Over the past decade commercials for communications, information technology, and financial corporations have become more pervasive on television, especially cable television. Unlike the still more familiar commodity advertising that we routinely see, this form of advertising discourse intentionally aims to legitimate the practices and visions of their corporate sponsors. As public relations narratives this kind of advertising situates the corporation and its unregulated (unleashed, unfettered) Capital as the prime movers of economic, social and political progress.
Some ads give Capital personification in the figures of stylistically idealized portraits of a highly mobile business elite. Representations of a new business elite reflect the characteristics associated with the new informational economy: flexible accumulation, de-territorialization, space-time compression, and electronic markets. Linking the corporate executives, managers, professionals, and hi-tech workers to signifiers of status and social power and to recurring narratives of success, these commercials represent them as the power brokers of social change.
Of course, we should expect corporate commercials to celebrate corporate capitalism, but there is more to these texts than that alone. These images simultaneously disguise and express the growing disparity in wealth in America. On the one hand, this kind of advertising discursively legitimates neo-liberal market capitalism by leaving out the consequences of Capital on non-elites, especially those who own little. But while political-economic inequalities do not register in these ads, there is no similar repression of the cultural contradictions that Richard Sennett (1999) traces out in the Corrosion of Character. What happens, Sennett asks, when individuals actually internalize the requirements of flexibility and geographic mobility? For one thing the ideals of close familial relations between parents and children suffer. Of course, like all advertising, the fear of loss (in this case, separation) can be resolved with the appropriate commodity or the appropriate corporate father. This is the case in the Allianz ad referred to in these images -- images which raise the anxiety of parent-child separation and the loss of the love, but trump that anxiety with "the promise," a reference to the sanctity of personal character even in this fast paced, mobile world.
Social critics assemble economic statistics to draw attention to the widening gap in the distribution of wealth spurred on by a free market economy.
While statistics like these circulate through the alternative press, television images focus on corporate executives managing the economy, applying new technologies, jetting around the world, and reaping warranted rewards. The television images reveal no sense that an underclass might be expanding or that the middle class is eroding.
Instead, the world depicted takes place in corporate towers, on passenger jets, or in exotic settings. If the street is shown, it is usually Wall Street. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree Thomas Friedman (1999) dubs this new elite the "Electronic Herd." His metaphor speaks to the volatility of markets in conjunction with the diffusion of capital across the electronic circuits of finance. According to Friedman no corporation or nation-state can risk losing the favor of the Herd. To do so in the global economy can be catastrophic to market values. The Herd is driven to maximize the rate of return on investments, and this means cutting losses as quickly as possible. Combined with the ability to transfer funds and monies electronically, a stock can be cut in half by the end of the morning, or a country's currency thrown into crisis with a rapidity hitherto unknown.
Even though a majority of commercials associate technological innovation, investment, and the free market economy with global corporate practices, a less sunny underside also seems to seep through. These representations also capture the social and psychological contradictions of a fast-paced economy: exhilaration and anxiety, change and uncertainty, possibility and risk, mobility and longing. The volatility and instability of a free market economy produce anxiety, and like commodity advertising anxiety is a powerful psychological force linking corporate brands to anxiety-alleviating strategies -- investment for the future, protection of one's family, successfully competing against invisible enemies.
The new elite is defined by its relationship to technology, financial capital, and information. There is the recognition that technological innovation, when appropriately applied, may provide a productivity advantage. At the same time, there is great fear that technological innovation will result in premature obsolescence, or that, inappropriate choices will be made regarding which technological innovations to pursue. The logic of capital has long necessitated creative destruction. What has changed is the accelerated velocity of that process. David Harvey's (1989) focus on time/space compression must be fused with technological innovation and market reaction. The psychological consequence is anxiety, anticipating that one cannot keep up. There are simply too many factors, too many competitors, too much innovation. Market volatility is to some degree located in technological innovation. Contemporary advertising is riddled with anxiety about volatility, information, and decision making. While most commercials celebrate the exhilarating force of capital, there is reverse current of adverts with images of fearful executives who must make decisions, and cool confident consultants (technological, organizational, investment, marketing) who can relieve their anxiety. Call it executive therapy.
Thomas Friedman's metaphor of the electronic herd captures representations of the new elite emerging in the global free market economy fueled by technological innovation. They are constructed as dynamic, mobile, and technologically sophisticated. They fluidly traverse the world of non-places and occupy corporate towers. They are surrounded personal communication technologies. And yet, even in these idealized abstractions, uncertainties and anxieties seep through. Narratives of success are sprinkled with narrative hints of failure. The exhilaration associated with accelerated social, economic, and technological change mixes with anxiety. There are more losers than winners in casino capitalism. The landscape of risk is ever present. The modern nomads who circumnavigate the globe often long for the warmth of place. They must make do with a signifier of affection: a photograph, a hair broach, a faxed note, a memento. Although power and mobility are celebrated, the social tableaux of adverts suggest that capital creates a less than perfect world even for its winners.