The 1998 film, The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, presents a character, Truman Burbank, who unknowingly stars in a 30-year soap opera/reality show about his own life, under a giant dome whose boundaries are hidden from him. The show is broadcast to a global audience of billions.
The fake town Truman lives in, Seahaven, is populated by a massive number of actors playing real people. Seahaven’s creator, director, executive producer, and ‘God’, Christof, is convinced that the deception is benign, because Truman’s life in the synthetic town is far happier than anything he could find in the real world.
Truman has no idea he is living inside a television studio, surrounded by actors. Nor does he know that some 5,000 cameras placed around the town of Seahaven record his life for the TV audience, 24-hours a day non-stop without commercial interruption. The only way that Christof can make money is through product placements which are woven, at times clumsily, into dialogue and scenes that Truman is oblivious to.
As the film progresses, Truman begins to suspect that his entire life is part of an elaborate set. It’s at this point that the audience of the show begins to root for him in his quest to uncover his fake existence and to escape from the confines of his virtual reality prison. The viewing audience is able to relate to Truman’s plight because they recognise that they too are trapped by similar forces that they need to be rescued from.
The film works as a satire because the community in which Truman lives his fake existence is very much tied into a corporate-dominated world in which the notion of illusion and reality are often blurred. ‘Product placement’ and testimonials for this emerging system of entertainment-marketing capitalism are being seamlessly woven into our lives.
Truman’s quest for freedom can be interpreted as the aspiration for authenticity and meaning within a world in which the increasing commodification of all things is a feature of modern life. Was Weir on to something? Is the world in which Truman inhabits more than just a piece of science fiction allegory?
Molded into a desired pattern
Every institution provides the people who are members of it with a social role – that’s as true to the role played by say, the church, as it is to the corporation whose goal it is to maximise profit and market share. Capitalism could not function if it were not for the fact that individuals are disassociated from both the products of their labour and from one another. Just like the God figure, Christof, public relations and advertising industries facilitate the process of disassociation by molding people from a very early age into a desired pattern.
To achieve this, corporations don’t necessarily advertise products, but advertise a way of life and a narrative of who we are as people. The aim is to persuade the masses that the corporation is virtuous, responsible for the good life and the belief that the future can only be better than the present; that modernity itself means human improvement. However, the contradictions inherent to capitalism are such that progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life. The function of corporate branding is to persuade us that the ideology of progress will offset the decline in societal and environmental well-being.
Many corporations have already recreated their branded visions as three-dimensional representations of real life with this aim in mind. A company like Disney, for example, have taken this logic to the next level by building a “town” in the image of their brand – Celebration Florida – which it describes as a “unincorporated community of almost 8,000 people, situated on 11 square miles of carefully engineered Floridian swamp.” The brand image of Celebration Florida is a themed all-American, family-friendly, privatised, branded cocoon set within a bygone era – the real life Seahaven.
Given that relations mediated between human beings increasingly appear to be the function of the commercial world, could the Utopian Celebration Florida model become a commonplace vision elsewhere? Moreover, can civilisation survive on this narrow definition of how humans interact with one another?
The real-life experiences many of us engage in on a day-to-day basis, embodied in atomised living and the increasing engagement with virtual reality and robotics, is arguably closer to the allegorical fantasy of the Truman Show than many people are perhaps prepared to admit. Just as Christof wove product placements into dialogue and scenes as part of Truman’s constructed reality, the same processes form part of the marketing tools available to professional marketers who weave product placements into our everyday real lives.
Professional marketer, Jonathan Ressler CEO of Big Fat, Inc. concedes that “real life product placement is just that – placing stuff in movies but the movie is actually your life.” In other words, it’s already the case that people are being subliminally targeted with branding by undercover marketers on a daily basis. Ressler elaborates on these themes in the documentary film, The Corporation. He claims that the public is subject to an average of eight or nine subliminal marketing messages a day and that they therefore effectively act as brand bait and soundbites of knowledge for corporations.
According to Ressler, it’s fine if the masses want to be critical by cynically challenging the motive behind every human exchange, but adds that if the corporations “show you something that fits and something that works that makes your life better in some way, who cares?…Just say, thanks!” The implication seems to be that if an uncritical and undemanding public are happy with the commercial ‘comforts’ that the corporation is able to provide them and their families with, then logically there is no reason for people to want to absolve themselves of these comforts.
Familiarity and reassurance appear in some ways to be hard-wired into the human psyche. This probably explains why, for example, many people who travel or settle in foreign lands tend to congregate and surround themselves with others of similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds.The corporate marketers are thus able to exploit this situation for their own commercial ends.
Just as Christof sought to discourage Truman from leaving his inauthentic existence in Seahaven by warning him of the dangers that exist in the real world compared to the life of safety constructed for him, so it is that Celebration Florida spokesperson, Andrea Finger, is able to promote a highly successful Disney brand predicated on the notion that it “speaks of reassurance, tradition and quality.”
There’s an interesting Truman site by Ken Sanes who says the Truman Show tells us that “if we want to be free and have a chance at an authentic life, we will have to distance ourselves from the safety and comforts of our media-saturated culture and be willing to live in the world as it is.” This brings into sharp focus the contesting nature of authenticity; of identity and representation and what constitutes democratic urban space and its relation to forms of state power. I discuss these issues in more detail here and here.
Authentic spaces or corporate landscapes of power?
More broadly, the public’s perception of what constitutes an authentic space is often tied to what use the state puts them to. The line between private and public spaces in which large parts of towns and cities have been hollowed out is becoming increasingly blurred. London’s Canary Wharf, Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City, for example, are public places now governed by the rules of the corporations who own them. Other privatised public zones in Britain include Birmingham’s Brindley Place – a significant canal-side development, and Princesshay in Exeter, described as a “shopping destination featuring over 60 shops set in a series of interconnecting open streets and squares.”
Ultimately, corporations are shaping elements from the landscape of cities and towns and re-packaging them under the banner ‘urban renaissance’ predicated on place promotion and development with culture, heritage and conspicuous consumption in mind. The real life Disney Celebration Florida model that literally could have been borrowed from the fictional Truman Show, represents the apex of this concept. In her book Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin quotes a Disneyland planner:
“We carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements…Disney succeeded on the basis of this totalitarian image-making, projecting the collective desires of the powerless into a corporate landscape of power.”
Is this kind of privatised and sanitised Disney/Truman Show-type environment the model for society we ought to be encouraging planners to move towards?