Every once in a while, there comes a film that rises from mental depths of the creative geniuses of the world that touches upon the very framework that human society and “civilization” has created and continues to morph into.
These films range from the grotesque to the melodramatic, burning influential images synonymous with terms such as “Supersize Me,” “Zeitgeist,” and “Cocaine Cowboys” into the minds of the viewers, everyday people who do their best to rise above the pulls of primal vices and triumph against relative odds. These movies are far and few in between, peeking from the underbelly of the consumer’s monotonous cry for action-packed mimics of unrealistically bodacious men and women attempting superhuman feats, swooning in fantastical love stories, and gashing through inhumanely horrendous effigies of blood-curling frightfests (at least within the PG-13 + movie range). Even more rare are films that provide a glimpse into the dark world of the industries that create these films and their imagery themselves – that’s right: marketing and advertising.
One of the most popular examples was made by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, the legendary Stanley Kubrick, in 1971. “A Clockwork Orange,” riddled with witty anecdotes and outrageous characters, held strongly to its undertone of the influence of audiovisual material on the human psyche and the implications that they have on society.
If you aren’t familiar with one of the greatest Kubrick films ever made, it follows a young rapscallion as he commits acts of debauchery with his friends and are thereby branded as misfits and miscreants. On a particularly devilish night, the group of friends happens to break into a house, raping a woman and crippling her husband. Days later, the group breaks into another woman’s house but is caught, leaving the main character to be found by the police and sent to prison. While there, he volunteers himself for an experimental rehabilitation technique that uses audio-visual snippets to psychologically “correct” the subjects. Not to spoil the film, but the “treatment” catapults him into a life far worse than any rehabilitated citizen should ever encounter which is only fully realized when he, in his ‘recovered’ state, is discovered by and retaliated upon by the man he crippled.
Lesser known (but far more insightful), “Branded,” reads as a fear-mongering depiction of the re-imagining of a vision concocted by a paranoid extremist seeking to recoil from commercial society. In the 2013 release, a marketing executive rises to the top of the food chain in a way that only a man in his industry can.
He encounters a PR disaster and, distraught, runs away from it all – ending up in the countryside where he undergoes a cleansing that endows him with the ability to see the effects of marketing schemes personified as hideous creatures feeding off of humans. The creatures latch onto the humans and are able to feed on them as long as the humans indulge in the source of whatever creature has fastened itself to them.
In 2013, the dark side of marketing was revisited once more with “Syrup,” a film based on a novel written by Max Berry. I came across the film as a gif set on Tumblr and, after never hearing of it before, decided to take a look. What I found was a film that was given poor reviews by just about every critic that even bothered to take a look and was grossly undervalued. The satirical film centers around a marketing student named Scat who lives with a pot-smoking roommate who self-brands himself as a non-speaking dark, mysterious, and sensual type. Scat, the true creative genius, comes up with one of the greatest ideas that he’s ever had and immediately sets his sights on Six, a woman who is at the top of the advertising hierarchy and the second-largest energy drink company in the world, after excitedly telling his roommate. She likes his idea, pitches it to her company, and even offers Scat a large sum to buy the rights – only to find out that his roommate had already copyrighted the idea and went into business with Six. The plot follows Scat as he falls in love with Six, his roommate gets her ousted from her previously untouchable position in the company by falsely implanting himself as a marketing genius, and the two find themselves working for the initial drink company’s competitor who happens to be the largest energy drink company in the world (I won’t reveal any more spoilers).
The irony of the film lies in the marketing rules that Scat and Six reveal in finely panned monologues throughout the picture, revealing the soullessness of the marketing industry after the themes are exemplified within their interactions. At one point Six even mentions that advertisers are researching how to recreate the feeling that humans get when they want something that they can’t have and being able to create a marketing ploy to mimic that to sell products. She cites an experiment in which testers were essentially tricked into thinking that they liked drinking urine to testify to the intensity of the psychological impact of visual branding and the way that marketing practices influence the brain and humans.
Even more ironic is the fact that Six, despite quitting her previous job for Scat and obviously falling madly in love with him (oh darn – another spoiler), refused to tell Scat her real name instead choosing to stay “in character” with the brand that she built for herself as a marketing mogul. Her finely crafted persona is of a woman that is the physical embodiment of sex but is literally untouchable, her aura a tease within itself completely devoid of a ‘come hither’ finger but possessing a gravitational pull to which no man is immune. Scat himself even points out that even the name “Six” is extremely similar to “sex” – suggesting that she uses the most base, primal element that can hook one of the strongest urges of the consumer – sensuality – and subconsciously causes her image and everything that comes with it to be one that is to be desired but, obviously, unattainable to any and every onlooker.
One of the strongest points of the film is the lack of regard for human life. Early in the film, a death is faked for publicity – the reason: the ‘deceased’ wanted a drink so badly that he died trying to get it. It was realized that the death was faked because, at the funeral, Scat and Six realized that the attendees were models and actors used in previous ad campaigns. It makes one wonder – to what lengths will a company go to embed a message into the minds and hearts of the consumer in order to sell a product or lifestyle. What elements of the human psyche do they attack in order to compel the impressionable to reach out beyond themselves, causing them to think that they want something when, in fact, they really don’t know if they want it or not. Later on, a real death happens and a company apology is aired in which the speaker mentioned that despite the fact that the young teenager died because he thought that he wasn’t cool enough to drink the product signifying the destructive nature of marketing and the scramble for the fad lifestyle that accompanies it (the last spoiler, I promise – I tried to vague it up for you), other teenagers and consumers will still buy the drink and reach for the ‘thing’ that embodies this lifestyle regardless of the consequences. They will still seek out this item denoting acceptance even though it is now a symbol of the death of an innocent.
Syrup is a metaphor for myriad lifestyle and product brands in our society today. Bandwagon syndrome, if you will. From expensive clothes to flashy cars, to jewelry to even going to college and doing incredulous things – many people do these things not because they want to, but because it was sold to them. Do they want to do it? Maybe. I’m sure there are a few people that have rational arguments as to why they prefer Dolce & Gabbana over Steve Madden, would purchase a Fisker as opposed to a Challenger, or think that Jamaica is a better destination than the Turks and Caicos – but, what is alarming is how many have come to those conclusions based on what they’ve seen and heard rather than what they have found out for themselves.
If more films like Syrup were to be made – and taken into consideration – I do wonder how lifestyle industries would be affected. Would consumers still participate in bandwagon fads? Would industries be able to create trends that can be calculated based on the psychosomatic effects of marketing schemes towards particular demographics? Who knows. It seems that many people don’t like to look at themselves – industries aren’t subject to special treatment. As avid consumers of advertising and marketing that aren’t limited to million-dollar Superbowl commercials and the latest trailers for films and games, one would think that the masses would be more conscious of the imagery they’re digesting and seek not only to make it better and more palatable, but also more beneficial for the common good. The common good as opposed to, say, selling natural human vices and urges hidden in psychologically devious fashions. Don’t get me wrong, watching the effects of imagery on the the psyche of millions is quite fun, but when do the people stop to think about what is really influencing them and how? What I do know is that the fact that not too many critics touched a film such as “Syrup” this speaks volumes of the refusal to bring attention to similar concepts and I’d like to see more introspection like this, even if it’s darkly satirical and ironically corny, from gifted filmmakers and novelists alike.