What If Propaganda Were Cool?

A recent article in The New Republic about the motivational art by Hugh Macleod commissioned for tech start-ups demonstrates an almost-antidote to its more buttoned-down corporate counterparts that are so often and easily parodied. Macleod’s back-of-the-business-card doodles can be a bracing anti-boardroom aesthetic, like this one done for Microsoft.

But it’s hard not to look at Macleod’s drawings and sloganeering and wonder whether, the bold snark aside, his work is much different in outcome from the bland aphoristics he so effortlessly departs from. Indeed, there’s a kind of bullying to some of these, a hipper-than-thou aspect to the work ethic that makes the demand on workers in a startup environment all the more invidious.

I bring this up because of my familiarity with propaganda, particularly when it comes to motivating the labor force. In the absence of rational market motivators (that is, salaries and other negotiable, fungible or tangible aspects, especially in Communist states), the employer must rely on other factors.   

In North Korea, for example, citizens work five days a week and “volunteer” most of the other two days. Officially closed to the outside, the country is awash in motivational slogans common to autarkic economies, where the only means to drive the labor force are mass organization, the threat of punishment, and hortatory sloganeering (“Carrying on despite the hardships!”).Here is an example of a North Korean propaganda display as recreated by the French-Canadian artist Guy Delisle, who worked in the country during the mid part of the last decade. You can find it in his book Pyongyang.  It reads “Forging Ahead into the 21st Century!”:

To demonstrate my concern about Macleod’s illustrations, I’ve taken one of his drawings and slogans commissioned for the Texas-based cloud computing firm Rackspace and repurposed it. Originally this simply reads “Fanatical Support!” in English (probably for Rackspace’s tech support unit, an otherwise laudable trait to encourage, I admit). I ran the words through Google Translator into Korean and placed them in the same place next to the original drawing (my apologies to Korean readers for any inelegancies in the translation or layout). I think this demonstrates the peculiarity of the doodle:

Seen through this prism, Macleod’s drawings and slogans begin to take on a more sinister light.

Here again I have taken only minor liberties with another one of Macleod’s commissioned posters. Originally done for HP’s cybersecurity division, I cut away the reference to HP and repurposed it for a fictional Thought Police division in a modern Oceania from George Orwell’s 1984, complete with universal resource locator (don’t try to click on it, it won’t work). The drawing and the rest of the text are original:

I’ll link here some additional Macleod posters that follow in this disturbing vein. But now, all images and text are original, no changes have been made. Imagine this one with a Thought Police shield emblazoned on it:

Or this one from the Ministry of Plenty:

I found this last poster particularly disturbing. I could only recall the slogan greeting inmates at the Vorkuta labor camp in Siberia, which reads, “Labor in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, pride and heroism.” Nothing about a salary or a decent standard of living. (Of course, it was the gulag.) Macleod is trying to suggest that the reader is working towards some higher purpose, which is often the case in a start-up culture. But so was the entire socialist experiment. Nonetheless, Macleod’s line could easily have been put in the mouth of some bluntly honest zek 70 years ago. So could this, maybe:

What makes motivation posters in the standard vein so annoying is their unironic tone. For a lot of people, work is a chore, and only the paycheck makes up for it. That is, when you think about it, the genius of the market system. When you think about that a little deeper, asking anything more from people less than freely given is exploitative. The Soviets finally understood this when, after about a generation of exploiting their workers for the greater glory of Socialism, the workers realized a better life was not waiting for them and the entire economy more or less came to a halt. (“They pretend to pay us,” a common joke went at the time, “and we pretend to work.”)

In the end there really isn’t much difference between the various forms of motivational art, whether they’re for blunt propaganda purposes or the hipper profit motive. Unless, of course, they’re tied to something real, tangible, and achievable. (Lexus’ internal motto was “Beat Benz,” and they very nearly did.) Since that real thing is in the future, it’s not always clear whether you’re being hoodwinked or properly led.  It’s up to your judgment to determine whether forgoing something real in the here and now – like a paycheck – is worth the effort for a something greater at a later time – like fantastically lucrative stock options. At some basic level, that’s the nature of risk. But it’s an unnerving prospect nonetheless. Not all start-ups become Facebook. Many become Pets.com.

But my larger point here is about the uneasy relationship between politics and art. Motivation art, like propaganda, demands something from its viewers. It’s easy to forget that for a few decades, at least, socialism and its associated arts were considered the vanguard – purposefully forging new men and new societies – by both those in the Communist bloc and left-leaning intellectuals in the West.  Today we can smirk at the crude propaganda of North KoreaCuba or Iran. But what if they weren’t so crude? What if their propaganda were as winky and fun as a Super Bowl advertisement? Would we be able to tell the difference?


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