SOLOMON: When All the World's a Stage -- For Cashing In
By now, the lines between media, politics, entertainment and commercialism have just about disappeared.This month, Bob Dole spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The former Republican presidential candidate reportedly got $40,000 for making the speech. That explains why he bothered. But why did the group invite him in the first place?The answer is that Dole has the qualifications to address a convention of hucksters. Since leaving the Senate and the campaign trail, he has entered into a somewhat new line of work -- doing commercials. His starring roles in TV spots have included pitches for such products as Dunkin' Donuts and the Visa Check Card.Some embarrassing questions ought to arise: Are those endorsements on a par with the verities that Dole spent decades proclaiming? Is he equally fervent about conservative ideology and the virtues of a glazed donut? Is he now -- or has he always been -- for sale?Eager commercialism is hardly confined to the right side of the political spectrum. A couple of days before Dole's lucrative speech to assembled adsters, the famously progressive Ben and Jerry's company launched a new flavor of ice cream, "Dilbert's World."The firm's press release was suitably euphoric. Jeanette Smith, identified as "Dilbert property manager" for United Media, set the tone: "United Media is thrilled about our partnership with Ben & Jerry's and welcome (sic) them to Dilbert's roster of more than 100 licensees."One of those licensees is the world's largest retailer of office supplies. Animated Dilbert commercials for Office Depot are airing on network television. These days, "Shillbert" would be more like it.Ben and Jerry's is paying a fee for the right to call its butter almond ice cream "Dilbert's World: Totally Nuts." How much? "We're not able to disclose any details of the licensing agreement," the Ben and Jerry's PR department told me.As it happens, Dilbert creator Scott Adams is a strong supporter of downsizing, a position he has voiced with increasing vehemence in the past year. After an interview last fall, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported: "The fact that corporate downsizing is good for the economy is indisputable, Adams said, adding that anybody with an I.Q. of more than 80 would agree."With enough marketing momentum, it's apparently possible to work both sides of the street for a long time. So, Dilbert the icon of downtrodden office employees is also beloved in the highest echelons of management. As Business Week has reported, Dilbert is a "cult hero to millions of American workers" at the same time that "CEOs hang him on the wall.""What's next?" asks cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. "Zany Dilbert termination notices, so downsized employees can enjoy a heartfelt chuckle over the hopelessness of their plight as they're being shown the door?"Perhaps a Ben and Jerry's flavor will be named after Ronald McDonald, with the rationale that Mr. McDonald is a symbol of the counterculture.Irreverence that defers to big money is welcome in the mass media. For instance, Jerry Seinfeld appears in American Express commercials that he co-produces with the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide ad agency.Seinfeld is not reluctant. On the contrary. "He truly loves advertising," Vanity Fair magazine reports in its May issue."Loves" advertising?"When any creativity becomes useful, it is sucked into the vortex of commercialism," said playwright Arthur Miller, "and when a thing becomes commercial, it becomes the enemy of man." And woman. And child.It's not surprising that TV ads can be clever, entertaining and smoothly produced, given the huge number of dollars dumped into them. But rampant affection for this genre of media is an index of how degraded our society has become.Underneath all the enthusiasm for the commercializing process is the notion that just about everyone and everything is for sale -- or should be. That our "net worth" is what we own rather than who we are.It's a short hop from there to nihilism. If we believe that it's appropriate to put a price tag anywhere, then we must not believe in very much of real value.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."