MotherJones MJ93: America in the nineties: the new hucksterism

To the new shills, nothing's sacred. Penn State signs a $14 million deal to make Pepsi the official drink on campus. The nutrition exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science features Swift meats and not a bad word about cholesterol. Pet-food marketers try to develop a high- pitched whistle that calls the family dog to television ads. Cineplex Odeon guarantees its ad buyers "No zipping or zapping . . . a captive movie audience." Privy Promotions sold restroom ads for $2,000 a square foot, promising "long lines of consumers . . . staring at the wall anywhere from three to five minutes." Students in a California high school "earned" higher grades for spending money at a local supermarket, which offers the school computers in exchange.

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In place of George Bush's "military renaissance," we now have a renaissance of the Rotarians. Today's Babbits have read Robert Reich and are going global.

The new tone was set as early as that ultimate Rotary Club luncheon, Clinton's preinaugural economic summit. A misty-eyed Jill Barad, president of Mattel, spoke of wanting "toys to be accessible to all families and all children in the United States," and proudly noted that "it wasn't until we went to lower-cost sources that we were able to dominate the worldwide toy market." Though she ex-pressed concern over the human-rights situation in China, she pointed out that "it would be very, very difficult to maintain that competitive edge if we were to withdraw Most Favored Nation status with China."

When Clinton all but guaranteed MFN for Mattel's cheap crew of Barbie builders, Jill Barad, very nineties, did not light up a cigar.

Make-a-buck smarm, of course, has long threatened to engulf American culture. But Barad's "toys are us, gulags are them" logic had that upbeat "competitiveness" ring to it. If Mattel gets its way in China, she said, "we [can] hire and employ thousands of U.S. workers in high-wage, high-value jobs." Clinton and Reich have been saying similar things for so long--the global economy, stupid!--that it feels like we've all been through one of those lean and mean, you-will- have-eight-jobs-in-your-life management seminars.

Months after the December summit we still "are not having the kind of conversation we need," says Christopher Lasch, noted skeptic of progress. "The meaning of life is to be sought in useful, self- respecting work. But the so-called good jobs increasingly are devoted to the manufacture, design, and promotion of things we don't need.

"You can't afford to have a sense of the sacred," Lasch continues, "in a society where the powers that must be propitiated are not the unseen forces of the heavens or earth, but the people on Wall Street."

The renaissance of the military may indeed be over. No more Star Wars economy, no more Super Bowl halftime bombing raids. The question is, how to pay for the last renaissance and make the next one a little more dignified? How about a "shill tax" on the $130 billion that American business pours into advertising every year? That might crimp our world dominance in shameless hucksterism, but we may have lost that already. After all, it's the biggest bank in the world, Japan's DKB, that claims a heart for its logo.