“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.
Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair