Category Archives: Advertising

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2017

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, is Co-Editor of the book Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

I asked Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.


Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it +matters+ whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity – which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’ – even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture – even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on. One of the things this does – for us – is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected +and+ creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.

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“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising

“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 March 2015

The Guardian’s public profile is shrouded in the journalism equivalent of American Exceptionalism. And nowhere is this delusional belief stronger than among Guardian journalists themselves.

“The Guardian is truly independent”, explains Jonathan Freedland, the Executive Editor for Opinion at the newspaper. “Protected by the Scott Trust…we have no corporate owner telling us what to think… we are free to pursue the facts”. Guardian columnist Owen Jones may disagree with Freedland on many issues but on this topic they sing from the same hymn sheet. “The paper is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul… I have never been prevented from writing what I think”, the Labour Leftist recently assured readers.

The problem with this self-serving argument is there are obviously more influences on the editorial content of a newspaper than just its ownership structure. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the media highlights five filters that produce the elite-friendly reporting that dominates the Western press – ownership, advertising, the sources used by journalists, the flak media organisations can receive and the dominant ideology of the period.

Resigning last month as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, Peter Oborne exposed how the interests of corporate advertisers had influenced the newspaper’s news agenda, limiting embarrassing stories about HSBC. Oborne’s principled analysis chimes with the thoughts of the BBC’s Andrew Marr, himself a former editor of the Independent newspaper: “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

For broadsheet newspapers, the sums are pretty telling, with advertising accounting for around 75% of their income.

Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about the thickness of the ‘Chinese Wall’ between advertising and editorial at the Guardian, the paper’s most radical columnist George Monbiot retorted “If you have an example of the Guardian spiking a story on behalf of its advertisers, please send me a link.”

The Telegraph soon obliged, reporting how the headline of a 2014 Guardian article about Iraq had been altered to fit with the wishes of Apple, who had stipulated their advertising should not be placed next to negative news. “If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified”, the Telegraph quoted a “Guardian insider” as saying. Guardian columnist and former editor of the Times newspaper Simon Jenkins made a similar point in his response to the Oborne furore. Writing about the increasing influence of advertising on the layout and content of newspapers, he noted “Even the Guardian cannot be regarded as immune from such pressures”.

Despite this evidence, the focus on overt censorship is something of a red herring. First, because public arguments between advertisers and newspapers are extremely rare. The secretive relationship between the two has been well polished over decades of publishing. It’s rarely in the interest of either party that the partnership be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. And second, because the influence of advertising is far broader, subtler and therefore more insidious than the dramatic spiking of a single story.

James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, explains the extent of the collaboration: “You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.”

Just as fish probably don’t see the water they swim in, Guardian journalists seem unable to comprehend the journalism habitat they work in has been shaped by corporate advertisers.

But shaped it certainly has been. Since the renewed expansion of the Guardian’s US online presence in 2011 the centre of gravity of the newspaper’s online coverage and recruitment focus has shifted across the Atlantic. This shift was driven by commercial interests. According to Andrew Miller, the CEO of the Guardian Media Group, the move to the US was centred on a strategy to “increase the commercial opportunity of our readership”. Or as he put it later in the same interview: to “monetize the readership.” Two years later the Guardian’s website went global changing its domain to http://www.theguardian.com. Tanya Cordrey, the Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media, explained why: “This will open up more worldwide commercial possibilities for us in markets across the globe, enabling us to offer our partners and advertisers increased access to our growing global audience.”

In early 2014 the Guardian signed a “seven-figure” deal with mega-corporation Unilever. The partnership established Guardian Labs, a “branded content and innovation agency” with 133 staff “which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences.” We certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The Guardian regularly publishes sponsored content in the main part of the newspaper including a roundtable on sustainable diets funded by Tesco and a seminar on public health reform sponsored by Pfizer.

Indeed, what is the Guardian’s glossy Weekend magazine if not one giant advert? In 2013 the magazine’s blind date feature had one lucky couple jetting off to Los Angeles for the weekend courtesy of Air New Zealand. The previous October over 100,000 people marched in London in opposition to the most severe cuts to public spending since the second world war. On the same day the Weekend magazine thought it appropriate to publish an interview with actress Romola Garai accompanied by a photo shoot of her advertising a £5,800 dress.

All this is not to say the Guardian is worthless or shouldn’t be read. Far from it. There are many great writers doing brilliant work published in the Guardian – Monbiot and Jones among them – and many important news reports too. I buy the Guardian every day, and have even written for the paper a couple of times when they let me. What I’m arguing is we need to go beyond wishful thinking about Guardian Exceptionalism and seriously consider how corporate advertising and commercial interests influences, and likely limits, the breadth and depth of the editorial content of the newspaper.

This enlightening process is essential for positive social change. Because only once we understand the deficiencies of even our best media outlets can we begin to realise that radical alternatives are needed. And only once we have a clear understanding of what those problems are can we start to imagine what a better media will actually look like.

Advertising and the media

Advertising and the media
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2010

According to former Guardian editor Peter Preston approximately 75 per cent of British broadsheets’ total revenue is derived from advertising.

Speaking at a Guardian debate last summer on Sustainability in advertising, the paper’s current editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger didn’t just accept the status quo – he actually celebrated it. Quoting Francis Williams’s 1957 book Dangerous Estate, Rusbridger argued that “it was advertising that set the British press free.” He went on to note that effectively “it was Wal-Mart that paid for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad.” Cynics among you may see pitfalls with this relationship, but not the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. “I’ve always thought if Wal-Mart was happy to pay for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, that’s great … as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return for that support,” he said.

Sitting next to Rusbridger was George Monbiot, the most radical columnist at the Guardian. Monbiot took a more cautionary and self-flagellating line than his editor, arguing those who work in the media are “inconsistent and hypocritical” about the role of advertising. However Monbiot’s criticisms – that “advertising is a pox on the planet, rapidly driving us to destruction” – focused solely on the detrimental effect advertising has on a paper’s readers and society.

What both Oxbridge graduates failed to mention is the far more important – and far more worrying – relationship between advertising and the editorial content of newspapers. For starters Rusbridger seems to be unaware that the standard journalism textbook thoroughly debunks what it calls “the legend of the advertiser as the midwife of press freedom” espoused by Williams. In Power Without Responsibility media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton explain that the importance of advertising had a profound effect on the popular and radical press in 19th century Britain. Papers “that deepened and extended radical consciousness” like the Northern Star, Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynolds News “either closed down, accommodated to advertising pressure by moving upmarket, stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.”

This overarching need to attract affluent readers – and therefore advertising – is the main reason why the immensely popular working-class Daily Herald struggled throughout its history while the business-orientated Financial Times still exists today. Curran and Seaton also argue the power of advertising is one of the reasons why “the press has long been more right wing than the public it is supposed to represent.”

Turning to the present day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who dare to challenge journalists about the influence of advertising on editorial content will be ridiculed and roundly dismissed.

A few years ago I contacted the Eastern Daily Press querying why an advert for short-haul airline Flybe didn’t appear next to a report of a protest against the negative influence of the aviation industry on the city council. After all, the paper went to great lengths to position car adverts next to motoring editorial. Were adverts only placed next to similar news content only if the news content was positive, I asked? After dismissing my query as one based on “wild conspiracy theories” the then deputy editor signed off “we are a busy and sophisticated news operation, about which it is quite clear that you have not the slightest understanding.”

The problem for our dangerously self-assured deputy editor is that there is a plethora of evidence contradicting him. In 2005 Advertising Age reported that British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley had both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. “BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general,” it reported.

In my files I have a copy of a 1998 Coca-Cola memo which provides guidelines to magazine which Coca-Cola advertises in. Adverts should be placed next to “positive and upbeat editorial,” the memo reads, and never adjacent to articles that deal with “hard news,” “environmental issues” or “negative diet information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc).”

Some may dismiss these examples as atypical, but, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there is “a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like these.” Even Andrew Marr, the most establishment of Establishment journalists, gets it. “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda,” he writes in My Trade, his personal history of British journalism. “It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

Occasionally this incestuous partnership breaks down, as it did in 2005 when Marks & Spencer pulled all its advertising from Associated Newspapers’ three main titles in protest at what it saw as negative coverage. But these public flare-ups are extremely rare, as one would expect of a largely unspoken and secretive relationship that has been honed over years and years of publishing newspapers and hiring journalists. “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says: ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’ We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted,” commented US press critic George Seldes about his fellow journalists in 1931.

A couple of caveats. First, it is important to remember that the press reliance on advertising is not an all-powerful censor, dictating the content of a newspaper. Rather it should be seen as an influential filter that shapes and limits the news agenda in a business-friendly direction.

The mainstream media is a large, complex entity with competing interests and therefore reports critical of advertisers have and will continue to be published. And there are principled and tenacious journalists such as Monbiot who will criticise the hand that feeds them – but they are few and far between.

Second, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is just one of many factors – corporate ownership, the educational background of journalists, reliance on official sources, the dominant ideology and the power of the public relations industry – that explains why the media acts as it does.

Yet it is clear that a press reliant on corporate advertising for its very survival will by definition always be compromised when it comes to providing accurate and objective information and analysis about the world we live in.

Only journalists whose professional integrity is called in to question by this link and the most naive fools will fail to follow the money and come to the logical conclusion. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Comedians and advertising

Comedians and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

“Here’s the deal folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. You’re another fucking corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang… everything you say is suspect.” That was the late, great stand-up Bill Hicks’s colourful takedown of comedians who advertised consumer products.

Hicks may have won the moral battle but he lost the war. Today, our television screens are chockfull of comedians selling stuff. Chris Addison hawking Direct Line insurance, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mooning in a Microsoft training video, Peter Kay clowning around for John Smith’s and Peep Show’s David Mitchell and Robert Webb selling Mac computers – are there any comedians today not doing adverts?

“I don’t see what is morally inconsistent with a comedian doing an advert”, Mitchell told the Telegraph. “It’s all right to sell computers, isn’t it? Unless you think capitalism is evil – which I don’t. It’s not like we’re helping to flog a baby-killing machine.”

Mitchell, who has built his career on being a kind of smug, privately-schooled know-it-all, can’t seem to compute that you don’t have to be opposed to all of capitalism to have a problem with advertising. As US dissident Noam Chomsky explains, “in a market society” adverts would simply have “a description of the properties of the commodity because then you get what are called ‘informed consumers making rational choices’”. Instead, what we get in Mitchell’s corporate-dominated ‘capitalism’ “is forms of delusion because the business wants to create uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices.” With markets often saturated with near identical products, sales are made on an emotional, rather than factual, level – which is where Mitchell and Webb come in. Humour can make a bank seem “approachable, create an emotional bond and break through the clutter”, explained Marc Mentry, the senior vice president of advertising at the Capital One Financial Corporation, in the New York Times in 2011.

To be clear, Mitchell and Webb – and other comedians who front adverts – are involved in a planned deception of consumers, tricking them into making irrational choices so they buy consumer products. This creation of new desires drives the consumer society that is the key driver of the climate catastrophe that will soon be upon us. That Mitchell can’t join these very simple dots is testament to the accuracy of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s famous truism that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Considering the profound social and economic changes of the last 30 years, it shouldn’t be surprising so many comedians now see advertising as a legitimate part of their professional life. Comedy, television, film, academia – all have seen a broad decline in serious political engagement in the face of corporate ascendancy and its attendant neoliberal ideology. Out has gone class-based analysis unashamedly trying to make the world a better place, replaced by individualism, detached irony and what Suzanne Moore calls the “apolitical vacuousness” of postmodernism. From music to parliamentary politics, the idea that society should and could be fundamentally changed is as rare as a working-class Labour MP.

However, there are comedians who seem to have consciously chosen not to sell out. Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Chris Morris and Frankie Boyle have, as far as I am aware, never done any advertising. Although they are a diverse group of artists, all of their work shares a strong (progressive) political core. All, I suspect, take their responsibility as a comic and public figure far more seriously than Mitchell, Webb etc. And, importantly, all are unencumbered by the contract clauses that the advertising comedians will have signed stipulating they will not criticise the product they are flogging. All, in short, have a moral core. A political and social conscience. History, I’m willing to bet, will be kinder to them than to those who have used their comedy fame to sell us shit.

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun   
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 September 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the blackest days in British newspaper history. Though almost entirely forgotten, on 15 September 1964 the popular Labour-supporting Daily Herald newspaper was re-launched as The Sun that we all know and loathe today.

The Herald was founded in 1912 by a group of radicals including union leader Ben Tillett and Labour politician George Lansbury. Fighting to establish its name in an industry with prohibitively high capital costs, money was so tight in the early days that at one point the paper came out in pages of different sizes and shapes after some discarded paper supplies had been found. Between 1914 and 1919 financial troubles forced the paper to temporarily publish as a weekly to survive. Luckily, the paper’s politics were built on firmer ground. According to James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmith’s, the Herald was a “freewheeling vehicle of the left, an important channel for the dissemination of syndicalist and socialist ideas”. It gave strong support to industrial action, the suffragettes and Russian Revolution, while opposing the First World War and its attendant conscription.

Taken over by the Trade Union Congress in 1922, the paper’s rebellious independence was neutered, though it continued to provide an alternative analysis and vision of society to the rest of the Tory-dominated press. In 1933 the Herald became the largest circulation daily newspaper in the Western world, topping two million copies a day, despite the hostility of the political class. However, the paper had an Achilles Heel – its readership was overwhelming working-class, older men with little purchasing power.

Why was this a problem? Ever since the repeal of advertising duty in the 1850s, newspapers had become heavily reliant on advertising revenue, as they still are today. Therefore, the key was to attract readers with money to spend. As Sir Charles Higham, the head of a large advertising agency, noted in 1925, “A very limited circulation, but entirely among the wealthy… may be more valuable than if circulation were quadrupled”. This cold economic reality was a disaster for the labour-orientated Herald. “Our success in circulation was our undoing”, Lansbury, then the Editor, said in 1919. “The more copies we sold, the more money we lost.” Previously, governments had tried to restrict working-class and radical publications by levying newspaper stamp duty and taxes. In contrast, Professor Curran believes the Herald’s problems with advertising highlights how “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in conscripting the press to the social order.” The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, who recently argued that it was advertising that led to the independence of the press, should take note.

After the Second World War, the Herald’s money problems continued, the paper moving from one crisis to another. These difficulties shouldn’t be confused with unpopularity. In the Herald’s last year of publication it had a circulation of 1.2 million, more than five times the circulation of The Times, and a readership of over 4.7 million – double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined. However, even though it achieved 8.1% of national daily circulation, the paper only received 3.5% of net advertising revenue.

In an effort to secure the future of the paper, in the 1950s the Herald’s management turned to market research (which found the paper had the most devoted readership of all newspapers). Informed by the results, the Herald was re-launched as The Sun in an attempt to diversify and ‘upgrade’ the readership – to produce a “more representative make-up essential to advertisers”, as an internal memo put it. Writing in his diary at the time, Tony Benn described the transformed paper as “appalling… basically the same minus the Herald political content.”

Increasingly commercial and politically directionless, the paper staggered on until 1969 when a then little known Australian newspaper owner called Rupert Murdoch bought it and the sexist, celebrity-obsessed, news-lite, Thatcherite Sun was born.

It was a hugely ironic ending for a paper that had been a consistent voice for the working-class and labour movement. Continuously undermined by market forces, Professor Curran notes it had the indignity of being of being “converted into a paper which stood for everything the old Daily Herald had opposed”.

The Herald’s loss is especially noticeable today. The majority of the national press continue to tack to the political right, and is far to the right of the general public on many major issues. Even The Guardian, generally considered the most liberal and left-wing national daily, has shown great hostility to trade unions on occasion.

So 15 September 1964 was a dark day indeed. Perhaps we should wear black armbands in remembrance next year?

This article was inspired by and largely sourced from James Curran and Jean Seaton’s Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and the New Media in Britain and Huw Richards’s The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left.

*An edited version of this article was published on Open Democracy.

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
July 2010

The US feminist poet Katha Pollitt once warned “When left, right and centre agree, watch out. They probably don’t know what they’re talking about.” Pollitt was unlikely to have had Gok Wan in mind when she wrote that, but I would argue the popular TV fashion guru is a textbook example of her cautionary advice.

For those not in the know, 35-year old Wan burst on to Britain’s television screens in 2006 as the flamboyant presenter of Channel Four’s How To Look Good Naked. Pulling in over three million viewers at its peak, the show professes to boost women’s body confidence by using fashion and style tips, rather than encouraging weight loss or cosmetic surgery. As Wan explains in the very first episode: “46-year old Susan Sharpe, like nine out of ten British women, hates her body. My mission is to show her how good she can look with her clothes on and off – without having to nip, tuck, crunch or starve.” By the end of the show the transformation is complete, with the once tearfully insecure Sharpe confident enough to do a naked photo shoot.
 
Wan has gone on to present five more successful series of How To Look Good Naked, as well as new shows such as Gok’s Fashion Fix and Miss Naked Beauty. Writing in The Times, Caitlin Moran breathlessly argues Wan is “a revolutionary” and “a public service”. Not wanting “to overstate his importance” she proclaims: “Now we have the vote, and equal rights legislation, it might well be that Gok Wan… is the most significant person in the lives of 21st-century women.”
 
Wan certainly pushes a lot of the right progressive buttons in a country where women make up 90 percent of the 1.5 million people with eating disorders and 91 percent of those who undergo cosmetic surgery.
 
But before you get too excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, shouldn’t we take a closer look at Wan’s message?
 
Noting there is “enormous pressure on women to conform to the body shape ideal”, the official Simply Gok Wan website argues “Some women are naturally thin, some are naturally curvy, and as long as both are healthy then who is to say one is more ‘ideal’ than the other? Beauty should be about diversity”.
 
So far, so right on. However, at the start of the first episode Wan explains: “I’ve got only four weeks to show my curvy girl how to lift those boobs, tone that tum and shape that bum.” What happened to beauty being about diversity?! Instead Wan boosts Sharpe’s self-esteem saying she has “curves to die for”, while simultaneously shaping her to fit the unattainable image of a beautiful woman. Am I the only person who sees the deep hypocrisy in this? So despite the faux-feminist rhetoric, like Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’, Wan’s ideas on beauty are in fact highly conventional and conservative.
 
Throughout the half-hour show Wan continues to flip between playing the supportive gay best friend to reinforcing the destructive beauty ideal that his own official website argues leads to “depression, shame and guilt”.
 
“It takes pounds and inches off you… it slims you write down”, gasps Wan about a dress in the changing room. Elsewhere he explains that “If you are short and thin, this season’s super skinny trousers will lengthen your legs and make your bottom look pert.”
 
More importantly, while Wan is undoubtedly a step up from such hateful fare as Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear and Ten Years Younger, the fundamental message remains the same: Appearance is, and should be, central to a woman’s identity. The assumption being that women are not naturally beautiful but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products and fashionable clothes.
 
So when Wan asks Sharpe what her future plans are, she says she intends to buy “nice clothes, nice dresses, nice underwear, nice bags, nice shoes”. And if she gets stuck for ideas it just so happens Wan has his own “Sexy Shapewear” lingerie line, selling Super Slicker Knicker’s for £30 or Banger Booster’s for £33.
 
In The Equality Illusion feminist Kat Banyard argues that “viewing one’s own body as an inanimate object to be made pleasing to onlookers is inherently harmful.” As evidence she cites a 2008 Flinders University study that found even complimenting a woman who views her body as an object on her physical appearance can have negative consequences. “This apparently counterintuitive conclusion followed upon the discovery that the compliment focused these women’s attention on their body and led them to fell more ashamed of it”, Banyard comments.
 
Despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Wan may be a noticeable improvement on other makeover show hosts, but this shouldn’t lead to everybody suddenly losing their critical faculties. To do so would mean we miss the fact that although How To Look Good Naked is targeted primarily at women and professes to support women, in reality its deeply contradictory messages ultimately elevate a beauty ideal that continues to damage women’s mental and physical health.