“You're going to the Disney Character Warehouse.”
“I'm so excited, are you excited?!”
David Attenborough: “See the Disney adult in their natural habitat.”
“A lot of people ask me why I love Disney so much and the answer is really simple for me. I love the friends that I've made there. I celebrate all my wins at Disney, and that's why it will forever always be a part of me.”
David Attenborough: “Adorned with the accouterments that celebrate the ritual of an annual park pilgrimage, they're on the hunt for Disney lore.”
“Let me show you the rarest hidden Mickey in all of Disneyland. Whaaat??”
David Attenborough: “Is this an unhealthy detachment from reality? Or is it a way to manufacture joy and feel connected to something bigger in an otherwise isolating human existence? Let's watch and observe.”
[Woman singing a parody of Taylor Swift’s “Don’t Blame Me”]
“Don't blame me, Disney made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain’t doin’ it right.
Lord save me, the magic makes me happy. I'll be going for the rest of my life.”
Who could have imagined that the path laid out by figures like Edward Bernays in the early 20th century would lead us here?
I'm proud to announce our next Disney experience: Storyliving by Disney. All new Disney-branded master-planned residential communities, designed to be the perfect setting for Disney fans to write the next exciting chapter in their lives.”
Storyliving by Disney are master-planned communities by the Disney Corporation that promise to, quote, “cater to the unique desires of those who have learned what's really important.”
“I definitely feel like Disney has been invading my thoughts because I have drawn several different Storyliving-type residential communities and I can say that, this is something I've wanted in my whole life.”
Disney is part of a growing handful of brands that have reached cult-like status, with one of the most sophisticated propaganda machines on the planet. Choosing to move into a Disney community means fully resigning yourself to this machine. But if you're a Disney stan, then that's the point. If you want to take your relationship to the next level, you gotta move in together.
As brands became symbols for self-expression, they inevitably began to shape our social makeup, too. This can be healthy when it's something that brings us together. It's fun to cosplay with your friends as a Jedi Knight at Galaxy's Edge. But when these symbols of expression begin to intersect the social and political complexities of modern society, they run the risk of doing the opposite: they can start to pull us apart.
This is propaganda.
Humans used to be born into tribes. Your family, your religious group, your neighbors, your village, and so on.
But now tribes are different. They're tied to the brands we love, the media we consume, the politics we follow. All of the various subcultures we belong to.
A tribe by definition represents a collective, but the various tribes you belong to are how you express yourself – they're part of your identity. This isn't a new phenomenon. Social groups helping define your sense of self is inherent to being a human. What has changed is now instead of being born into tribes, we choose them.
“I do not go to Walmart, I go to Target.”
“Fuck Target. Do not ever shop at Target. How disgusting of a fucking company do you have to be?”
And if we, as Edward Bernays argued 100 years ago, rely on propaganda to help us navigate the burden of choice in a free society, then it's helping define our tribes, too. Participating in the tribes you choose now often supersedes family and villages, how you socialize, and how you spend your money.
Are. You. Ready? To be the ultimate Pokemon master trader?!
I used to beg my parents for Pokemon cards when I was a kid. I didn't even know how to play the game, they just looked cool and had cultural cachet. Not a big deal, but sometimes this can be a very big deal.
“Brookfield police responded to a fight in the Target parking lot after one man pulled a gun on a group of men attacking him over sports trading cards.”
This past year, I was driving in Tucson, when I pulled up alongside a silver Tesla with a big ugly sticker affixed to the bumper. One word: “Elon” with the red circle slash over it. “No Elon.”
I imagine they once thought highly of Elon Musk. So much of the Tesla brand was built around his image as the CEO. He was billed as a visionary inventor, the champion of a sustainable future, and the savior of capitalism. But then he switched sides.
Elon Musk: “I have voted, voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, uh historically, overwhelmingly. Like I, I'm not sure I, I might never have voted for a Republican, just to be clear. Now, now this election, I will.”
What are Elon Musk's actual political views? It doesn't really matter because he, like all public figures, is just a brand. He's walking, talking propaganda. Because the brand that he represented to this Tesla driver changed, she experienced cognitive dissonance.
“You and me, we're fucking done. There's nothing fucking there anymore.”
Since we now see brands as an extension of ourselves, when they suddenly start standing for something that we don't, cognitive dissonance occurs.
Cognitive dissonance can be most simply defined as the idea that one belief you have, runs into a direct contradiction with another belief that you have.
“The woman who is likely the world's best-known children's author is defending herself against growing accusations of transphobia. This is J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, of course.”
“I mean this in the absolute most disrespectful way possible. But fuck J.K. Rowling, fuck Harry Potter.”
“Is she gonna give the money back to those trans people that bought her books, saw her movies, or went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? If not, shut the fuck up.”
We're then left with a couple of different options: you can stop loving the brand, you can change your own values, or, you can get a giant “No Elon” sticker. Regardless of your choice, the product remained the same. All that changed was the story.
As our world becomes more complex, these moments of cognitive dissonance become more frequent.
“News of Chick-fil-A having a Vice President of Diversity Equity and Inclusion or DEI, as it's known, does have some conservative groups calling for a boycott claiming the company has, yep, ‘gone woke.’”
What happens when one tribe represents one ideal and another tribe represents a conflicting ideal, and you belong to both?
Let me tell you a story, about a beer, rooted in the heart of America.”
You could say Budweiser's entire approach is rooted in the idea that pulling out a Modelo at the Fourth of July barbecue would be no bueno. Imported beer, really? Maybe the Johnsons next door aren't the patriots we thought they were. We can thank Edward Bernays for our xenophobic attitude toward the Johnsons.
To make beer drinking respectable when prohibition ended, Bernays commissioned an economist to do research on the drinking habits of the Founding Fathers. The result? They built this country with a hell of a beer buzz.
This bit of propaganda work from Bernays was a foundational legacy for many beer companies. In the summer of 2016, Budweiser literally renamed itself America. They're not selling you beer,
they're selling you patriotism. So what happens when Budweiser introduces a heavy pour of cognitive dissonance?
Dylan Mulvaney: “This month, I celebrated my Day 365 of Womanhood and Bud Light sent me possibly the best gift ever: a can with my face on it. Check out my Instagram story to see how you can enjoy March Madness…”
Dylan Mulvaney is a trans woman with more than 10 million followers on TikTok and nearly 2 million on Instagram. Bud Light noticed healthy sales of their products in queer bars and decided to lean in. So they sent Mulvaney a special can with her face on it to commemorate the anniversary of her transition. Given the influencer, and given the medium, they probably thought this could help an old brand reach younger audiences.
“We need to evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand. What does evolve and elevate mean? It means inclusivity, it means shifting the tone.”
It made an appearance on her Instagram, and soon after an appearance on every conservative outlet.
Tucker Carlson: “People who drink Bud Light are not impressed.”
“Is this a moment where it really did hit people in their psyche? The brand betrayed them and something can actually be done.”
“Critics are arguing that companies are promoting transgenderism and pandering to the woke left.”
“We're going to be launching an inquiry about Bud Light.”
Kid Rock: “Fuck Bud Light, and fuck Anheuser Busch.”
Bud Light had been America's best-selling beer for more than two decades. Now Bud Light is second place behind Modelo. Sales dropped 29% in four weeks.
“Bud Light sales continue to fall.”
It may recover by the time you hear this, it might not. Regardless, it's worth understanding why things played out the way they did.
When we build our identities around brands, there's something upsetting to our core when the facade of shared belief crumbles. It's a betrayal; a piece of you that you used to signal to the world who you are, is now misrepresenting you.
Bud Light's mistake wasn't going woke – it was committing a cultural sin against the tribe it had built for decades. When Nike got NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson, they faced considerable conservative backlash too.
“You're gonna go ahead and say, ‘Hey, we stand with people who kneel for the national anthem.’
Not only am I burning my favorite pair of Nikes, you’re burning your sales.”
Yet, Nike far exceeded sales estimates for the quarter and continued to grow from there.
That's why Nike immediately signed a collab with Dylan Mulvaney in the wake of the Bud Light disaster.
“Less than a week after Mulvaney generated controversy for becoming a paid partner for Bud Light, she now has a paid partnership with Nike to model sports bras and leggings on social media.”
The collab with Mulvaney aligns with the values of the tribe that Nike built. They aren't selling patriotism, they sell determination in the face of obstacles,
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
70% of consumers say they like when brands stand for something. It makes sense.
If both politics and products represent our sense of self, we're going to pay attention to how they intersect. You don't want to get caught holding the wrong beer at the Trump rally or wearing the wrong shoes at the Women's March.
But how exactly did this evolve the way it did? And where is it going next? To answer that, let's take it back to the ‘80s.
Instead of a hamburger, you can get…Chicken McNuggets!
Levi's great half-price sale. This week, buy any style of Levi’s…
It's 1981. Disco recently died and America isn't doing so hot either. Do I think they're related? Yes. Having recently tapped into the rugged individualism of boomers, Reagan sets a new tone for both his party and the country.
Ronald Reagan: “We as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
There's just one problem: the only thing people trust less than government are corporations.
Noam Chomsky: “The major decisions over what happens in the society are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what's done in the society.”
Corporations need to show people that they can behave if we leave them alone. So, a phrase coined in the ‘50s starts getting pretty heavy rotation: Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR.
CSR says businesses should attempt to minimize societal harm while making profits. It's basically saying, “Go make as much money as you can, just try not to set a river on fire while you do it.”
“The Condamine River, on fire. The fracking just a kilometer away…”
Over the next several decades, corporations invested heavily in engineering consent for self-regulation with a major focus on CSR programs. However, these propaganda efforts and the teams behind them would often be completely independent of consumer marketing.
“The Philip Morris companies, including Kraft Foods, give back to our communities through corporate contributions and volunteerism. In the last 40 years, Philip Morris has given hundreds of millions of dollars to programs, like Chicago's Off The Street Club, that make a difference in people's lives.”
How you sold your products to the public had nothing to do with how you sold your company as a responsible corporate citizen. But that, as we would discover, was a missed opportunity.
Consumers only hold one view of a brand. There's no corporate hierarchy in their hearts and minds. That means that any propaganda around corporate values is going to influence purchasing decisions.
“I believe that values matter. And in today's day, when we do give our money to companies that don't support our values, we're co-signing their message to buy what their values...”
“What is that message? If we wanted to buy your products, what are we buying into?”
“You're buying into a company that stands for faith, family, and freedom.”
Unilever brand Dove discovered the power of this firsthand in the early aughts. It began when Dove commissioned a survey to examine the relationship women have with beauty.
“Tell me about your chin.”
“It kinda protrudes a little bit.”
What they find is that only 12% of women are satisfied with their physical appearance globally, and 75% wish the media did a better job of representing a broader range of women. A typical playbook would be to make a slogan such as, “You're beautiful just the way you are,” and pair it with photos of diverse women with freckles and a few extra pounds.
“Do you think you're more beautiful than you say?”
And that's basically what they did for the first two phases of the campaign. But in phase three, they did something different. Something that in 2015, would be named the best ad of the 21st century by Ad Age.
We open in a studio and you see the lights, the backdrop, the crew. It's like you're there on set. The girl next door with a little acne walks in a frame and sits on a stool. The lights turn on, and we enter a time-lapse. She's swarmed by a crew who meticulously do her hair and makeup. She's changing before our eyes.
Now we're in Photoshop and we see a cursor manipulate her image. It elongates her neck,
plumps her eyes, sharpens her jaw. She's been transformed into a supermodel. And we end on a title, “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” Then another title: a logo for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund.
What is the Dove Self-Esteem Fund? Before this, nothing. Now, it's propaganda. It was developed in coordination with the agency Ogilvy to support the Real Beauty Campaign, promising to provide educational resources to parents, teachers, and youth leaders.
Real Beauty is probably the most famous early example of what we would begin calling “purpose marketing”. It's a form of virtues propaganda that brings the values of the corporation behind the brand more into the foreground.
“Embrace races, ages, ideologies, personalities.”
This is in response to a growing social trend that places less importance on using consumer goods to convey status, and more on using them to convey specific social values. What would it say about you if you bought soap from the company that was propagating anorexia and totally unattainable beauty standards?
As you pondered which stuff to buy, you might not have realized Dove was owned by Unilever, who also owns Axe. Axe is a brand that frequently objectifies women in its advertising as a means of satisfying the libido of good-smelling men.
“This is Cindy.”
“Cindy, yes.” (So nice to meet both of you.)
“It’s nice to meet you, too. Please, please, welcome.”
“Oh, mom, no. Dad. This is Shannon.” (Oh, hi.)
“And this is Erin.” (Hey, cutie.) That is Jessica. (Hi) Jenny, (Hi) Sarah (Hi), Megan (Hello), Nicole, Elizabeth.”
Axe. Use in moderation.
While the Dove team was toiling away at the Real Beauty Campaign setting out to make a difference, Axe was releasing ad after ad of unrealistically gorgeous, fair-skinned women, all being used as overt objects of lust.
One ad for Dove: a group of diverse, average women with the tag, “We see beauty all around us.” Another ad for Axe: a woman in lingerie suspended by Marionette strings. “She's your sex puppet.” Both put out by the same corporation, in the same year.
But that's the real beauty of what we call a House of Brands Architecture. One company can operate many different brands with distinct, and often diametrically opposed, forms of propaganda under one roof. Axe and Dove can't be under the same brand or you introduce cognitive dissonance. With different brands and a parent company that stays way in the back, you diffuse the potential for conflict, just so long as the consumer doesn't look at it too closely.
Over the past few decades, there's been a sharp increase in political polarization. Because politics is more than ideals, it's identity. And brands are only further reinforcing that.
“Calls for a boycott of Ben & Jerry's after the famously woke company took a shot at America on Independence Day.”
Brands have to do something they never had to do before: they have to take sides.
“Iconic brands, such as Nike, known for speaking out on social justice issues, taking yet another stand against racism and aligning with the cause of Black Lives Matter.”
By 2020, we get to the point where even Walmart is putting out press releases about systemic oppression and dismantling white supremacy. Maybe they'll get to low wages and poor working conditions at big box stores some other time. Deep down, consumers know that corporations getting political is opportunistic, especially when it's mega corporations beholden to shareholders, but we're not really that concerned about it. That's because brands still tangibly signal to the world who we are, or who we wanna be.
“Guys mind you, this is in the boys' section at Target. Like, what's up with this rainbow shit?
“Target did not have to slay this hard. Rainbow Ford Bronco graphic tee? Are we joking right now?”
When Target sells a rainbow t-shirt, it isn't really intrinsically a good or bad thing. It's morally neutral. On one hand, it's a charade. It's totally artificial. But on the other hand, it's real because we make it real. These types of symbols are fundamental to the way we perceive the world, and how we perceive ourselves.
We humans are really good at rationalizing the irrational. The more complicated our world gets, the more susceptible to emotional appeals we are. We simply don't have the time or mental capacity to navigate life any other way. We have to rely on what feels right. That is why propaganda is so damn effective. It creates symbols that serve as cognitive shortcuts that manipulate us into believing our choices are more rational than they actually are.
When the symbols go from, “This car will make me sexy,” to, “This car represents my desire for a sustainable future,” we're flattening a complex social and political conversation down to its most simplistic ideas. This inevitably creates way more cognitive dissonance.
“McDonald's, shamefully, in the middle of this genocide, has decided to donate thousands of meals to feed Israel's occupation and genocide army.”
“Boycott McDonald’s! Boycott McDonald’s! Boycott McDonald’s!”
Each time you must confront what you value most so you can resolve the inner conflict. You eventually find yourself in a binary, where everything must fall into one of two categories: things you value and things you don't.
And because we use these things as a way to connect with each other, to form our tribes, the binary also becomes people you value and people you don't.
“I just want to say if you're a conservative, get the fuck off my page. This is a safe space.”
If you don't say and you don't do the right things, the people in your tribe might ostracize you.
“If you continue to support the Harry Potter franchise, you're actively supporting bigotry and transphobia at this point. And that is a massive red flag for me.”
There's a natural polarizing effect that pulls everything around us into one side or the other of two warring factions.
A lot of people think the culture war is an overtly political fight. Something Republicans and Democrats invented. But that's wrong. They didn't create the culture war – we did. They're just holding up the mirror.
When the world is this complex, overwhelming, and fast-moving, there's no time for nuance and measured analysis. So we rationalize the irrational and rely on symbols to make our decisions. We have to. How else are you going to choose between seven kinds of deodorant when you have a rally to get to?
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