“From the Midtown Studios of Bloomberg Television in New New York City, this is Charlie Rose.”
“David Foster Wallace defies description in an age where the novel is constantly being threatened by the allure of technological advancement. I am pleased to have him back on this broadcast.”Author David Foster Wallace probably put it best: we're stuck in a contradiction.
David Foster Wallace: “There's a very American sort of confusion and interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit – that there's nothing left anywhere but salesmen.”We aren't blind to how common propaganda is in our daily lives, but we are bound to it. As each generation grows up with new forms of media that are designed to capture and sell our attention, our sensibilities begin to evolve. We become more savvy to the various techniques we see and far more skeptical of the institutions we once trusted.“If the Trump administration approves a vaccine before or after the election, should Americans take it? And would you take it?”
Kamala Harris: “If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it.”
You can call it a defense mechanism. We put up barriers to protect ourselves against unwelcome manipulation. Then we let our instincts guide when to lower those defenses. We wanna feel like we're choosing our beliefs and not letting others choose for us.
President Joe Biden: “My grandpop, who I never met, he died in the same hospital I was born in two weeks before I was born, and he worked for the American oil company.”
Whenever you have that uncanny feeling that you're being sold to – the pandering speech from the overly rehearsed politician, buzzword salad on a corporate webpage, or the perfect family living a perfect life in a tight 30-second spot – you're less likely to believe because your guard is up. Nobody wants to actively be manipulated.But that's the thing – it only feels like manipulation when it fails at what it aims to do. When it succeeds…[Crowd chanting] “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Donald Trump (DJT): “Lock ‘em all up."
This is propaganda. All propaganda is a story, a story about the world as you wanna see it. If that story fails, the idea can't take hold, and the propaganda fails too.
“21-year-old Kendall Jenner is the first model to get a big Pepsi ad since Cindy Crawford in 1992. But that's being overshadowed online where many are calling the ad ‘tasteless’, saying it takes advantage of serious issues and movements to sell soda.”Setting aside the biggest sins of all – being derivative or just straight-up boring – one of the biggest challenges of the contemporary storyteller is to overcome our built-in bullshit detectors.
“No, I don't buy it.”
“I don't buy it.”
“I don't buy it.”
“Mm, yeah, that sounds suspicious.”Or in other words, to deliver something authentic.“I wanna talk about authenticity.”
“At the end of the day, people just believe in authenticity and authenticity is the alignment of three things: your thoughts, your words, and your actions.”
“If you go on Amazon.com, you can buy about 20,000 books on how to be more authentic.”
“Does your brand walk the talk brand? Authenticity is a hot topic, and for good reason. As many as 63% of customers will choose an authentic brand over one that's less transparent.” Authenticity is the buzziest of buzzwords in marketing. Every brand guide uses it, even the Army.
“This is what we do.This is what we do. This is what we do.We bring out the best in the people who serve.Because America calls for nothing less.”
The textbook definition of brand authenticity is to align your marketing with the reality of your product's values and actions. Now, how much does reality really matter? Does an audience's perception of authenticity have much to do with the real world? Consider one of the biggest and most polarizing brands of the past decade: the brand of Donald Trump.
DJT: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”I have such respect for women. I cherish women.
Megyn Kelly: “You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”
“You brag that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
DJT: “No, get those lights. Off!”
Hillary Clinton: “It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
DJT: “Because you'd be in jail.”
Chris Wallace: “Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”
DJT: I will look at it at the time.”One of the reasons he's so adored by his supporters – how he was able to demolish a crowded Republican in the field in 2016 and become one of the most unlikely world leaders in history – is that he tapped into the true meaning of authenticity.
Sen. Rand Paul: “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He's used to buying politicians.”
DJT: “Well, I've given him plenty of money.”
In a recent poll, 71% of Trump voters said they felt what he tells them is true. Consider only 63% said they trust family and friends.
“He's not fake. You know what he's thinking. He, he tells the truth.”
“You know, I like his, I like his uh, his honesty and transparency.”
“He was a little more honest than the rest of them. Uh he, he said things that uh that were true.”
Trump lies all the time. If he presses supporters with a well-sourced fact check, they might even concede the point. An Ohio State University study of 8,100 participants showed this, but the same study also showed that it doesn't matter. It’s not gonna make them change their overall feelings about him. How can so many people perceive someone as authentic when they're constantly lying?
DJT: “I've got to be the cleanest sheriff. I think I'm the most honest human being perhaps that God ever created, perhaps.”
They know Trump's a salesman and they understand the game salesmen play. We all do, but they don't see themselves as the ones getting played. Instead, they're on the same team. Whether he's lying to get what he wants or to protect himself, his lies are also for their benefit, because they're in on it with him.
“I would vote for that man if I had to go to prison and pull the lever. I would vote for him if he was in prison. He has my vote and I won't vote for anybody but him, and I think that is echoed all across this land.”
This is not exclusive to the Trump voter, nor to politics. If the 21st-century consumer navigates a world in which there is nothing left but salesmen, we all have a heightened awareness of the propaganda game. We can either reject it and be left bitter and alone, or we can choose to participate and get to believe in something. What other choice do we have? When it comes to politicians we've seen every trick in the book, just like we've seen every single story told every single type of way. All we do is stare at screens – sometimes three at a time. We're bombarded with content and most of its propaganda. This has built a media savvy in even the least cultured among us that you didn't see 50 years ago.Because of this, the way we engage with media has an added layer of constant self-awareness. It's increasingly rare to just give yourself over to a story.
“I'm re-watching 7th Heaven. Please just listen to the plot of this episode I just finished. It starts with a dad who's also a past…”
Instead, we're analyzing and reacting and recontextualizing every show, every ad, every post, every speech – every everything – to the million other things we've seen before it.How does a brand like Donald Trump get so many people to believe in such an unlikely way? To answer that, we need to retrace contemporary culture's steps.Let's take it back to the ‘90s.
“Hold onto your butts.”
The year is 1993. The Coca-Cola Company, being the savvy propagandists that they are, see what everyone else sees: culture is changing…again.
“We don't have a war, we don't have a depression, we don't have legalized discrimination.”
“The economy is so much worse for young people today than it was when I was young. We had the counterculture. They have the counter-commerce.”
Generation X, the babies of the baby boomers, watched their parents go from peace and love at Woodstock to quarter the earnings calls on Wall Street. And it made them deeply skeptical of just about everything.“We're being approached as a segment of people to market to, to advertise to. And what we actually are is a group of people that are immune to advertising.”In a few words, it became uncool to care. But it's the advertiser's job to get you to care. Therefore, advertising also became deeply uncool.
“By the time he or she has finished high school, an average American kid has watched 350,000 television commercials. A third of a million!”“We speak and understand the language of media as natives, rather than as immigrants.” Stop spending your dollars marketing, and just start making good stuff.”Each new generation rejects the tools propaganda had previously used to imitate genuine cultural output, and then propaganda has to rapidly shift to ensure it's still capable of speaking to the coveted demographic of 18 to 25.
Tom Brokaw: “Generation X. There are lots of them and they are consumers. They're smart and television savvy. However, they represent quite a challenge for Madison Avenue.”
Coca-Cola decided to hire Sergio Zyman, the marketing consultant behind the incredibly successful relaunch of Diet Coke. And the incredible failure that was New Coke.Objective: Get the MTV generation to buy soda. Step 1: Identify what they care to express most. Ironically, it's that they don't care. Step 2: Make buying soda an act of rebellion against deeply caring.The result: OK Soda, an entirely new brand unlike any other before. A brand that would speak the Gen X language of disillusionment.
“Dear blank, As you may have heard, our television chain letter promoting OK Soda has yielded interesting results. Steve S. of Oakland, California declined a can of OK at a party. The next day, his fiancee announced her intention to marry his best friend, an enthusiastic drinker of OK.”
OK Soda subverts the false promises and superlatives of brand marketing. The soda isn't the real thing like Coca-Cola was. It won't make you happy, it won't make you sing. It's just OK.
“Are you familiar with our 10-point OK Manifesto? Here's a quick refresher, just in case.The OK Manifesto: What’s the point of ‘OK’? Well, what’s the point of anything?”
The whole tone of the brand was otherworldly among consumer packaged goods. The packaging was detached from the paradigms of the time, with monotone colors and surrealist,artful hand-drawn illustrations.They were designed by Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes. Clowes recounted in 2014 that he modeled one of the faces that appeared on the cans after notorious serial killer Charles Manson as a subtle way to stick it to the corporation that hired him.
Clowes: “They made me sign all this nondisclosure paperwork and stuff, but nothing ever said, ‘Don't put a mass murderer on the can.’”If the goal of the brand was cynicism, it seems like they had the right guy for the job.[Ad]“An important announcement regarding OK Soda. Due to the controversial nature of this product, a toll-free number has been established to handle stories regarding its consumption.That number is 1-800-I FEEL OK.”
Imagine these odd moments of subversion appearing inside of a block of the loud, frenetic, and colorful ads of the ‘90s. Keep in mind, this is the era of Dutch angles and rapid cuts, and Michael Bay was the hottest commercial director around.
[Bad Boys scene]
“Hey, freeze bitch!”
“You freeze, bitch. Now back up, put the gun down, and give me a pack of Tropical Fruit Bubblelicious.”
If you haven't heard of OK Soda, it's because it only stayed on the shelves in a few test markets for seven months. Poor Sergio Zyman, the guy whose Wikipedia entry says he's best known for the failure of New Coke. Now he had another failure on his hands, and his Wiki page doesn't even mention this one. Who knows why it failed. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Maybe they weren't patient enough. Maybe it just tasted bad. What I do know is that it was truly visionary, and it's a bellwether for how propaganda would need to evolve to handle a more sophisticated and skeptical audience.Coca-Cola might have given up on OK Soda, but they didn't give up on the insight. They tried again just a few years later with an existing brand: Sprite. But this time it worked. Objective: Get the MTV generation to buy soda. (And maybe this time we don't put Charles Manson on the can.)The result? Grant Hill's self-aware celebrity endorsement of Sprite.
Hi, I'm Grant Hill, professional basketball player for the Detroit Pistons. You know, when I get thirsty, I reach for Sprite, (cha-ching) you see, Sprite refreshes me like nothing else (cha-ching) because it's the only drink with that cool (cha-ching) crisp (ca-ching) refreshing taste. (cha-ching)”The whole premise was about the phoniness of celebrity endorsements. In this spot, as he delivers the standard endorsement playbook straight to camera, a caricature of him holding money bags pops into the corner of the screen with a loud “ca-ching”.
While deconstructing and subverting tropes and advertising was nothing new, this felt fresh. It was calling itself bullshit before anybody else had a chance to. It felt right at home against a postmodern cultural backdrop, as sincerity had given way to irony.
[Seinfeld, The Pitch]
“So what have you two come up with?”George Costanza: “I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: ‘nothing’."
“What does that mean?”
“The show is about nothing.”
When irony is used in art, it ideally reveals a deeper truth. When it's used in propaganda, it can often feel like an attempt to obscure a deeper truth, rather than reveal one. It's still the Coca-Cola corporation. They're still trying to sell you soda. And that interior war keeps raging on.
[Everything Everywhere All At Once]
Jobu Tupaki: “Because you see when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this – the truth.”“What is the truth?”Jobu: “Nothing matters.”
Is there a way to both have your cake and ironically deconstruct it too? Author Raoul Eshelman coined a phrase called the “double frame” to describe what he observed occurring within the art world in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.Think of the double frame as a storytelling device where you embed one type of story inside the container of another. The outer frame, or the container, is a high concept that can either go meta, drawing direct attention to the fact that you're engaged in a story…
Kevin Spacey: “My name is Lester Burnham. I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead.”
…It can also just be so absurd that you couldn't possibly mistake it for reality.
“You like scary movies.“Uh-huh.”“What's your favorite scary movie?”
This approach encourages you to buy into the story, because if you don't, then you can't engage with it in a meaningful way. You're an active participant because you chose to accept the premise. Now you feel in control. That's when the inner frame can do its job. There's the freedom to be sincere and deliver an unironic message, to give you a reason to believe.
[Everything Everywhere All At Once]
Waymond Wang: “I know you're fighting because you're scared and confused. I'm confused too. I don't know what the heck is going on. The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind, especially when we don't know what's going on.”
The more you begin to observe and articulate contemporary devices like the double frame, the more you also begin to recognize the why behind it: a symbiotic relationship between culture and propaganda. Culture often moves as an attempt to overcome our skepticism and reach for some new form of authenticity. What we find to be good stories are those that we can believe in – those that don't feel like the tools of a salesman.The best propagandists are savvy enough and brave enough to move with it. And when they do, sometimes they shock the world, and they change the way propaganda communicates. But this also starts the cycle back over.
DJT: “We needed tickets. You can't get them. You know who has the tickets? I'm talking to the television audience. Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money. That’s who it is.The reason they're not loving me is I don't want their money. I'm gonna do the right thing for the American public. I don't want their money, I don't need their money, and I'm the only one up here that can say that.”
All propaganda is a story. And the story Trump told that put him in the White House employed a double frame.The outer frame was subversive. He frequently broke the fourth wall and mocked the whole thing as a charade. He made absurd jokes and gave his opponents funny names.
DJT: “Lying Ted, Lying Ted. What's your name? My name's Lying Ted Cruz.”
And while his detractors didn't understand how someone could break from the decorum they expected in a candidate, his supporters were starting to feel like they were in on it with him.
DJT: “You know what she said? Shout it out ‘cause I don't want to. Ok, you're not allowed to say…I never expect to hear that from you again! She said he's a pussy. That's terrible. Terrible.”
He lowered their defenses and said, “You think this is bullshit? Well, guess what? You're right. It is.” And once they bought into the premise, he could deliver the inner frame and it had a much better chance of resonating.
DJT: “And we, will make, America. Great. Again.”
Many of the tactics Trump took that people argued made him unfit for office were the very tactics that made his propaganda so potent. His story worked to resolve that interior war that David Foster Wallace spoke of, because he gave voice to the deep belief that everything is bullshit. And it gave his supporters a reason to believe.
“There is nobody, in my mind, there is nobody that can help us more than Trump.”
“President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century.”
“In my household, you got Martin Luther King, you got Jesus, and you got Donald Trump.”
All wars take a toll, even internal ones. If authenticity is mostly a farce, just another tactic of the propagandists, then we risk losing grasp on what's real.
“You are being lied to. I mean, just ask yourself, just on the merits of the facts.”
We become conditioned to see sincerity as an instrument of manipulation.
“I never thought I'd make a video like this but um, I think there's an important conversation to be had and I just wanna be fully accountable, honest, and transparent.”“What's the point of making an apology video to the best of your ability when 90% of people are just gonna shit on you for it?”
If we're sincere, we risk being seen as salesmen ourselves. So we often end up mistaking subversion for truth.But like every time that came before, when we realize authenticity has been co-opted by propaganda, we'll start to reject it.
Elon Musk: “Everyone here is seeing the, the massive demonstrations for Hamas. And what I see is people who care about looking good while doing evil.”
Piers Morgan: “They don't really care about LGBTQ or you, the only pride a lot of these corporations seem to have is in their quarterly earnings report.”
Barack Obama: “And the problem with the social media and trying to TikTok activism and trying to debate this on that, is you can't speak the truth. You can pretend to speak the truth.”
When that happens, then we're left with nothing to believe in. 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