The Schmios Go to War

The latest installment of New York's annual spoof of the ad industry's Clio Awards highlights the convergence of corporate and military propaganda.
At this year’s 6th-annual Schmio Awards, the ceremony lampooning the advertising industry’s own Clio Awards, marketing propaganda took a back seat to what’s currently driving the American media machine -- war propaganda. Postponed last year in the wake of 9/11, this year’s ceremony was organized around the theme “Disarming the Axis of Advertising.”

“Understand this is a free speech zone!” shouted the evening’s “Secretary of Homeland Insecurity,” professor and media critic Mark Crispin Miller. “We’re back!”

The show opened with a clip of a beer advertisement portraying an angry man silently drinking as he stifles his thoughts towards his female dinner companions. The man is clearly on edge, but the voice over -- representing Phillip Morris -- advises him to keep drinking and just take it.

“What’s significant about this ad is its stark world view of us versus them,” said Miller, noting how advertisers often split the world into disparate categories: men/women, hip/unhip, consumers/those who don’t buy. “This suggests there is no voice worth listening to other than the ad itself.”

Cut to a Chevrolet ad that shows a city bus with “Creeps and Weirdos” in its destination window, and the tagline, “Luckily, there’s an affordable alternative.” Here, people are dichotomized into creeps or drivers -- appropriate, Miller says, considering America’s thirst for oil. “Take this kind of propaganda to the international realm and you’ve got President Bush saying ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”

The first Schmio, The Making War Seem Really Cool Award, was presented by Charles Sheehan Miles, a decorated Gulf War veteran who has been outspoken about Gulf War syndrome. Nominees included Fox News for war reporting akin to reality TV programming: In fuzzy news footage shot from a plane, a white figure runs along a military target in Afghanistan -- really, a dusty, dirt road. As the fleeing figure is shot down, the reporter quips, “And then, they nail him!”

The award, however, went to the U.S. Marine Corps, for an action-packed advertising campaign depicting rugged Marines rock climbing through the Grand Canyon. “There it is,” Miles said chirpily. “Isn’t war cool?!”

The Schmios, sponsored by New York University’s Department of Culture and Communication, continued its tradition of jocular send-ups of crass commercialism with a skit by Bobby Tisdale, Chelsea Peretti and Jonah Peretti, better known as the white folks behind the spoof website To show the pernicious effects of advertising, the trio asked a volunteer to come up on stage and “take the corporate challenge.”

“Who has the nuts to say it, ‘I eat at McDonalds’?” Tisdale asked, waving a fork pronged with chicken McNuggets at the audience. Once a volunteer was onstage, Chelsea taped McNuggets to his eyes, shoved a greasy handful of nuggets in his mouth, and read an excerpt from “Fast Food Nation.” The idea, perhaps: how can you speak out when you’re literally stuffed?

Next came Herbert Schiller Award for a Lifetime of Ongoing Activism was given to Deedee Halleck, filmmaker, scholar and author at the forefront of media democracy activism.

Last, but certainly not least, investigative journalist Greg Palast presented the Shock and Awe Award for the Selling of Democracy.

"Our nominee needs no introduction,” chuckled Palast, author of the bestseller “The Best Democracy Money can Buy,” with a shot of President Bush behind him. Palast showed a tape of what he coined “Operation Mickey Mouse Freedom,” an ad campaign that cut excerpts of Bush’s post-9/11 speech to “go out and shop” with shots from Disney World and United Airlines. “All actors are surviving members of United layoffs,” he joked. Palast also showed the ubiquitous post-9/11 store window poster meant to encourage Americans to buy, buy, buy: a shopping bag designed as the American flag, topped by the words “America: Open for Business.”

“To a man who doesn’t see the separation of corporation and state, to a man so often misunderestimated,” Palast said to audience laughter, “To G.W. -- Great White.”

As an invasion of Iraq is being fought under the name “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” this year’s Schmios took a long hard look at what freedom -- especially in terms of the free range of expression -- means in America at a time when Dixie Chicks CDs are being run over by tractors in front of cheering mobs and journalists and professors are being suspended from the workplace for speaking out against the war.

“CNN has dubbed this war -- it’s a brand, it’s a logo and a sales tag. What isn’t a commercial anymore?” Palast asked. Schmios’ host Miller chimed in with a similar response: “If the commercial media is the message, the message is: submit. Just like Islam.”

While the Schmios took a critical punch at war propaganda, the question that remains unanswered is who will liberate the American people as 9/11 continues to serve as an excuse to sidestep their rights?
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