Who Needs Artists? Part IV Art As “Influencer”

Did you ever get animated online greetings from a medical group whose services you have used – brightly colored, happy GIFs of candles flickering on cakes, or a marching band singing your name, or ‘Click here for a birthday surprise‘ buttons? These catchy ads are ubiqitous for internet users. In fact, anyone with a smart phone or PC can find a template to ‘personalize’ her own digital greetings to friends.  That’s one reason the US market for paper greeting products is in flux – but has stayed roughly $7.5 billion each year from 2011 to now – still a big market. The global data is hidden by PR marketing firms, but clearly major players  are losing money – or at least not profiting as much, despite the increasing cost of cards in stores and online. American Greetings reverted to private ownership in 2013, to the same family who started it in 1905. Printed and mailed cards are still popular – especially a box of blank cards that need a hand-written note. Some small players might find a niche market for particular clientele, such as this ‘edgy‘ feminist has apparently discovered. That’s what small business starters always hope will happen, although currently the playing field is far from level.

Doctors are in a competitive industry. (It used to be a “profession”, but that’s another topic.) Some of my doctors are long-time acquaintances and  personal friends, but they aren’t aware of my birthday, nor do they send animated digital greetings. A marketing company does this service for the doctors’ business groups. Is that a service to me? No, if anything, it’s an annoyance, dependable as clockwork, because, like a clock, it’s a machine without any spirit.  But unlike clocks, or wristwatches, or the churchbells in our neighborhoods, it gives us nothing we or our neighbors asked for, or count on. And unlike these more human reminders, it will follow and snag us around the world – anywhere that the Internet goes.




The title of this blog – Art As “Influencer” – needs explaining. Art of every sort has always influenced those who experience it, or course. Until modern times, whatever influence  the artist intended was largely determined by the authority for whom she or he ‘worked’. It’s only  recently that artists could afford to follow their own artistic aims. I use the term “Influencer”, as in Driving Under the Influence (DUI). A person arrested for DUI could not reasonably say, e.g., ‘But officer, I couldn’t help that erratic behavior; I was under the influence’. But she or he might say, ‘I thought my friend had given me a glass of water; I had no idea he had spiked it!’

Art as influencer is generally used by advertisers, who hope the art they commission will control the response of those who experience it, regardless of whether it’s good or bad for them. I’ve always enjoyed – even admired – well-constructed ads. They’re entertaining, and catchy, because they’re produced by the most imaginative, and technically sophisticated artists money can buy. Such experts are ‘influencers‘, increasingly in high demand. Their task is to manipulate potential customers, any way that works, to purchase whatever products, services or ideas the companies they represent want to market.

Canadian writer and radio personality Terry O’Reilly has been researching these issues for over 30 years, including his long and popular CBC series “The Age of Persuasion” (later changed to “Under The Influence”). They’re also on podcast. His topics are wide-ranging, as this list of 115 podcast suggests, any of which is worth hearing. The claim that  people are free to accept or reject the influence is false, as O’Reilly shows. And the old idea of protecting consumers from scams, manipulation, and false claims has fallen away, under the rubric of ‘free speech’, and the influence of money interests. As usual, those most at risk are children and less educated adults who are apt to be in poor communities. But I confess that despite being blessed with a top notch education, I’ve been scammed a number of times. These influencers have lots of experience and technological tools at their disposal.

More significant, the meaning of the term “influencer” in marketing has changed radically. For one thing, it generally gets positive press, since it has influential advocates. Influencers now are primarily connected to social media, and so are strongly oriented to Gen X and Gen Y consumers. The approach is comparable to ‘celebrity endorsements’. But the latter are limited in time and place – e.g., to TV shows, or radio broadcasts – whereas social media are instant and world-wide. So if a business can get the notice or endorsement of those who have a devoted following, on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube, their content can gain wide distribution. In the case of YouTube, there is apparently an insider group – I would call it a kind of dark YouTube – catering to what looks like a radical fringe group of ‘millennials’. (Mind you I was born before the “baby boom” generation.) One of the most successful of these convention-breakers is a Swedish-born phenomenon called PewDiePie. (Rhymes with CutiePie.) His subscribers number over 100 million! – enough to merit an award and big publicity from YouTube and its parent company Google (i.e. Alphabet). Here you see his recent ‘body transformation’ that has gotten many ooh’s and ahh’s among the ‘Bro Army’ of his followers.  It also provides opportunities for various Facebook health and fitness sites to take advantage of his method.

There are a few people who point out social media’s damaging effects, discussed in this post by Mary Anne Tolentino – a student at StXavierU in Chicago. She underscores the emotional damage done to those who compare themselves to models whose fame and Facebook ‘likes’ threaten or worsen our self-image. Tolentino mentions Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian and Victoria’s Secret. These exemplars of beauty also set standards of style by the clothing they model and shamelessly sell.  Victoria’s Secret calls its models “Angels” (implying they’re here to deliver messages of hope and products to disheartened women.) Here’s a recent version of their cleavage forming and revealing brassiere, appropriately called the “Miracle” Bra. Victoria’s Secret seems to have missed the message of #MeToo however. It’s sales are down, and many stores have closed, for a number of reasons, including price and inventory. A Vox article also shows how hard it is for larger clients to find the size that fits. Moreover designers and sales forces often confuse and insult people with tricks like Vanity sizing  – i.e. simply attaching the marked size to a larger garment. All this makes it harder for  busty women.

I would add a critical note that Vox failed to mention, in its discussion of “plus size” women. Americans of all genders, in all states, regions and demographics have grown larger in girth (not proportional to height) for over 30 years. I’m sure this has many contributing factors, like more leisure time, more sedentary occupations, more screen time and urbanization. In any case, it’s a health damaging trend, in addition to its emotional dimensions. Obesity is a complex medical issue. As usual, it harms most those who are already disadvantaged. Helping everyone learn and choose healthier life-styles is more responsible and loving than flattering customers and saying ‘you can have whatever you want’ (while continuing to master the techniques of controlling our desires). Who will do this, since businesses won’t? Why does every check-out line have shelf after shelf of sugary snacks?


As we discussed in an earlier post, Pt I of Who Needs Artists?, the  artist as influencer was an occupation in prehistory – e.g. seen in the caves at Lascaux, France, and Maros, Indonesia, from the Upper Paleolithic time – 40,000 years ago. What that influence was, and who was the intended audience is uncertain. But using art for clearly commercial purposes is also very old, from Pre-modern times. Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used sign boards to identify their wares, and advertise events. In China about 900 BCE a needle-making company distributed decorative ads printed from this copper plate. When newspapers started in 16th century Europe, the pages often included adds to offset costs of publishing.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. This expression is widespread,  but has various interpretations. The Norwegian playwright Ibsen coined it. He had in mind how to help people do a practical task (e.g. assemble an IKEA bookcase). Another meaning is that a picture, or any artwork – picture, poem, song, play, dance, etc – can get across feelings and ideas that everyday speech fails to do. For example, ‘putting a face’ on a news report gets it to sell.



On a completely different level, a report of how many refugees from a war-torn, dictatorial or corrupt country were lost or rescued at sea can never match the impact on a viewer of one small child (dead or living) in rescuers’ arms. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “1.6 million people have crossed

the Mediterranean since 2015, with over 16,000 people perishing during the deadly sea crossing”.

The effort to have viewers experience what is going has been a ‘moral hazard’, since the beginning of photography, starting with the Mexican-American war in 1848 through the 2 World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afhanistan (unending) and to the present. News correspondents try to bring a war to ‘the folks at home’ run into problems. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan could invite an American photographer to film their planned attack on a US convoy, but if she or he didn’t accept the offer, they would not carry it out. Despite all the efforts at ‘publicity’, some doubt even the most compelling acccounts and pictures. Even the Holocaust has deniers, despite the photos, and reports of iconic leaders such as Gen. Eisenhower. Most people believe what makes them feel good. And of course, watching the battlefield action from your living room couch – what Pres. Johnson called the “Living Room War” and sought to eliminate – was and is a disgusting perversion of trying to stay informed. Finally, the claim to show ‘reality’ is especially untrustworthy today, since computer generated images are ubiquitous, and often lie in order to sell ideas and products to uncritical observers. So how much is a picture “worth”? Millions.

Art for commercial purposes depends on the media  available. Early ads were typically visual. They might be fixed in place for passer’s by to see; or printed and mass distributed. Street vendors’ cries are local, but radio broadcasting (after thej 1920’s) allowed multiple art forms – e.g. music, poetry, literature, commentary, news, etc. – to be heard at an unlimited distance, with the aid of transoceanic cables. And of course each of these forms was promptly put to commercial use.

Adam Smith is often cited as having posited natural laws of supply and demand in a ‘free market’ economy, which correct imbalances and bring equilibrium – where supply and demand are equal – whenever any player gets too much of the pie. Over time the free capitalist (unfettered by government) will provide the most benefit to the most people. Wikipedia outlines positive and negative evaluations of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Not surprisingly, George Stigler (a Chicago School economist) claimed Smith’s work showed that “under competition, owners of resources (labour, land, and capital) will use them most profitably, resulting in an equal rate of return in equilibrium for all uses (adjusted for apparent differences arising from such factors as training, trust, hardship, and unemployment).” Who makes such ‘adjustments’? In other words, everyone gets what she or he deserves. But Smith and Stigler are wrong. These are not ‘natural laws’, but the effects of human choices, which more and more effectively can be manipulated, to the point of mind-control.

Most top executives of the 1% class say ‘government interference’ is bad for the economy. That’s to be expected. They have borrowed Adam Smith’s phrase – The Invisible Hand – and built  a whole mythology around it to encourage support for the system they have rigged to their advantage.  There is no invisible hand in modern economies, nor did one exist in Smith’s day. Moreover, those who are ahead of the game don’t want anything to ‘correct’ their competitive advantage.  There are some high profile top tier corporate executives – like Warren Buffett – who say that the system is unfair, and suggest more government control, and higher taxes, but their influence on policies is minimal. The myth remains.

It seems likely to me that a truly free and competitive market has never existed, before or after Smith, with or without intervention of governmental authority. The heaviest non-political finger on any economic scale belongs to those managers who have the means to find, motivate and manipulate their customers. A web search  of “consumer motivation” will show the basics. What you won’t see are particulars on psychology, epecially how to trigger primal desires in any particular audience – desires of which they themselves are ignorant – that short-circuit rational judgment. To do this effectively requires big data, AI and complex algorithms – ‘trade secrets’ – to discover and influence consumer behavior.

Migrations to this country were both both effects of, and caused by social, political and economic growing pains, in the countries of origin and here. One question of the earlier period (which continues today) concerned the role America should play in the world, and what distinguished it from its (then primarily European) antecedents. The Declaration, The Constitution, The Torch of Liberty have long been powerful symbols,  with variable interpretations, most of which include beliefs about Capitalism – both idealistic and cynical. This is true for the owners, and the employees of various industries, whether newly arrived, or established for generations.

Many newcomers here had observed in their countries of origin the growing wealth and social status gap between employers and employed of the major industries – agriculture, textiles, coal, iron and steel, engineering, trade, transportation, finance, etc. Trends in Great Britain, for example, which was the leader of Europe at the time, are summarized in this Victoria & Albert web page.

Another motive for going to the ‘new world’ was the need for workers in America as it developed industries comparable to those of Western Europe. Certainly there were other reasons for immigrating here as well, including religious persecution abroad. Jews, e.g., immigrated here from colonial times, leaving Tzar Peter the Great’s Christian Russia through to the holacaust ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. There was push-back against immigrants too, by those who felt threatened by, or simply didn’t trust some groups, especially those whose roots were not European. Chinese railroad workers and other Asians typically came to the Pacific coast, were processed through San Francisco, and often treated badly.

The United States’ rapid economic growth caught up with and surpassed Europe during the Gilded Age, famous  for its ‘Captains of Industry’, and ‘Robber Barons’, like J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller (shown here) who said of Morgan “and to think, he wasn’t even a rich man”. But those advancements fostered political corruption, monopolies, and the social consequences of industrialization and urbanization – inequality, class prejudice, racism, religious discrimination, lack of public education, alcoholism, unhealthy work and living environments. A century ago, 50% of Americans lived in rural areas; today, it’s only 20% and still diminishing. Although 97% of US land is rural – i.e. outside urban areas – urbanization continues. Population growth and childbirth rates are declining which puts still more pressure on underserved population groups.

Activist groups of laborers, suffragettes, socialists, etc. brought awareness and efforts to reform. The so-called Progressive Era that started about 1900 had supporters on both political sides. Republican Theodore Roosevelt was a major “trust buster.” Laws against monopoly were passed in 1890, but they weren’t effective. As is so often the case with regulation, the letter of law is easy to manipulate and work around, by smart lawyers taking hi fees. Moreover, regulators often become advocates for the very industries they’re meant to control for the public good.

Edward Bernays was an effective  counter force to “progressive” politics and governmental economic policies. He used his uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas about subconscious motivation, to teach business people how to sell their products and ideas, which continued and advanced throughout the 20th Century.


Bernays paid well-known women to prove their ‘liberation’ by carrying cigarettes, as “Torches of Freedom”, in the 1929 Easter Parade down 5th Ave in New York. This developement is explained in the 2016 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis called “The Century of the Self“. I recommend it to any thoughtful person, worrying about the effects of modern “influencer” marketing. But remember that the effects of social media are immeasurably more in-your-face, present and effective today, especially among Millenniel groups.

Remember too the Century of the Self  did not cause the selfishness or the insecurity and lack of community it engenders, that are so prevalent today. It simply let it come more to the surface, and be enabled – even promoted – by financial interests who understand how to apply Freud’s principles of primal feelings. Jennifer Cobbe’s article in Open Democracy shows this clearly.  The ‘goods’ offered are really not good; instead they lead to more and more debt, increasing the power and wealth of the so-called 1%. In the process, more debt, and servicing that debt, make ordinary people cut back on their normal spending, which deflates the economy – what Michael Hudson calls “debt deflation”. In fact, despite GDP number games to ‘prove’ the opposite, the economy hasn’t yet recovered from the 2007/2008 recession; it’s in a “slow crash“, as Hudson put it, in a recent Harper’s interview. So buy while you still can, if you can.