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Selling Death: Leo Burnett,


Do you struggle with poor job choices, bad employment options, and frustrated career ambitions? Are you misemployed, underpaid, and alienated on the job? Are you under-employed, unemployed or (alternately) overworked? Do you cringe upon hearing about the latest spectacular career accomplishments of semi-autistic contemporaries who bored you to tears and laughter when you attended school with them years ago? Are you struggling to come up with the increasingly huge amounts of money required to send your child or children to college? Do you worry that you will be working at Wal-Mart in your 70s?

If you answer to any of these questions is yes, I feel your pain. And I wish you luck in your pursuit of economic security and job satisfaction. I would also like to give you something to feel good about and to remind you that there’s more to life than having a career or even a job. Please reflect with pride that, no matter how bad your occupational situation, you are at least NOT a child-stealing death-dealing soul-selling blood-sucking running-dog-lackey advertising official at the Chicago-based Leo Burnett advertising firm.

“Of all the simple truths about our organization,” Leo Burnett’s stylish web-site says, “few make us as proud as the fact that many of our multinational clients have been with us for decades.” The web-site lists the following firms, along with the date in which Leo Burnett established a “relationship” with each “client” company: Kellog’s (1949), Proctor & Gamble (1952), Phillip Morris (1954), Heinz (1974), Fiat (1978), Visa (1979), McDonalds (1981), Kraft Foods (1984), Hallmark (1988), Diageo (1988), Walt Disney (1994). It’s an impressive and rather lethal – Phillip Morris is Big Tobacco (long cancer and emphysema) and McDonald’s is of course the pioneer in the heart- and other-) disease generating fast food industry – list.

Still, none of these Burnett customers carries as much murderous gravitas as the arguably “multinational” United States Army, which has enlisted Leo Burnett USA to conduct its television recruitment campaign during at least the last five years.

Advertising is an inherently vile profession. Its very raise d’etre, its core essence is the authoritarian, top-down manipulation of mass opinion and feeling – a project that is antithetical to core principles of western democracy. And while advertising emerged to facilitate the sale of mass consumer goods, state authorities and policy elites quickly seized upon the totalitarian uses of Madison Avenue’s methods. The science of selling toothpaste and the science of selling both business class hegemony and the related project of Empire were almost instantly merged in the early 20th century.

The Masters of War and Empire were quick to follow the Captains of Industry in putting the Captains of Consciousness (as Stuart Ewen titled his brilliant study of the early U.S. advertising industry) in the task of shaping popular hearts and minds and manufacturing mass consent. That task is critically important to concentrated wealth/power structures in democratic societies endowed with the Janus-faced gifts of strong free speech traditions and laws that invalidate the explicit physical liquidation and intimidation of popular dissent.

The “good” that militarists needed to sell, of course, was simply the willingness to kill, maim, suffer horrible injury, and even die in “defense” (generally forward advance) of flag and country. It was an advertising firm that first came up with the famous U.S. recruiting poster that shows old Uncle Sam pointing his finger and telling young soldiers-to-be that “I Want You.” Advertising and public relations executives and professionals were widely employed by the federal government to forge public consensus on behalf of military campaigns during both World Wars and subsequent American hostile engagements.

“Good advertising,” the pioneering Chicago ad executive Leo Burnett (1891-1971) once said in articulating a standard advertising mantra, “does not just circulate information. It penetrates the public mind with desire and belief.”

It’s hard not to see how such a professional objective has attracted those who need young people to risk their lives, limbs, and souls in the legions of bloody war.

“The secret of all effective originality in advertising,” Burnett added, “is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.”

Which brings us to Army’s recent decision to pay the now global firm named after (and founded by) Burnett more than $1 billion in the possibly “the largest government advertising contract ever.” In return to this “vastly increased” (according to the Army Accession Command) public expenditure on recruitment advertising, the Army will get America’s leading television networks to run four commercials nationally a total of 4,000 times from July through September of 2005.

The ads are collectively known within the Army as “the Influencer Group.” They seek to overcome the rising difficulty that the American military is currently facing in finding volunteers for its illegal, immoral, imperialist, failing, and murderous war on Iraq and the Middle East. With the U.S. death count in Iraq marching towards 2,000 and with 13,000 American soldiers coming home injured (some quite horribly) and no clear exit strategy on the horizon, the Army is struggling to fill its ranks.

In recent years, Leo Burnett has skillfully targeted lower socioeconomic and related racial and ethnic minority market segments in an “Army of One” recruiting campaign that enticed poor and non-white youth to seek fortune and adventure in the armed forces.

This time, however, the Army and Leo Burnett USA are “looking,” according to Chicago Tribune reporter Jason George, “for a few good parents.” As portrayed in “the Influencer Group” commercials, a “good parent” is one who “helps” their male teenager mature and locate his inner power by joining the military. Each ad is based on the depiction of one of old Burnett’s “familiar pictures:” a male teen discussing his “plans for the future” with one of his parents. The question of how to pay for college is part of this standard familial conversation.

The “new relationship” pulled into this “familiar picture” is with the Army, which is portrayed as a friendly Big Brother who, the teenager has learned (from a high school or shopping mall recruiter), will assist the family in meeting the rising costs of higher education.

In each “Influencer” ad, the parent (a mother in the case of the one advertisement that shows a black family and a father in the two ads depicting whites) is initially skeptical about the wisdom of signing up. This is the Army’s way of depicting the THREE in FOUR parents who told Department of Defense pollsters last November that they would not recommend “military service” to their children. According to Ray DeThorne, the executive responsible for Leo Burnett USA’s Army Account, “focus groups and Army recruiters told Leo Burnett’s ad team that parents and other influencers still play an important role in the decision to enlist.”

Yes, parents and other adults (teachers, uncles, coaches, actual biological big brothers and sisters, counselors, and ministers, etc.)”STILL” influence teenagers about such critical choices as ether or not to possibly kill and/or die in the name of the world’s leading imperial and military state.

Perhaps DeThorne desires a more fully corporate-Orwellian and militarist future in which such troublesome meddlers as parents and teachers no longer impede Big Brother’s direct access to the young and very disproportionately poor and working-class hearts and minds that need to be mobilized in for death and destruction masquerading as “defense.” The Nazis shared his concern with the difficulties that parental influence posed for proper military state control of children and families.

“I think,” DeThorne ads,in another brilliant insight, “that when we’re at war, it magnifies what the ultimate cost could be…it’s a big decision.” By “ultimate cost,” DeThorne presumably means the loss of an American GI’s life, not the death of anonymous Arabs on the wrong end of the imperial occupier’s guns. Nor does refer to the emotional and spiritual difficulties the teen soldier will face after he acts on orders to cripple and even kill official enemies (often innocent civilians) on their own invaded soil.

DeThorne forgets that it is the Bush administration and not “we [the American people]” who have undertaken an illegal, unnecessary, and unpopular (even now among most Americans) war of White House choice on a people and a nation that posed minimal threat to the U.S. as it was occupied.

Consistent with DeThorne and Leo Burnett USA’s unstated but underlying mission of selling death and murder to working-class parents and their young, each “Influencer” ad concludes with the adult realizing that they need to “let go” and allow their son to discover his might by enlisting I the American Empire Project. It doesn’t hurt the wannabe teen soldier’s argument, of course, that Big Brother will benevolently chip in for college.

Each of the four commercials ends with the following message to Mom and/or Dad: “Help Them Find Their Strength.” Straight from the American handbook of Friendly Fascism, with parental authority is subverted by the military state not through Nazi-style coercion but by the seductive use of “familiar” “Dinner Conversation” imagery that enlists Norman Rockwell in the service of massive bloodshed.

In one “Influencer” ad, Jason Goegre notes, “a misty-eyed father tells his son that when he picked him up earlier that day at the train station, the son shook his hand and looked him in the eye. ‘Where did that come from?’ the father asks. The son, in an army dress uniform, simply smiles back.” Never mind that sons mature, look you in the eye, and give you good handshakes after all kinds of grown-up activities, including those involved with making peace and justice instead of unjust war.

Someone at Leo Burnett USA, Dethorne perhaps, might like to explain how much lower one can sink than you have to fall to engage in this sort of “creative work.” DeThorne and his ilk strike me as Orwellian vampires with a special taste for the blood of poor and working-class youth. It’s only kids at or near the bottom of America’s steep socioeconomic ladder who feel compelled to risk life, soul, and limb in the service of organized murder in to pay for college.

How unforgivably contemptible for giant corporations like Leo Burnett USA to suck up billions of tragically misdirected public dollars to craft and disseminate several thousands of crassly manipulative propaganda pieces that prey on the economic and emotional vulnerabilities of disadvantaged families to muster the human fodder required for the execution of a richly malevolent foreign policy that makes an already mean and dangerous world deadlier and more vicious than ever.

How much better it would be to invest those dollars instead in job-training, job-creation, pension-protection, college tuition assistance, and in the development of broader material and moral alternatives to the intimately interrelated imperatives of Empire, Inequality, and Thought Control.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004: www.paradigmpublishers.com). His latest book is Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), to be released at the end of August.

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