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Battle of Symbols

The American Recuperation of Symbols

From its beginning, American history has been closely related to symbolism. There is the membership of a number of the nation’s founders in that symbolic, ancient, international order known as the Rosicrucians. There is also the symbolism of the Great Seal of the United States, a mysterious “All-Seeing Eye” surrounded by rays of light hovering over the pyramid on dollar bills.

But more than the Rosicrucians and the Great Seal, there is the unique experiment of America itself at the intersection of its two paradoxical founding symbols of freedom and equality. Both of these symbols hold truth for Americans yet neither holds all the truth all the time. Their cyclic back and forth swings are tied to national collective consciousness and engendered in a checks and balances system of government as well as the two-party political system of Republicans (symbol of freedom) and Democrats (symbol of equality).

Over the years, these early political symbols were recruited to create the American consumer economy and its attendant mass market. The original paradox evolved from the areas of politics to economics. American consumers were free to buy products which were increasingly equal. It followed that they had to be made more equal so they could freely buy the increasingly equal products of mass production.

American symbols found application in the techniques of persuasion. As Vance Packard observed in his famous book of the late 50s The Hidden Persuaders, it was a subliminal, hidden persuasion rather than a loud, obnoxious bunch of sales pitches. These American symbols were a friendly group. Consumers felt they knew them and had no hesitation in inviting them into their homes. The dancing Speedy seltzer tablet. The kindly and wise looking Quaker on round cereal boxes. The smiling Green Giant standing proudly over the mythological valley.

These symbols persuaded America gently into the context of an emerging new system of consumer culture. It wasn’t really about the content of their messages, the package labels, the words the new icons used to speak to America. The medium of context was the real message. For example, one of the greatest American television programs of all time was a western of the late 50s and early 60s called Bonanza. Most would suspect that Bonanza was created to sell products of its advertisers. Yet the real purpose of Bonanza was to persuade Americans on the new medium of color television and make them buy color television sets.

Americans thought they were buying smiling brand icons and entertaining television programs but they were really being persuaded to buy the “color” context of capitalism itself. This early connection between capitalism and Madison Avenue is persuasively argued in books like Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream and Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness.

Through the rest of the 20th century, persuasion of American symbols became more hidden, more ubiquitous, more powerful. And more aligned with corporate interests. In his book One Market Under God cultural critic Thomas Frank observes that at no other moment in American history (as the present) have the values of American business and the corporation been more nakedly and arrogantly in the ascendant. It is another way of saying at no other moment in American history have American symbols been recruited in the service of selling business, corporations and their brands. In the service, one might say, of brand warfare.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim