If I had a top 10 movie list that could remain static for a few moments, I’d probably place John Carpenter’s alien invasion film They Live somewhere high up on it. They Live walks a fine line between strangely serious and hilariously campy. Take the line of dialogue where Roddy Piper is in a bank with a shotgun and, completely deadpan, shouts out: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
In his study of film and ideology: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek goes into great depth about the symbolism behind the film, calling it a “Forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood left.” We first encounter this symbolism when our main hero of the movie, John Nada, puts on a pair of sunglasses that he’s stolen from a box in a church (really a resistance movement’s headquarters). Wearing the sunglasses, he peers through a false reality and discovers that something sinister is going on around him. Zizek calls these: “Critique of ideology glasses.”
Placed over one’s eyes, the sunglasses reveal that not only is a certain portion of the population hideous aliens that look like regular people with their facial skin removed, but also messaging beneath everyday objects and billboards. The subliminal propaganda says things like: OBEY, BUY, and MARRY AND REPRODUCE. It’s a very on-the-nose way of pointing something obvious out: “Dictatorship in democracy,” as Zizek terms it—dictatorship being the unbreakable control of those who feed us advertisements and perpetuate a lifestyle of insatiable consumerism.
Before seeing Zizek’s analysis of the They Live, I had enjoyed the film for the very same critique of advertising. Advertising invades our everyday lives in seemingly innocuous ways. We’ve grown numb to it because the ads show up on our shirts, vehicles, buildings, televisions and the internet. Movies shown in the theatre now begin with 20 minutes of ads, and then they’re carefully peppered throughout the movies themselves.
Even some of our best, classic movies have fallen victim to this trend. Terminator 2 is brimming with Pepsi product placements, not to mention a few for Subway. Adam Sandler (whose work is not to be confused with the aforementioned best, classic movies) notoriously crams every movie he’s in with ads, almost wearing a Nascar-style driving suit of them. A huge chunk of funding for each of the Transformers movies comes from showing product ads on billboards as cities are destroyed—hell, the selection of transforming cars themselves are a form of advertising.
The beginnings of broadcasting really started it off. Old fashioned radio shows were often sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon, Chesterfield Cigarettes, or similar everyday products. Television brought more visibility to the brands. As highways bloomed across the American continent, large billboards grew to fence them in. And the modern information age has kicked it up another notch, filling our phones, computer screens, e-mail inboxes and social media networks with curated ads. We can’t seem to find a spot not suitable for an advertisement, and even celebrate them like a holiday treasure when they air during the Super Bowl halftime show.
In They Live, John Nada fights back against the aliens and their subliminal messaging in very violent ways. A revolution of that nature would surely be one answer in toppling overabundant advertising, but there are other choices. Look no further than when everyday Ukrainians tore down reminders of Soviet rule in an event 99 Percent Invisible called: The Falling of the Lenins.
Similarly, in 2006 São Paulo’s mayor passed a law forbidding all outdoor billboards and advertisements. For one of Brazil’s largest urban centres (the 7th largest city in the world) this was no small feat. But it allowed people to see the city without its faux decorations—to see the architecture, design, and condition of a city containing 11 million people. This also drove the city’s inhabitants to focus on improving the visual appeal of where they lived, rather than obscuring the less-than-pleasant aspects of poverty and disrepair with massive billboards.
Of a similar population size, can you imagine New York City without its advertisements? How about the ever-famous Times Square, or the building at the heart of it: One Times Square?
This key structure actually has some rather nice architectural details, though since its construction a few things have changed. During a long list of sales and resales, the granite and terracotta parts of its facade were replaced. Companies added tickers and removed them. Bulbs and billboards became large lit screens and, for a time, it even held a Sony Jumbotron. In 1995 the Lehman Brothers purchased the building and found that advertising on it made more money than renting it to tenants, so the building has since (aside from the first few floors) been left vacant.
This is the height of marketing prostitution—when a perfectly good, historically important building is stripped of its natural beauty, purged of an inherit purpose, and then re-dressed in gaudy corporate glamour. Such a thing is apparently fine when it’s just a building, though I would argue that these are still some of the world’s most important monuments. Can you imagine a similar thing happening with Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty? Why not put a McDonald’s burger in the Statue of Liberty’s elevated hand, letting the world know that cheap food is not far? It might be a more honest portrayal of American values than the current transcription at the base of Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” That golden door might as well be a shining McDonald’s arch.
I applaud São Paulo for having the courage to do away with advertisements, but I don’t think (due to entrenchment) it’s a possible route in many other cities or places—especially that place which we allow to inhabit and define our personal lives the most: The internet. John Nada might be horrified to pick up a smartphone while wearing his sunglasses, and realize that a large portion of every internet page was a blank negative space featuring simple, bold lettering and messages like on his billboards. Even articles and stories on news sites of repute, when examined for contributor, have been infiltrated by corporate advertising. I’m speaking of paid content that masquerades as broadcast news, which might inform you of something like the actual health benefits of drinking coffee. CNN, though currently in the good fight against the term “fake news” has even been drawn deep into this game.
The only answer might be turning all of that stuff off—a seclusion of sorts. You could always withdraw from the internet, television, and refrain from visiting high-traffic areas that attract advertisements. Heading out to natural spaces more often would be another solution. They haven’t yet managed to mount billboards on mountains and rivers. And even if you do have to see advertisements, see them for what they are. Someone has put a great deal of money into making you think a certain way—to infiltrate your unconscious mind like the aliens in They Live. Let’s recognize that dubious effort for what it is.
Image credits in order of appearance:
Jonathanrosenbaum, Rebrn, Pinterest.