“Bottled and packaged products were sold mainly according to static imagery and rhetorical claims. With the advancing sophistication of the cinematic age, however, we gradually developed a taste for kinesthesia, ending the false dignity of stasis. The famous Heinz commercial, featuring ketchup slowly trickling downward onto a nude meat patty, was our watershed moment, our epiphany.”
Persons of the Drama
Supermarket Propaganda Chief
Andrew Grossman, a prisoner of culture
Assistant to the Chief
Mr. Plentyspill, a consumerist
Mr. Plentyspill’s Brood, a group of small children
Checkout Cashier, a stooge of late capitalism
A Crowd of Customers
(A middle-range supermarket in a suburban town. The store, “Food Spree,” is modern and antiseptic, with a large open area in the center, unlike supermarkets arranged only according to narrow aisles. Around the perimeter of the open area, brightly advertised stands, kiosks, and elevated arrays hawk foodstuffs; only at the edges of this central area do we see the beginnings of aisles, leading off into the distance. Andrew Grossman enters through the sliding glass doors, slightly discombobulated and whispering aloud a long, disorganized shopping list. To the side of the entrance, the Propaganda Chief, dressed in a three-piece suit, oversees the market from a raised platform; he is flanked by his Assistant, dressed in a greengrocer’s smock)
Andrew Grossman: (reading his shopping list) One loaf deglutinized four-grain bread, three-liter bottle Deluxe Reduced Fruit Boysenberry Soda, 128-ounce jug mayonnaise, clam-filled Mandarin olives, tinned salmon alternative, sausage-stuffed limited sodium Hickory Krumpets, Simulated Guava Exotic Beverage, All-Beef Dogs in a Basket . . .
Supermarket Propaganda Chief: (coming down from his modest panopticon) Sir, may I be of assistance?
AG: No, no . . . I know where I’m going.
Chief: Not to contradict you — the customer’s always right, certainly — but you might benefit from expert guidance. I overhead you looking for Mennonite Simulated Guava Exotic Beverage . . .
AG: Yes, it’s repulsive, but oddly palatable.
Chief: That particular item was discontinued in 2001, and shortly after, the Mennonite brand folded. You might wish to become more up-to-date, sir.
AG: I’m very up-to-date. I read things. I was educated in school. I examine the world and the totality of its ever-expanding mysteries. I investigate things, too.
Chief: Not to contradict you again, sir, but if you were truly up-to-date, you might have heard that the principal agent in the Mennonite simulated guava flavoring method was tainted with trace pathogens. People developed cataracts.
AG: Blind with joy, I’m sure.
Chief: You’re too cynical, sir. But one might say they had it coming. They knew the risks, as do we all when purchasing goods from a clean shelf. That’s why we all must be educated consumers, as you know.
AG: Do you still carry Food Spree Deluxe Reduced Fruit Boysenberry Soda?
Chief: In Aisle 34. But might I interest you instead —
AG: No, absolutely not.
Chief: But I haven’t even —
AG: (defiantly) It doesn’t matter. My desires and prejudices are firmly established according to decades of real-world experience.
Chief: You should be careful, lest your prejudices become judgments.
AG: I prejudge or judge as I like. I require no outside influences. Indeed, I am fully autonomous! I have eight items on my list, and I will depart with my eight items.
Chief: Eight, minus the discontinued Guava Exotic Beverage.
AG: Seven, then. I am firm at seven.
Chief: And we no longer carry Food Spree All-Beef Dogs in a Basket.
AG: Six, then. But I won’t go lower than six. And you shouldn’t eavesdrop when I read my list.
Chief: That’s my job, sir, to be informed and capable. (Now moving closer) Do you know why we no longer carry All-Beef Dogs in a Basket?
AG: I don’t care.
Chief: We’re discontinuing them in favor of a new, far more exciting product: Beef and Goat Wieners in Magic Ersatz Pastry.
AG: I’m skeptical.
Chief: I know, sir, absolutely. Were I in your peripatetic, indistinct shoes, I too would raise my nose — and, indeed, other bodily parts — at the prospect of outrageous change, especially when it comes to matters as intimate as the cultivation of taste. But in truth, you need to be more flexible. The world is plastic, and made of plastic. Would you like to try one? (He hands AG a Magic Ersatz Pastry from a nearby tray)
AG: It looks like a Dog from the Basket.
Chief: (holding forth a glowing pastry, radiating heavenly light) It’s far better than you imagine. And indeed, the flavor resides not simply within the ersatz pastry’s delicate, luxurious folds, but within the darkest recesses of your own imagination, which, perhaps unbeknownst to you, longs to realize heretofore unfelt landscapes of flavor. You must become psychologically receptive to these new prismatic flavorscapes — that’s what we call them — and these flavors, in turn, will become receptive to you. Let your mind go and accept the flavorscape.
AG: It’s glowing. It has a radiant nimbus.
Chief: Exactly. The pastry knows you want it and glows even stronger. Just as you desire it, it longs for you.
(The ersatz pastry seems to pulsate, though it might be an illusion)
AG: (tasting it) It’s okay. The flavor of goat is elusive.
Chief: (elated) Success! Eureka! Another satisfied customer!
AG: I suppose my innards could process a few of them with eventual success.
Chief: I congratulate you, sir, on your open-mindedness. And you see, you came to it through only a small bit of soul-searching, a slight overcoming of your fear of novelty. You are adaptable, sir, and fit for a variety of social roles.
AG: I didn’t realize you were an introspector.
Chief: As Chief of Propaganda, it is my sworn duty to be an introspector, not merely an inspector. One day, we will all become introspectors.
AG: (swallowing pastry) Won’t you be out of a job?
Chief: (laughing) Oh no, not at all . . . only a select few can become expert introspectors. The rest will remain happy amateurs. (Now making grand, dramatic gesticulations) The spirit of capitalism rises naturally in man, as naturally as breathing; yet this spirit is not passive, and grows only from intense periods of self-examination.
AG: That seems difficult to prove.
Chief: If you’ll excuse me . . .
(Chief ascends to his platform, joining his Assistant)
Chief: It’s time. Finally, we’re prepared for the next move. A new era! My every nerve tingles. No longer will advertising rely on puerile humor and gimmicky attempts to flatter the audience. We will bring a quick end to the age of alienation.
Assistant: (confused) I know you’ve explained this to me many times, but I still don’t get it.
Chief: The first step was architectural. We burrowed out the market from within, pushing the alienating aisles to the margins and constructing our trailblazing Middle Pathway, an airy central space in which consumers can freely mix and mill. We patterned it after the plazas of Moscow.
Assistant: Yes, that part I know. It was necessary to open their minds.
Chief: The next step is both aesthetic and geographic. Study after study shows customers aged 34-59 have grown increasingly suspicious and resentful of broadcast commercial advertisements. Food Spree’s own Suburban Resentment Index is up 0.034% over the past three months alone — the change is imperceptible to most, but to us, who study such things closely, it’s a shocking sign.
Assistant: I sympathize with consumers. People don’t want the television yelling at them when they’re ironing, trying to nap, or necking on the sofa.
Chief: Exactly — the problem is intrusiveness, a geographic distance between the home environment and the product itself. That is why we are transferring the venue of video advertisement to the store itself. Our studies show that when the visual advertisement is placed directly adjacent to the advertised object, the Resentment Index falls by 59.8% for those aged 34-59 and nearly 35.4% for those 18-34. The overriding sense of intrusion is removed, consumer desire is directly excited, and advertising finds its proper home, nestled lovingly against its signified product. Do you understand?
Assistant: (blinking rapidly) Yes . . . it’s actually quite obvious. In fact, the way it’s been done up to now makes no sense. The commercials should be inside the store, not outside it.
Chief: Previously, scientists believed the accumulation of memory was the key to advertising. Only after home viewers were bombarded with ads could their minds become susceptible to suggestion, creating spatiotemporally delayed “memory-effects” when entering the marketplace. But our research has exploded the myth of memory — people desire a product not because they remember it from an alienated visual experience, but because the product’s possible existence looms in the present moment. Of course, our ideology of unity has applications beyond the supermarket — we’re working with restaurants to project video and film displays of food preparations within the active dining space.
Assistant: So people can see how it’s done . . . so there are no secrets to how it’s made?
Chief: Exactly — that is the most successful propaganda. The appearance of openness.
(A pause; the Chief raises his arms triumphantly)
Chief: Now we begin!
(As he pushes buttons on a control panel, pedestals mechanically arise from the central area’s floor. In the middle of each pedestal is a video monitor playing a loop of a food-related advertisement; atop the pedestals are cardboard boxes containing the advertised product. The foods advertised in the videos are generally mass-manufactured or frozen goods, all shown falling in glorious slow motion onto awaiting plates. The commercials’ soundtracks feature not voiceovers but only heavenly music.)
Assistant: I like the music.
Chief: It’s Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We tried The Four Seasons, but test subjects — especially those who enjoy passive lifestyles — found it too distracting.
Assistant: Look! The videos seem to be working! That heavyset man is waddling over to the Beef and Goat Wieners in Magic Ersatz Pastry.
Chief: The revolution will be televised.
(More and more consumers excitedly gather in the central area, half-mesmerized by the Victoria-scored videos of tumbling food)
Chief: (surveying the advertising videos from his panopticon) Do you see it? Do you see? (becoming ecstatic) Wishbone Moderate Sodium Ranch drenches helpless leaves of romaine! Tropicana flows with unsung grace into the breakfast glasses of privileged children! Lite beer, poured from invisible pitchers, mimics its future urological trajectory! Food Spree Treble-Breaded All-Pike Fish Tidbits alight onto a seeded, lightly lubricated bun! Fried clam strips bounce, tomato slices spin deliriously, gravies of all colors and creeds overgenerously stream — all in montages of glorious, well-studied slow motion!
Mr. Plentyspill: (he approaches the video monitors from the periphery, hypnotized by images of once-frozen fish nuggets falling cooked onto a plate) Mmmm . . . look at that. Them fishy bits ‘n’ pieces look real tasty.
Mr. Plentyspill’s Spawn: Look, daddy, the nuggets are falling!
Mr. Plentyspill: I see ‘em alright. Yeah, that’s what them nuggets do for some reason. Spinnin’ all ’round. Makes ‘em look real tasty.
Andrew Grossman: (returning, addressing Plentyspill) And why exactly is that? Do stationary nuggets repel?
Mr. Plentyspill: Hell, I ain’t sure. But just look at ‘em falling down . . . specially when they fall and splash ’round in those red ‘n’ white dippin’ sauces. Makes my stomach get all antsy.
Various Customers: (they gradually move toward the monitors) Hey! Look! Wow! Etc.
(Many customers move somnambulistically toward the frozen food aisles to retrieve boxes of frozen fish pieces and other advertised foodstuffs)
Chief: (descending from his platform, noting AG is unmoved) Sir, wouldn’t you be interested in a box of our Treble-Breaded All-Pike Fish Tidbits?
AG: No, no, no . . . I now have my six items, and I’m ready to depart.
Chief: A jumbo carton of Beef and Goat Wieners in Magic Ersatz Pastry, perhaps? You already know how delectable they are. We all must acquiesce to our appetites.
Chief: Take another look over here . . . (pointing to a video monitor) See how the wieners spin and frolic before finding their lucky way into an awaiting ramekin of Food Spree Xanthic Mustard!
AG: I don’t quite understand all this falling business.
Mr. Plentyspill: Makes ‘em look real fuckin’ yummy. If them nuggets was just standin’ still, it wouldn’t be so good. But food gots to move, first through the air, then through my guts.
Mr. Plentyspill’s Spawn: Yeah, you tell ‘em, dad!
Chief: Yes, indeed, good sir, you are onto something there. In older advertisements — you can do research if you like — food products were generally shown in their penultimate stages of preparation and then displayed in stationary poses, according to the aesthetics of the still life. Bottled and packaged products were sold mainly according to static imagery and rhetorical claims. With the advancing sophistication of the cinematic age, however, we gradually developed a taste for kinesthesia, ending the false dignity of stasis. The famous Heinz commercial, featuring ketchup slowly trickling downward onto a nude meat patty, was our watershed moment, our epiphany. Last year, I erected an oversize Heinz bottle above my bed. My wife objected, but I insisted on paying homage to the master.
AG: (ignoring most of the CHIEF’s speech) All this falling seems to present some sort of allegory. Is a falling into the frame a falling into grace? Perhaps you propagandists are theosophists.
Mr. Plentyspill: It’s like them nuggets are fallin’ right into my guts. That’s where they belong, I tell ya’.
AG: I believe you. Yet the food speedily gobbled according to your lifestyle of instant consumption also becomes, as if by the justice of Chronos, soon clogged within the rims of your intestinal tract. One imagines — particularly with all that a capella music — that your poor esophagus, bowels, and rectum require some heavenly assistance to eject such etiologically ambiguous foods.
Chief: That’s much too vulgar an interpretation. I assure you, Food Spree All-Pike Fish Tidbits are, as the name declares, all pike and, as such, of certain etiology.
AG: Doubtless the pike is mechanically separated, rearranged, reconstituted, and then sluiced into slightly different shapes, to give the verisimilitude of slightly variegated nature.
Chief: Sir, we all know life is brutish, painful, and short. Nature has always been our enemy. Man’s genius is his ability to plasticize the world.
Mr. Plentyspill: Whad’ya mean, reconstituted?
Chief: I assure you, sir, animal reconstitution is perfectly acceptable, even an improvement in the field of scientific health. It builds upon the groundwork of Fletcherism, “the practice of chewing food until it is reduced to a finely divided, liquefied mass, as advocated by Horace Fletcher.” Everything should be thus divided and liquefied — in the name of health, I assure you.
AG: (more closely examining and pointing to the video displays of falling food) Why does only bad food drop from your undisclosed heaven? We never see seared bay scallops falling from a vacuum or lobes of foie gras tumbling from the ether. The reason can only be that we know where these things come from — namely, the open sea and the interiors of a bloated, tortured goose. But these mysterious nuggets require some religious explanation or Christian allegory, especially as their downward trajectories always terminate with dipping sauce baptismals.
Mr. Plentyspill: That splashin’ around’s the best part. It’s like a climax. Makes me good ‘n’ hard.
Chief: (to AG) You analyze too much, too strenuously, and far too bluntly, sir. Your prejudices are more than prejudices: they are judgments.
AG: (coldly) I have my six items. I need to leave.
(AG, Plentyspill, and other Customers, in that order, move to the checkout line)
AG: Ah, the checkout line. The final gauntlet.
Mr. Plentyspill’s Brood: (looking at the women featured on the covers of tabloid magazines) Look, daddy! Those women got a big rack!
Mr. Plentyspill: Sure do. Purty women on one side, candy’s on t’other.
AG: (surveying each side of the checkout aisle) That’s quite perceptive. On one side, prisoners of the checkout aisle are confronted by tabloid images of large-chested celebrities in poses of distress or fertility — apparently these people suffer only divorce or pregnancy, the common man’s equivalent of tragedy and comedy. On our other side, racks of candy bars taunt us with their fat, sugar, and wanton materialism. We are thus wretchedly flanked: to our lefts, impossible wish-fulfillment imageries of glamor and renown, impregnated by voyeurism and hardly tempered by schadenfreude; and to our rights, immediate and deadly wish-fulfillments in pocket-sized and rectangular form. We stand at a crossroads, between a choice not Manichean but suicidal, for each side heckles us with observe faces of a masochistic mandate, one side reflecting a selfhood —
Checkout Cashier: Jesus, man, will you shut the hell up and stick your items on the belt?
Mr. Plentyspill’s Spawn: Yeah, move it, come on!
Checkout Cashier: (sarcastically) I have to look at this crap all day. I don’t need to listen to you “philosophize.”
Mr. Plentyspill’s Spawn: Yeah, he has to look at that crap, so be quiet!
AG: (sheepishly) Yes, I’m sorry, I have my six items here . . .
(In the interim, the Chief has returned to his panopticon)
Chief: The second phase has gone well enough. The shoppers’ baskets are filled moderately with our Tidbits and Wieners.
Assistant: Yes, a success.
Chief: The average propagandist would consider today’s experiment a success. But I’m no mere statistician. I’ve gone a step further.
Assistant: What do you mean? Are you authorized to do that?
Chief: I need no authorization. And now I’ll tell you my secret. Do you see those panels in the ceiling?
Assistant: Yes, I’ve been wondering about those. They weren’t here yesterday.
Chief: (diabolically) Behind those panels are concealed thousands of Food Spree Treble-Breaded All-Pike Fish Tidbits and thousands of Beef and Goat Wieners in Magic Ersatz Pastry and all manner of Food Spree drumsticks, filled pork patties, and coated chicken discs. In a moment, I will press this button and release them from the sky!
Assistant: (astonished) But why?
Chief: Don’t you see? It is the final step. First, customers witnessed our advertising images of food falling like manna into their pliant, supplicant mouths. It made them feel grateful — they thought it looked delicious, but the falling image is one of subordination. Now I’ll rain down Tidbits on them for real, and they’ll believe it’s all come true, that we’ve conquered alienation, that the fantasy is real! This is what the Communists did when they deluged delusional children with candy — they became disillusioned with Santa Claus and saw reality for the first time.
Assistant: Um . . . which reality are you talking about?
Chief: (maniacally) This one, right here, composed of our Tidbits and Wieners and Sluiced Meaty Discs!
(He presses a button; in one or two seconds corporate foodstuffs rain upon customers’ heads, besplatter checkout stands, topple kiosks, etc. The Chief, still maniacal, seems pleased with his destruction)
ALL: What the hell is going on? Jesus! What is this? Etc.
Assistant: Did it work?
Chief: (slightly confused) I . . . I’m not sure. I can’t tell yet.
Mr. Plentyspill: Hey you! Mr. Manager, there! What the hell you doin’ up there with all them buttons? You the one causin’ all this storm o’ nuggets and what-nots?
Assistant: He’s coming over here! And that mob is following him . . .
Chief: Protect me!
Mr. Plentyspill: Hey you . . . I’m talkin’ to you. You the one done cover us in all this fishy bits ‘n’ dippin’ sauce?
Chief: (nervously) I assure you, sir, it’s all for your own edification. Once you realize there is only the slightest difference between the image you desire and the product you desire, you will discard the image and need only the product itself — and at that moment, the product can take on the qualities of the image without becoming corrupted! It’s for your own benefit . . . I only want you to see the truth.
Mr. Plentyspill: I don’t know what the hell you blabbin’ about. What makes you think I wanna be covered in all this shit? I’m gonna take one of these here nuggets and shove it —
Chief: (suddenly getting an idea) Wait, sir, just a moment . . . I understand you’re upset and perhaps my plan had one or two unforeseen kinks in it. But give me one more chance, just one more chance. Let’s all try it again — but this time, in slow motion.