War on Sale: Buy Now while Supplies Last
September 17, 2001

The public is galvanized as if Hitler and Tojo had returned from hell to finish the job of pulverizing America and installing a fascist state run by the Japanese emperor. Polls show nearly universal sentiment to kick ass and take names – and the names don’t really matter. We’ll lash out at any wog in a pinch, even the guy we bought fresh fruit from two weeks ago at the corner market. There’s blood lust in the land and it must be satisfied.

Which is hardly surprising. We live in a country in which our primary duty is stoking the engines of commerce by consuming the fad du jour as defined by pop culture and branded by TV advertising. So when the major cable and broadcast networks run 24/7 advertising for a single product – in this case, a US war against Islamic terrorists – it shouldn’t be too shocking that more than 90 percent of American consumers respond with wild approval.

In the hours and days immediately following the atrocities of September 11, Americans were subjected to what amounts to an endless branding campaign, featuring some of the most powerful images ever seen on television. Relentless, sustained, moving and graphic, television pounded home the message that America had been horribly violated and that it must exact revenge. Within minutes, a suspect was named and a strategy articulated.

Employing basic marketing techniques, the networks first defined the problem and then sold the solution. The problem was international terrorism, personified by Osama bin Laden and his shadowy band of Islamic fundamentalists, and the only solution proposed – at least the only one not immediately dismissed as quixotic or unworkable – was massive military response.

By defining the solution along such a narrow continuum, network advertising virtually assured that Americans would buy the Bush administration’s product. Throw in the testosterone quotient – manly American men doing manly things to unmanly brown-skinned cowards in far away places we can't identify on a map – and the administration had a real hit on its hands.

The Widget Wars
But simply substitute "widgets" for "war" and see what happens. Beginning at 9:00 A.M. EDT on September 11, industrial giant Glutco Inc., the company that manufacturers and distributes the world’s finest widgets, bought non-stop advertising on all major television networks. Within hours, imbued with THE MESSAGE, Americans roared their approval for Glutco widgets, left their jobs and homes and drove directly to the nearest mall. They didn’t need proof that Glutco’s widgets were superior; most of them didn’t even want or need widgets. But the clarion call of saturation advertising won’t be ignored.

Shelves emptied in minutes; trucks were lined up at the loading docks to deliver more widgets; those also sold out. Even though the campaign had been planned for months, mighty Glutco’s distribution system was unable to keep pace with demand. Americans simply couldn’t get enough widgets. Special edition widgets showed up on eBay at preposterous prices, then were bid up several times over. Widget collectors found themselves cast as instant celebrities, being asked weighty questions on national television by a pandering media.

Daily newspapers and weekly magazines kept the public salivating. Publishers happily saw their pages eaten up by lucrative, image-intensive Glutco advertising. Entertainment trade rags reported a couple of made-for-TV movies in the works; marginal actors and off-key singers kept themselves in the public eye for another 15 minutes by shilling for Glutco widgets; even Glutco’s chief competitors expressed reluctant admiration for their adversary, since the heightened popularity of widgets had expanded the market for their products as well.

True, the campaign was the most expensive marketing move in history, but it really wasn’t much of a gamble. After all, if American adults will fight over the last Cabbage Patch doll, even though the Cabbage Patch brand is marketed directly to kids on Saturday morning cartoon shows, it was reasonably predictable that they’d respond with manic fervor to a non-stop harangue by analysts and experts, blow-dried anchors and "on the ground" reporters. Even with the sound off, the images were just too compelling to ignore.

And the numbers proved the premise. Consumers bought more than $40 billion worth of widgets in the first week alone. Many ran their credit cards up to the limit and many more said they’d make any sacrifice to buy more widgets in the coming months. They took second mortgages on their houses; they spent their kid’s college funds; they looted their retirement accounts; those with disposable income bought bigger SUVs to carry more widgets. And Glutco’s major shareholders smiled the satisfied smirk of the seriously rich.

And so it goes in pop culture America, where the invisible hand of the market occasionally pops into public view, where allegiance is bought and sold like used cars, and where operators are always standing by.

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