“Sold to you. Thank you so much, sir. We move on now, ladies and gentlemen, to lot number 38.”
In 2019, an art piece called The Persistence of Chaos went up for auction. The work was an innocuous-looking 2008 Windows laptop. However, housed within the computer were six of the most dangerous malware programs ever created. Together, they had caused over $95 billion in damage to the global economy. The work sold at auction for $1.3 million.Within the art world, this was nothing groundbreaking. But what's interesting about The Persistence of Chaos is that it isn't art, at least not exclusively. It was commissioned by Deep Instinct, a cyber security company. And as a piece of propaganda, it represents something new.
“You guys know MSCHF, right? It's this, like, company that does these crazy stunts.”
“The company MSCHF is heralding in a new era of contemporary culture.”
The creative force behind The Persistence of Chaos is called MSCHF. Since 2019, this group has been behind countless viral moments of cultural buzz, delivered in the form of drops they release every two weeks. The only consistent thing about these drops is that they consistently break the internet.
“Have you seen this one, the Big Red Boots? It's been all over Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, you name it.”
MSCHF is often referred to as an art collective and a lot of what they do fits that definition.
“Would you buy this Andy Warhol drawing for just $250? Well, you won't actually know if you've gotten the original or one of the 999 replicas forged by a robotic arm. What is MSCHF trying to say with this artwork?”
But a lot of MSCHF’s drops feel less like artistic expression, and more like the commercial propaganda you'd expect to come from a creative agency.
“Remember when they made Lil Nas X Satan Shoes with real human blood?"
“How could I forget…”
“Nike is suing over Lil Nas X's polarizing Satan Shoes collaboration.The sportswear giant filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against MSCHF.”
Even if they're suing them to maintain appearances, the corporate world at large clearly sees the value of MSCHF. But they are seemingly regarded as an enigma, not necessarily as a sign of things to come.“I don't entirely get it. Because they raise funding, but when you explain what they are, I'm like, ‘Does it make money?’”
Not quite artists, not quite an agency. Even MSCHF doesn't really know what exactly they are.
“Being a company kills the magic. We're trying to do stuff that the world can't even define.”
A major reason why even the CEO of MSCHF struggles to truly define what they are is because we don't have a word for it yet.
Timothy Leary: “We can't get caught in the conforming, rote lockstep which we call American society.”
Culture is the expression of our behaviors and beliefs, and propaganda exists to shift our behaviors and beliefs. Propaganda has always imitated culture. Usually by co-opting the newest creative techniques of self-expression.
[1971 Coca-Cola ‘Hilltop’ commercial song]
“I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love…”
This has always led to people beginning to see those techniques as bullshit. More tools of the salesmen. So they become dated, and culture pushes forward with new ways to authentically express ourselves.
“I fucking love gay pride weekend. It's a weekend that we can just celebrate whoever the fuck we love and no one giving a fuck.”
Increasingly, there's little to no separation between the creative expression of our beliefs and the manipulation of those beliefs by organizations.
“For the big pride parade, Lockheed Martin now have a float.”
“Are you serious?”
“The military-industrial weapons manufacturers are like, ‘Yay Lockheed Martin! We’re gay!’”
Brands are now culture. And this…is propaganda.
You step into the radiant glow of a QuickTrip in Middle America. In this store, there are more flavors than a pilgrim ever tasted in their entire life. Countless variants of candy, cookies, sodas, energy drinks. But, in one corner there's a section of beverages you wouldn't expect – the most plentiful resource on Earth – water. Each bottle uniquely branded: Dasani, Fiji, Voss. We all know it's just water, with minimal difference in taste. We know this, but it does not matter. We all have a favorite, and we all experience the same twinge of discomfort when our favorite’s not there. When they realized they could literally just bottle water and sell it to us, every mega-corporation did. Water as a market was saturated, but it was saturated with a monoculture of brands that all look and feel the same. So four years ago, Liquid Death started a water company. Now they're valued at over $700 million. They did this by doing something deceptively simple: they asked, “What if my water could kick your water's ass?”
“I'm a professional actor. And I'm getting paid to tell you about a revolutionary new product.”
Demon voice: “Liquid Death”
Conventional wisdom is that companies exist to solve an unmet need in the market. But there was no unmet need here; nobody was clamoring for more water. There was, however, an unmet symbol of self-expression in the water category.
“Inside this very warehouse sits the entire inventory of Liquid Death Mountain Water. Each can is about to be infused with real demons, by a real witch.”
A water brand that's irreverently funny and feels at home sitting alongside the beer cans at your local dive bar. And a self-aware brand who acknowledges that the water category is kind of bullshit to begin with.
“Every year, water is responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths. So please, don't fall for the marketing bullshit. Water is not yoga. Water is Liquid Death.”
Liquid Death’s water brand is everything traditional marketers would tell you you shouldn't do to sell water. And that's exactly why it worked.It's no longer necessary to find an unmet functional need in the market to solve. Instead, start with the emotional need. Identify a new way for people to express themselves, and then take advantage of it.
“Hundreds of parents message us on social saying, ‘Thank you Liquid Death, you finally got my nine-year-old excited to drink water instead of soda, because he thinks he has something he's not supposed to have’, just purely based on the brand.”
Liquid Death is one of many emerging proof points of a fundamental truth that corporate America is slow to adapt to. The propaganda is now the product. Your brand is now your biggest asset. What your brand represents to consumers, and how it reaches them, is now more important than ever.
“Why is every single video on my For You page an ad? I don't need to see someone watching themselves taking out their ear wax every 10 scrolls.”
In America, $300 billion a year is spent primarily interrupting people with ads they don't really want to see.
“This is Jules, VP of a Ketchup company, about to use Grammarly to handle a PR issue.”
Paying for media is often necessary to even get in front of an audience, especially since social platforms intentionally restrict the organic spread of branded content now, so they can just charge you for it instead. However, advertising might be the worst version of propaganda possible.A brand's propaganda no longer needs to hover at the periphery of culture, darting in to interrupt what you want to enjoy. Simply be the thing you're enjoying.And increasingly, brands of all shapes and sizes are operating under the assumption that they also need to be media companies. The bigger your company, the wider the ecosystem. Maybe it's a newsletter, maybe it's a branded content series on YouTube or limited merch drops. Or, maybe it's a multimillion-dollar feature film.
“In theaters, the weekend belonged to Barbie.”
You will actively pay $12 to go watch a two-hour piece of propaganda. The opening act of which is solely dedicated to communicating repeatedly, to as many young girls and parents as possible, the feminist values you're expressing when you buy a Barbie.
“Barbie has me speechless. Like, if you are a woman, you need to go and watch this.”
“This is like, my childhood dream. I love Barbie.”
“Probably in my angsty teen years in the ‘90s, I would have gone on a diatribe about how Barbie is anti-feminist, but I think this movie turns that around.”
You do this because it's great art. It entertains you and provokes you. Not only is this much more effective than paying for ads that interrupt Saturday morning cartoons, it's more profitable.
“The movie, of course, based on the famous plastic doll, took just 17 days from release to pass the $1 billion mark at the global box office.”
But unless you're Mattel or the Pentagon, you can't afford to make a major motion picture or television series. So where are the rest of us relegated to when it comes to creating propaganda that tells a good story?
“Do not sleep on Instagram. Over 70…”
“YouTube will see the most growth of any platform in 20…”
“TikTok has the most organic reach, more than any other…”
Social media platforms have become increasingly more media and less social.
“I'm doing a paid partnership with Cerave and…”
“Life can be really overwhelming sometimes if your every move is calculated and filtered. Luckily, I discovered the app Lemon8.”
“Mmm. Ice cream so good. Blllrr.”
It's not as much about connecting with old friends or making new ones. It's mostly these cultural superhighways that deliver us three-hour live streams, 20-second Reels, and memes with one too many layers of irony. These platforms are competing for cultural cachet in the form of views and followers. Out of this, the personal brand took on a new and more nuanced meaning.In order to have success on social media as a user and gain an influencer status, you have to communicate a clear vision of what you stand for. If I follow you, what does it say about me? “If you're like me, you want to be a better parent than maybe you had. Let me give you five or six different ways to do this.” The moment Sprite's propaganda sat alongside your friend's makeup tutorial and your uncle's political rants, the final brick was laid in a century-long evolution. Social media is the ultimate tool for self-expression. It's a machine designed to learn who you are and curate a world that reflects what you desire. It's the perfect mirror. Then, it gives you easy methods to publish back out into the world ways to manipulate how other people see you, to make your own propaganda.The end game of the Human Potential Movement being co-opted by propaganda is that “influencer” is now frequently neck and neck with the likes of doctor, president, and astronaut when kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up.
“A lot of followers just follow me. A million followers!”
“Oh my gosh, you’re famous!”
The dream isn't just to express yourself – it's to monetize yourself. It's to literally become a brand.
Edward Bernays: “And when I got back from the war, I recognized that ideas could be as important weapons as anything, and were even more effective than bullets.”
It's been more than 100 years since 20th-century figures like Edward Bernays found a better way to sell through the power of propaganda. With it came explosive economic prosperity for America.
“Through consumption and through identification with products and services, people will gain some identity.”
Through the mid-century, we started adopting consumption as a method for self-expression. Brands and products became a way to represent who we are to the world.
“I love Disney so much.”
But as we did that, the symbols that brands represent began to shape our social makeup too. We discover a new form of tribalism centered on our interests and our values.
Kid Rock: “Fuck Bud Light and fuck Anheuser Busch.”
This inevitably incentivizes brands to participate in social and political issues. And in turn, politics becomes flattened into symbols of identity without nuance or compromise. This perpetuates a massive cultural war.
“This is a ginned-up, made-up issue to divide this country. You talk about dividing this country.”
People grow weary of living in a world full of salesmen. We're conditioned to see sincerity as manipulation. So we're starved for authenticity. But authenticity becomes a farce, just another tool of the propagandist.
Donald Trump: “And we will make America great again.”
And with the rise of social media, it's not just brands engaging in the performance. Everyone does. We cultivate our own personal brands. And in doing so, we end up embracing the techniques of the propagandist so that we can manipulate how the world sees us. The most desired career is to be an influencer; a monetized personal brand.
“And while they're looking for the mystery ticket, I wanna tell you guys about my new snack company, Feastables, which is launching with three flavors: Original, Almond, and Crunch. Crunch is my favorite.”
Effective propaganda has always imitated culture. But now culture is imitating propaganda. It's a mirror held up to another mirror. Propaganda exists to shift behaviors and beliefs. And culture is the expression of behaviors and beliefs. But if brands are now culture, and we're all brands, then everything is propaganda. Even you.
“Alright, this very privileged white boy has a hot take.”
“This is gonna be a little series me and my mom are doing about how you…”
“I posted a black square that Tuesday that everybody was doing it.”
“A lot of you guys only care about what's happening in Israel and Palestine because it's trendy.”
People are more vocal than ever, and have stronger opinions than ever. But we don't really care that much. If we really cared, we wouldn't move on as soon as the next thing came along.
“Thousands of women are using two words on social media today. It's (hashtag) #MeToo.”
“Remember Black Lives Matter? The group that was behind the Summer of Love protests back in 2020.”
“I mean, it is really remarkable how fast public opinion changes. The far majority of people are at this point just saying, ‘I don't care anymore.’”
Their opinions, as genuine as they may be, are performances. They're symbols of expression. When a mirror is held up to another mirror, you stare down an infinite tunnel with no beginning or end. Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it'll direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Chris Hedges: “When you don't understand what's going on; when you imbibe the illusion that you're fed, that blinds you. It keeps you from seeing what's happening around you. It's fantasy.”
When we set out to make this project, we didn't really know where it would end up. We knew we were observing something, the kind of thing that isn't likely to show up in your LinkedIn feed, or get taught in a marketing class, or shared at the center stage of Con.
Noam Chomsky: “What's not recognized is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. Unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force.”
Propaganda’s powerful. And as a concept, at least we believe, it's morally neutral. It's a tool, like a hammer. You can use it to build homes and schools and hospitals, or you can use it to beat someone's brains in on the side of the street. When we look back at Bernays giving an entire generation cancer, or Axe body spray turning women into sex objects using Dove’s money, we say, “Damn, how did they let this happen?” It's not because those people were evil, it's because they didn't care to ask these questions.
Edward Bernays: “Well, but you see, I never thought of it as power. I never treated it as power.”
While Edward Bernays was a bit problematic, he was right about one thing: in a complex and free society, propaganda is a necessity to navigate choice. We all have a choice as the people making propaganda. We can choose to delude ourselves and bury the truth about our work below 15 layers of frameworks and TED Talks and rocket ship emojis, or we could become more conscious of what we're doing, why it works, and how it might cause harm.
“Well, if I don't learn about propaganda, it won't be because there's no way to study it.”
“That's right. Chuck.”
Propaganda has been one of the biggest societal forces of the past century. It has defined our beliefs, our values, our entire culture. And yet there's a collective delusion in our industry about what we actually do, and how much power we actually wield. It seems so many that choose to do this are often confused, and a bit lost about how it all works. Edward Bernays got us to adopt propaganda. Now it's time to reexamine it.It's on us to resolve this great culture war, and it's on us to help escape the infinity mirror we created.
Donald Trump: “I will prevent World War 3. We are very close to World War 3.”
“My family fought to save their farm!”
“Who was working that farm? (My ancestors were!)"
“My family was!”
“You have been accused of lying to the American people. How long do you think it will be before you get called to be on Dancing with the Stars?"
“‘Eat the Rich’ is about Elon Musk, not a doctor who makes $200,000…”
“Because you're protected in the state of Oklahoma.”
Jeff Bezos: “I want to thank every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.”
Once again, I'm Josh Belhumeur. And I'm Malcolm Critcher. We're leaders at a creative agency called BRINK. We’re both propagandists, and this is propaganda.
Cohosts: Josh Belhumeur and Malcolm Critcher
Producers: Jaclyn Hubersberger and Reed Chandler
Story Editor: Matt Decker
Additional Audio Engineering: Paul Injeti
Original music: Josh Belhumeur