Many companies have recently switched from aspirational to woke advertising—and a surprising number of them are engaging in self-satire and even self-abnegation as they do so. From Gillette, with its toxic masculinity campaign to Calvin Klein’s recent use of a “black, trans, plus-sized model,” corporations today are skewering all the aesthetic and social ideals that they insisted for decades were vital to their customers’ happiness. One explanation for this strange new phenomenon lies in a theory called the Society of the Spectacle, and its key dichotomy: recuperation and détournement.
The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle was the seminal text of the Situationist International, a group of avante-garde artists and revolutionaries who were trying to explain the human condition under late-stage capitalism. Central to Debord’s theory is the idea that all human interactions and desires have become entirely inauthentic, and that life is only a parody of itself mediated by images: the Spectacle. As Debord puts it: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
Interactions in the Spectacle are not between people but are about commodities—about having things or appearing to have them. This creates an entirely synthetic existence, which is therefore almost impossible to critique—and which, to Debord, involves the unforgivable surrender of our higher faculties.
In an attempt to free society from its alienation, he published a book of aphorisms, which includes more than 220 irresistible thought-provocations, such as: “The Spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.”
The theory quickly reached its apex during the tumult of May 1968, as people took to the streets in both Europe and America to express their disdain for mass consumerism. Violent protests and the occupation of universities and factories became so widespread that even President Charles De Gaulle secretly fled to Germany, fearing revolution. At the epicentre of this unrest was the city of Paris, in which the Situationist International became a critical inspiration to the movement—quotations from Debord’s work were graffitied on walls across the city.
Détournement and Recuperation
According to the Situationist International, one of the few ways to undermine the society of the Spectacle is through détournement. Roughly translated, this refers to the act of subverting the Spectacle by “rerouting” its symbols and images, such as brands and advertising, to turn it on itself and highlight its inherent absurdity. One real-life example is the use of Nike’s famous slogan Just Do It, so that it appears to be being shouted at child labourers by a brutal overseer in a sweatshop.
The word recuperation on the other hand refers to how the society of the Spectacle co-opts revolutionary symbols in order to profit by selling them back to the people. It is the opposite of détournement. For the prime example, think of Che Guevara, whose image has been used to sell everything from badges to beer, from cars to cola. Through this process, according to Debord and the Situationist International, all radical movements are ultimately absorbed and rendered benign by capitalism.
How This Applies to Today
Social commentators have long drawn comparisons between 1968 and their own current year but, for once, amid the turmoil of 2020, it feels apt to do so.
But despite its centrality to the agitations of fifty years ago, reference to the Society of the Spectacle has been completely absent from today’s analysis: a fact which may say more about the inaccessibility of the central text, which, given the ouroboric nature of the Spectacle, is itself necessarily bound up in complicated, circular reasoning.
But, by teasing out what is useful about this philosophy, we may notice how inconsistent and pliable the modern left has become—often ignoring even its most valuable concepts in favour of consuming or claiming things that merely represent a balance of opinion.
That is why, Marxist trappings aside, Guy Debord’s concept of the Society of the Spectacle offers the most pointed exposition of our consumerist media age except, perhaps, Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message.
Debord’s advantage over McLuhan, however, is that the crucible in which his idea was tested is so like the one in which we find ourselves. Except, with the ubiquity of social media amid widespread, violent disorder, our furnace is arguably even hotter.
The Evolution of the Spectacle
By an extension of Debord’s theory, what we have been witnessing since the turn of the century is, confusingly, the recuperation of détournement. In other words, the Spectacle has been going one step further than simply co-opting and selling back general revolutionary symbols like Che Guevara. Instead, companies and media organisations have been seeking to pre-empt and co-opt their own subversion in order to take their rightful places in the Spectacle.
In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein notes the first tentative examples of détournement being recuperated, as companies began to absorb the work of Situationist International revivalists and culture jammers, such as Adbusters, in order to beat them to the punch by ironically subverting general advertising tropes:
After a while, what began as a way to talk back to the ads starts to feel more like evidence of our total colonization by them, and especially because the ad industry is proving that it is capable of cutting off the culture jammers at the pass. Examples of prejammed ads include a 1997 Nike campaign that used the slogan “I am not/A target market/I am an athlete” and Sprite’s “Image Is Nothing” campaign.
As Klein notes, this was not exactly trenchant stuff. But it shows how the Spectacle responds to any threat to its pre-eminence—often caused by spikes in revolutionary sentiment—by manifesting an additional contrivance: in this case, taking back control by spoofing itself before anyone else can.
Twenty years later, Nike and the Spectacle were naturally ready to take the next step of recuperating acts of détournement through NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, after he began “taking the knee” in 2016 to protest racial inequality.
Within months of his rise to greater fame for having drawn the ire of Donald Trump by this act of “disrespecting our flag,” Nike had made Kaepernick a brand ambassador and was using his image in a campaign alongside the slogan: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. A company historically accused of mistreatment of its overseas and invariably non-white workers was using those words to describe a millionaire athlete, who is likely to have been uncommonly rewarded for any “sacrifice.”
Kaepernick’s act of détournement was so clear that it directly reversed the Spectacle of standing for the national anthem, but in doing so became part of the Spectacle itself. True to form, this was almost instantly recuperated—by a hyper-American brand, which still kits out practically every US national sporting team in red, white and blue and which has a famous line of shoes named after the presidential jet—the latest contrivance of the Spectacle being, of course, that the irony is no longer intended.
A Spectacular New Departure
Despite all this recuperative action, we have already begun to witness yet another contrivance of the Spectacle. Over the past few years—and especially the past few months of widespread public anarchy—many companies are no longer just purloining vague or general détournement to sell back to a politically agitated populace: they are actively selling their own specific satirization, and even their own destruction. At least, as we know them.
Look closer at Gillette’s toxic masculinity campaign, which contains scenes of negative male behaviour, including bullying, sexism and sexual misconduct. It is difficult to think of a more cutting subversion of what this most proudly masculine brand once stood for.
Likewise Calvin Klein’s perennially slim, beautiful, often white, females in erotic poses have now been replaced by an image of Jari Jones, wearing a branded leotard—surely an act of détournement worthy of the most sardonic vandal.
Likewise McDonald’s literally inverted its usually brand-policed golden arches to create a “W” for Women on International Women’s Day; while conservative British supermarket Marks and Spencer make the unlikely connection between sandwiches and gay rights to create the Lettuce, Guacamole, Bacon and Tomato.
And take the commercial, Pipe Job, which depicts a man failing to commit suicide in his garage by piping the exhaust into the driver’s window. This was Hyundai’s way of showing off their new model’s environmental credentials with its “100% water emissions”—not exactly in keeping with the family-friendly image they have cultivated so far.
And finally, taking the stage for its third act in the Spectacle, Nike’s May 2020 commercial, which détourned its own most famous slogan in the most literal way possible to read, For once, Don’t Do It—the it, of course, refers to acts of racism, rather than sweatshop brutality.
More than Just Virtue Signalling
Many commentators have lumped all such examples into the general category of woke advertising, woke washing or the virtue-signalling bandwagon. But while this may explain part of the companies’ motivation, it does not explain the very specific method of self-deprecation these companies are using.
Yes, it may pay to be seen as politically correct in the court of media opinion, but it has done for years—before the social justice left even existed. The bandwagon supposition does nothing to explain why companies would wish to lampoon themselves so devastatingly—let alone alienate and confuse most of their customer base.
Gillette’s commercial—which, like Nike’s, despoiled its own household slogan to read The Best Men Can Be—is one of the most disliked videos on YouTube. This is what makes the explanation offered by the Society of the Spectacle theory so difficult to ignore.
A Flourishing of the Spectacle
Obscure lingerie purveyor, Blush managed to encapsulate every facet of the phenomenon in a single campaign.
It began with their “Berlin Pride” billboards, which employed not a female to model their silk negligee and suspenders, but a hirsute ostensible male, beneath the slogan: FOR EVERY WOMAN. WE MEAN EVERY. The image naturally provoked a great deal of criticism and satire on Twitter, where many commented on the absurdity of the claim and its social implications.
One unknown aspect of this campaign, however, was that five days after the posters went up, one of them was détourned by being completely painted over in white. The company responded by painting a graffitied message of defiance over the top of this layer, in perhaps one of the most direct examples of recuperated détournement yet.
But the most telling aspect of all this is that the campaign itself took place in 2017. It was only in line with a flourishing of the Spectacle a whole three years later—in response to increased tension around political correctness and trans rights—that it was resurrected for broad circulation, to allow even more outraged eyes to gaze at it.
Given Blush’s reaction, the only act of détournement left is to simply daub such brands so completely that they cannot even be painted over—to black them out.
Last month, billion-dollar international corporations like Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Dior, YSL and even McDonald’s performed that act upon themselves on social media, following a trend advocated by Black Lives Matter (BLM)—an openly anti-capitalist enterprise.
The beauty of social media, of course, is that everyone could have a go. Encouraged by the primary medium itself—Instagram—average people across the world proceeded to blot out their own existence with little black squares. True to the Spectacle, they chose instead to appear to hold an opinion rather than to have it informed: “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
Meanwhile, corporations are free to reap the publicity granted by the controversy caused among the right, while gratifying the left through these token acts of self-redaction or by flooding their own social media with #BlackLivesMatter.
Notably, this means that they must therefore be untroubled at being algorithmically linked to the spectacle of riots, shootings and assaults and associated with the slogan even when it is scrawled on the sides of looted stores and burning fast food restaurants— as is the slogan Eat the Rich, which, if carried out, would present quite a problem for Gucci’s sales figures. But then, as we have seen many times since 1968, increases in radical action have only ever further sustained the Spectacle—and that is what counts.
Where Does This Leave Us?
The Internet has a saying: get woke, go broke. But, as some organisations begin the sticky task of disassociating themselves from BLM, others, like Starbucks and Amazon, persist in their masochism. Because now their only other choice is sadism, also imposed by the Spectacle, which rumbles on automatically: self-sustaining and self-stratifying.
Possibly the most tragic aspect of this is that so many on the left will be convinced these companies are on their side, using their platforms to speak up for the downtrodden, when, in fact, they are being cynically manipulated by organisations that are themselves subject to the whims of the Spectacle.
One might have thought that the inheritors of the Situationist International would have at least been wise to the monster they seem so desperate to feed with their own cause. But, unfortunately, one defining characteristic of today’s radical left is its pervasive ignorance, preferring as it does to make careers out of charlatanism and nihilism, and thus to be hoisted by its own Debord. We can expect to see more paradoxical and hypocritical messaging, and a great deal more absurd supplication to the mob, until the Spectacle gobbles that up, too.
At this point, there is perhaps little else to do than propose a subversion of the rampant inconsistencies on both sides—or, to put it in the rather opaque manner of the late Frenchman himself: a détournement of recuperated détournement. Given their predominance in this exercise, Nike’s recent foray might be a fitting target: believe in nothing, and you will sacrifice everything.