Celebrity Culture, Propaganda and Capitalism

Propaganda Edward Bernays

The triumph of capitalist chimeras based on false propaganda and its criminal follies at the millennium, raises several questions on the rise of celebrity culture of fame and fortune. The celebrity cultures use popular culture and establish its grip over public imagination on different issues in the society, politics, economy, culture and religion. The celebrity culture shapes people’s ideas, interests, everyday needs and desires by the means of mass adulation, identification and emulation of well-known faces; the celebrities.   These three qualities are central to the idea of propaganda in which celebrities and celebrity cultures play vital roles. Edward Bernays (the nephew of Sigmund Freud) has written a book called “Propaganda (1928)”, which laid the foundation of 21st century advertisement and marketing industries. The celebrity cultures serve the purposes of the ruling and non-ruling elites. Both American politicians and corporations used the ideals of propaganda for their ascendancy in the form of public relations exercise with the help of celebrities.  The politicians use propaganda to win elections and corporations use it for profit maximisation. The mysterious abilities of the invisible weapon called propaganda has played a major role in shaping public desires and opinions, which derives its historical and philosophical lineages from European colonialism. ‘Colonialism as a civilising mission’ and ‘Sun never sets in British empire’ are some of the classic examples of false propaganda in the making of colonial and imperialist Europe. The Nazis and fascists were adherent admirers of propaganda as a weapon to manipulate and control the masses. The organised manipulation of mind is the core of celebrity culture, which diverts people’s attention from everyday hardships and other ugly realities of life. These genealogies continue to inspire the 21st century capitalist propaganda led by celebrities across the globe.

The American corporations like; the American Tobacco Company, Procter & Gamble, General Electric and many other media outlets have used propaganda as a tool with the help of celebrities to expand their businesses. The American Tobacco Company has used the ideals of Edward Bernays to overcome cultural barrier to smoking by combining smoking with female empowerment, freedom and personal choice. The female celebrities led by Bertha Hunt have flaunted their ‘smoking touches of freedom” in the form a protest by smoking during 1929 Easter Parade. The New York Times captioned it as ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of “Freedom”’. This so-called emancipatory logic has led to huge growth of female smokers and smokers among college and university going students. The tobacco market and its profit increased significantly. The Procter & Gamble has used Edward Bernays to organise soap yacht race in the Central Park and National Soap Sculpture Competition to expand its shop business as cleaning up act. Similarly, the Beech-Nut Packing Company’s unhealthy food was branded as ‘Hearty Breakfast’ in the name of freedom of choice within the culture of consumption. The celebrities and celebrity cultures have played a major role in these master spin acts of corporate capitalism and transformation of American society.

The history of celebrity cultures and from Bronze age, silver screen to social media keep redefining boundaries of popular culture, that is concomitant with the requirements of the ruling and non-ruling capitalist classes. The modern celebrity cultures are represented by performative language in which consumers adore the celebrities, fantasises their life styles and trust in the products they advertise.  There are few celebrities who lend their voice for peace and prosperity for all. There are very few celebrities in cinema and sports, who stand with the struggles of marginalised communities and fight against all forms of injustices and exploitations. However, celebrity culture is an integral part of capitalism, which glorifies individualism over collective values. The idea of utility, pleasure and satisfaction is central to the celebrity culture that is synchronous with commercial interests of corporates. The celebrities celebrate meritocracy, which is primarily the benefits of being within a network of power and wealth. There is nothing new in the bemoaning of celebrity culture. Thomas Busby questions celebrities as pretty women with nice dresses in his book The Age of Genius (1786). It has highlighted the hollowness of celebrity culture, which continues to resonate with the exhibitionism of modern celebrity culture. In 2020, Busby would have written on celebrities as people with beauty without a brain and heart.

There are two forms of celebritisation in history. From 18th century to 19th century, celebrities were known for their sacrifices and contributions to society, science, literature, politics, history economy and philosophy. The celebrities came from all walks of life and people continue to idealise and celebrate their lives till today. These celebrities have helped the processes of progressive social transformation with their ideas and actions. The 20th and 21st century celebritisation is an art of constructing an individual as an object of desire for mass consumption with the help of propaganda. Such celebrity cultures are detrimental to celebrities themselves. It commodifies the creativity of celebrities and their other abilities. From sports to cinema and in many other fields of life, celebrities are treated like commodities based on their popularity. Their popularity defines their value in the market. These celebrities are primarily from the world of cinema, TV entertainment industry and sports. There is no more glamour attached to the works and contributions of scientists, historians, philosophers and poets. The mass media and their propaganda play a major role in the making of these celebrities in terms of praise, validation and reproduction of consumable celebrity identity with social, cultural, political and economic currency. Their names are associated with brands and values. The commercialisation and commoditisation of celebrities betray their followers as everyone finds out quickly that the fair is not lovely for the skin. The hollowness of celebrity industry alienates celebrities from their own work and separates them from their fellow beings. The alienated celebrity culture forces celebrities to live a parasocial and lonely life. The glamour world of celebrity culture is alienating experience for all and results in mental illness and suicides. And alienation is an integral part of capitalism, which is suicidal.

The capitalist celebrity culture is an organised plunder of creativity in the name of hero or heroine worship. The available alternatives are in the processes of democratisation of fame and fortunes, celebration and socialisation of all kinds of creativities, moving away from marketisation and objectification of arts and artists, humanising celebrity status. Such transformations can ensure sustainable future for creative industries to survive all onslaughts of capitalism and its celebrity culture of consumerism. History is the witness to the greater glamour in the works of greater common good in the society than the narrow celebration of unabashed individualism. The aesthetic of fashionable ‘self’ only survives with others and not in isolation. The ordinariness of creativity does not domesticate but inspire the masses to celebrate and emulate creative culture. It is only possible if celebrities can write their own narratives and transform themselves from intimate strangers to socially concerned and politically committed citizens by ending their self-isolation and breaking their tinsel ghettoes. The power of creative performance survives in mass interactions and consumed in a patriarchal class, caste and racial hierarchy.

Bhabani Shankar Nayak, Coventry University, UK




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