Branded to the Bone

By Chris Darke, 10 July 2000

Chris Wilcha’s lo-budget documentary The Target Shoots First follows a post-punk rock-loving twenty-two year-old into the murky world of a large record company. Chris Darke compares his findings to those of Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, and to the criticism of the new American cultural order collected in the anthology Commodify Your Dissent. The question all three of these beg is: how far can one resist assimilation?

“The bourgeois scheme is that they wish to be disturbed from time to time, they like that, but then they envelop you, and that little bit is over, and they are ready for the next.” Claes Oldenburg, 1961

“It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was.” Chris Wilcha, 1999

March to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a recital by the tabla virtuoso Zakir Husain. Projected above the stage was the logo of that evening’s sponsor, the financial services corporation HSBC. Nothing unusual about that; corporate sponsorship is so much a feature of high profile cultural events that the HSBC logo appeared as much in keeping with the evening as the musician’s arrangement of performance rug and flowers. But as an envoy from the Indian Embassy took the stage, name-checked the musicians, then introduced a representative of HSBC, a murmur ran through the audience which soon strengthened into a hiss of disapproval that hung over the auditorium. When Mr. HSBC began the customary spiel in which arts sponsorship is gently massaged away from being mistaken for a lucrative exercise in tax-loss philanthropy, the hissing became a sotto voce groan. By the time we were told about HSBC’s long relationship with the Indian subcontinent and about how many corporations have come to recognise that they have duties “beyond making a profit”, a slow handclap had started up, as if to express a collective sentiment of ‘Yeah, right’. Mr. HSBC then revealed he had a cheque to award to a worthy cause, which he proceeded to present to a representative of Unilever. A storm of hilarious derision broke over the unfortunate CEO, who retired from the podium having barely started his acceptance speech.

There was enough sheer ire in the air that night to suggest that, post-Seattle, even anti-corporate souls over here had tasted blood. In setting the stage for a performance of Indian devotional music with a soft-focus appeal to its colonial legacy, HSBC didn’t simply generate an unexpected PR-breakdown. Rather, it was a case of the public having a short fuse and little tolerance towards such juxtapositions. The audience at the Festival Hall expressed its hostility as outsiders given the uncommon privilege of shouting-down a mode of speech that has become a dominant form of public discourse. PR-spin is a language in which everything is addressed as product and everyone appealed to as a consumer and hostile rejection is a direct response to the saturation of the culture by this corporate vernacular. The vehemence with which this response was expressed requires that, in order to blunt it, the sharp men and women of corporate PR will have to wage a new, more concerted form of spin-warfare.

But what if an insider within the belly of promotional culture were to sustainedly train a camera on it, probe its etiquettes, crack open its contradictions and, with an almost naïve insistence, ask “What the hell am I doing here?” In May 1993, Christopher Wilcha, a 22 year-old philosophy graduate, went to work for Columbia House, the mail-order wing of Columbia Records, and took a Hi8 camera with him. Over the next two years, Wilcha gathered footage for a 70 minute tape, The Target Shoots First. Part video-diary, part counter-motivational training film, Target is that rare document – a sustained essay in corporate anthropology and a young Gen-Xer’s search for clarity in contradiction. It’s a work of well-balanced details, of analytical commentary elucidating anecdotal video-verité. Wilcha has a journalist’s sense of the facts that matter, so we learn early on that Columbia House is (was – there’s since been a merger) owned by Sony/Time Warner, that their combined revenue was $70 billion and that, as an employee, he’ll “have access to Sony and Time Warner’s cafeterias”. He also has the film-maker’s eye for the resonance in simple visual details: over shots of the empty and anonymous corporate corridors of his 19th floor eyrie his commentary remarks on “the weird institutional deja vu – the corporate workplace reminds me of high school.”

But fundamentally, Target is an essay in the processes of assimilation – of the kid by the corporation, of the kid’s music by the record company machine. “How naïve is that?” could be the po-mo(ronic) response to this precis of Target’s themes. But the film-maker’s no ingenue; he’s more interested in discovering whether it’s still possible even to be quizzical about the condition that Naomi Klein describes in her book No Logo as being “branded to the bone”. If the anti-WTO demonstrations proved anything it’s that it’s no longer enough just to raise an eyebrow and come over all resignedly mandarin about what the American journal of political satire The Baffler calls “the business of culture in the new Gilded Age”. To engage with it requires that one engage with the culture of business.

Wilcha’s time as Assistant Product Manager of Music Marketing at Columbia House coincided with two major developments in the music industry. First, there was the advent of ‘grunge’ with the major cross-over success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Second, there was the change from vinyl to CD. “The ‘90s way of buying was to replace a vinyl collection completely,” Wilcha narrates. “Record clubs were one of the ways to do this.” Columbia House was reaching a market of 8 million subscribers a month but, as Wilcha discovered, was also ripping off its artists while reaping the dividends of sales and direct marketing. Artists would be paid reduced royalties and publishing rates on the sales of club CDs. These general infrastructural facts of music marketing are bought into focus by Wilcha’s own sense of cultural alignment with the alternative rock scene. With the release of Nirvana’s In Utero album, he’s put in charge of producing the magazine for Columbia House subscribers – the senior writer having resigned (the film’s good on the power-divisions between marketing types and ‘creatives’, the former working on the 19th floor, the latter subordinate on the 17th). Wilcha’s boss tells him: “This is a Gen X band. You can speak for them.” He duly writes the feature and finds himself “confronted by the fact that my identity as a punk rock fan and my job as a Columbia House employee have finally collided.” In gathering material for the film, Wilcha explores this dialectic while trying to demarcate some independent space: “For the past six months, taping has been a way of convincing myself that where I work isn’t who I am.” But it’s also a way of, if not reconciling the contradictions of his new-found corporate identity with his individual cultural identity, then bringing those contradictions into the open and of expressing a by no means fashionable uneasiness with the processes of appropriation and assimilation at play.

Yet Target is itself a document not so much compromised as complicated by its very access to internal corporate processes. I asked Wilcha if he was at all concerned that, in showing the film to management, he might realise that it could be the model of a new genre of media-savvy corporate training video? “The first screening (in 1999) coincided with a corporate merger,” he told me. “They [Columbia House] merged with CD Now, the giant online retailer, and the week of my New York screening was the week they were announcing the merger, so the screening was completely off the radar. Finally, in the weeks that followed, a bunch of upper management people, including the President, watched it. Some people disagreed with what I had to say. Others in management, comically enough, saw it as some kind of sociological study of a failed business experiment. They wanted to know how we could replicate that kind of consumer reaction on the web, instead of seeing it as an expression of how people felt about their jobs.”

As an ‘essay film’ – a hybrid genre of documentary observation and first-person intervention whose time has surely come round again – the strength of Target lies in the way it develops and explores its key theme of assimilation. Wilcha’s team produced a pilot version of the club magazine, successfully delivering a model for niche-marketing ‘alt.rock’ as well as ‘divulging club sales tactics, innovating the selection, sneaking in criticism – we put anything into the magazine we like.’ At which point, corporate assimilation takes yet another turn. “Management brings in an advertising agency who, for a fee, sell our idea back to the company. It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was,” Wilcha relates.

The Target Shoots First can be seen as taking its place alongside the interventions and critiques of writers such as Klein and journals like The Baffler. It’s also of a part with, but at one remove from, the neo-Situationist, perceptual pranksterism of ‘culture jamming’. As a form of semiotic subversion, ‘culture jamming’ covers a range of art-based activism. From Adbusters’ satires on the values and techniques of advertising, through etoy’s interventions into the stock market exploring the porous boundaries between the business of art and the ‘art’ of business (see Mute 16), to rtMark’s overtly risky brand-sabotage activities, ‘culture jamming’ wagers – and in some senses seeks to redefine – avant-garde art strategies against the speed with which such strategies may be assimilated by their very corporate targets.

Wilcha, Klein and The Baffler represent a tendency that’s slightly different from this pranksterism – one that’s based on a necessary defensiveness in the face of the market without limits of reach and responsibility. The symptom of such defensiveness is to wrest back certain journalistic precepts – of investigation and independent critique – that should, by nature, be resistant to the glossy cant of marketing. Should be – but haven’t proved to be so. As media convergence has demonstrated, editorial values can quickly become hostages to advertising fortunes.

The value of the insights that Wilcha brings to bear on the coopting of ‘alternative culture’ is what really aligns Target with the work by journalists such as Klein and The Baffler. Culture becomes the field in which capitalism stalks the ever-newer ‘new’ and The Baffler has made analysis of this phenomenon its forte, along with the detailed institutional analysis of American journalism and union activity. The collection of ‘salvos’ from The Baffler published in Commodify your Dissent date from around the mid-90s but remain relevant in their splendidly distempered take on corporate culture as it chases, in ever decreasing circles, after the spectacle of the counter-culture until, as predicted, pop eats itself. And business picks up the tab. In the tail-chasing flurry of hungry assimilation, culture became marketing and marketing culture. In his 1995 essay ‘Alternative to What?’, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler, writes: “There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling ‘mainstream’, and expensive accessories of all kinds. So it was only a matter of months after the discovery of ‘Generation X’ that the culture industry sighted an all-new youth movement, whose new looks, new rock bands, and menacing new ‘tude quickly became commercial shorthand for the rebel excitement associated with everything from Gen X ads and TV shows to the information revolution.”

The fear that both Wilcha and Thomas Frank identify with is that all ‘deviant’ cultures are so rapidly assimilated, that it’s increasingly difficult to out-manoeuvre the mainstream and that corporate culture is frighteningly adept at absorbing its dissident voices. ”I think it’s often very hard for Americans themselves to see what’s going on,” admits Frank. “One of the comments we keep getting from our readers’ letters is that they didn’t think that criticism like this still went on. We hear that all the time. In the US, the labour movement has really fallen off the cultural map. Thirty years ago every newspaper in the country had a labour reporter. Now the only ones that do are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune. Organised labour has to be the wellspring of scepticism towards the corporate universe. When those people showed up in Seattle, and a lot of them were from unions, this astonished people, they thought unionism was over in America.”

There is, inevitably, a generational issue here, a question of a shared cultural and political memory that corporate culture does its best to undermine and erase. Hence the accuracy in critiques of cultural ‘dumbing down’, where infantilisation of the public incubates precisely the willed, induced amnesia that makes a good, loyal consumer out of a former citizen with a cultural life and political allegiances. In this respect, Wilcha is smart to compare his absorption into the corporate world of work with that of his father, and understands that his is one of the (last?) generations with a sense of self that could still be located outside of the mall. “What my father went to business school to study,” he narrates, “I trained for simply by being a committed consumer.” In conversation he told me: “I’m 28 years old now and for a lot of kids who are around 25 – they’re labelled Generation Y – these concerns are invisible to them. If you’re in a band now, it’s no longer a question of selling out as far as having your music in advertising is concerned, it’s part of the marketing plan! It’s a given. Literally it’s been in the space of a couple of years that there’s been a whole change in consciousness about the relationship between art and commerce, with culture being used to prop up and sell things.”

We’ve been here before. Maybe we’ve been nowhere else since the 1950s. The professional Jeremiahs of Wilcha’s father’s generations were Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, and Consumer’s Rights supremo Ralph Nader. Perhaps between them, Wilcha, Frank, Klein and others of their growing number might restore and revitalise critique, satire and analysis to the vital work of cultural analysis that exists outside of academia’s self-absorption. One that understands that ‘culture’ means more than the miasma produced by the multinational entertainment oligopoly where, in Don DeLillo’s phrase, “nothing happens until it’s consumed.” Perhaps we’re in for a new generation of characters (after all, in Target, Chris Wilcha is ‘Son of Organisation Man’) who haunt the corridors of corporate culture with their hostility and confusion yet to be dulled and bought off. Or perhaps we’ll just wake up one day, niched to within an inch of our lives.

Chris Darke <chris AT>

Proud to be Flesh