My good friend Graeme, who has a predilection for great opening paragraphs, would love the start of Ballard's latest novel Kingdom Come:
"The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world."
Ballard posits a future-present in which consumerism feeds the cravings of the bored and latently racist suburbs, turning them into breeding grounds for a new type of fascism:
"Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people... For some particular reason, they call it shopping. But it's really the purest form of politics."
The protagonist is Richard Pearson, an unemployed advertising executive who, while investigating the fatal shooting of his father at the Metro-Centre mega-mall, takes the opportunity to test the subversively Dadaist advertising theories that cost him his career. Using psychopathology as a marketing tool, he creates bizarre, unpredictable communications devoid of any explicit message. Instead, they play directly to the irrational mind by manipulating emotions, fears and insecurities.
Consumerism becomes the only thing that gives life any meaning. Products become the new gods, the mall becomes the new temple.
(photo credit: Rolyatam, from flickr.com)
"The churches are empty, and the monarchy shipwrecked itself on its own vanity. Politics is a racket, and democracy is just another utility, like gas or electricity. Almost no one has any civic feeling. Consumerism is the one thing that gives us our sense of values. Consumerism is honest, and teaches us that everything good has a barcode."
His campaign is highly effective -sales go up and up but eventually the public's search for meaning and structure leads to disaster. As he ushers in the inevitable apocalypse, Ballard (who was once an advertising copywriter himself) muses on the parlous state of modern England and its readiness to be marketed to, its ability to swallow sugar-coated lies rather than the unpalatable truth:
"They knew they were being lied to, but if lies were consistent enough they defined themselves as a credible alternative to the truth. Emotion ruled almost everything, and lies were driven by emotions that were familiar and supportive, while the truth came with hard edges that cut and bruised. They preferred lies and mood music, they accepted the make-believe... Consumer capitalism had never thrived by believing the truth. Lies were preferred by the people of the shopping malls because they could be complicit with them."
Hmmm, brands as lies that everyone buys into -I kinda like it.
This is a disturbing read, set in a typically dystopian yet all-too-familiar world. But it just doesn't seem that far away when you consider the ever-increasing numbers of pure-play emotional ads that we see everyday.
And then of course there is this charming campaign for Brent Cross Shopping Centre:
For further reading, Rick McGrath over at Culture Court has written a brilliantly insightful and highly-detailed article on this book, focussing on the ex-adman protagonist and his ad campaign. Definitely worth a look (but read the book first -it will spoil it for you otherwise).