … not including CIA operations, drug wars, or reconnaissance. I hear the right wing constantly talking about Mao Zedong’s policies that killed “100 million people in China,” but that would be close to a normal mortality rate for a country with a population of 1.4 billion. This is similar to saying that since 2.5 million people on average die in the USA, and George W. Bush was president for eight years, 20 million people died under his policies. Of course, when Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” came out in 1980, many of us in the left heralded the book as the long awaited true story of historic events, but its testimonies are from persons with opinions and agendas as well.

George Orwell said, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He, who controls the past, controls the future.” The skewed history and advertising we are surrounded by is like street signs and the lines on the road. When we first get driver’s licenses, we are over-aware of the markings and signage, but as we gain experience we grow borderline unconscious to the guiding of our hands. Today I caught myself becoming fearful of the Taliban gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, as I was zoning out to the background radio news in traffic. Yesterday, the urge was strong to grab the Silk (owned by Philip Morris) brand soy milk from the supermarket shelf, because the blue and white box was just more appealing than the house brand. Steered … steered by suggestion. It’s no surprise that so many citizens of the USA do not know which way is forward when our direction is constantly being distracted.

Nicholas James is a construction contractor in Inland Empire, Calif.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carolyncoles/ / CC BY 2.0



Nicholas James
Nicholas James

Nicholas James is a union rep living in St. Louis, Missouri. Political button and sticker maker. Speaks English, Spanish, German, and Croatian.