DeLillo, Brand Names and Post-Postmodernism

The following is an edited and re-worked excerpt of a seminar paper I wrote for a 21st-Century Fiction class at the University at Buffalo in the spring of 2016.

The suburbanization of the post-war United States proved a bounty for corporations just beginning to realize the means to tighten their grasp on the key to truly expanding capital: maintaining a high stock price and unlocking shareholder value.  Jeffrey Nealon notes how, economically speaking, suburbanization and the lifestyle it enabled “led to a sharp intensification of consumption-based capitalism in the first world” of the US and Western Europe.[1]  This phenomenon is evident and takes on a starring role in the supermarket scenes of White Noise.  The characters of the novel grapple with truly existential dilemmas: short of regressing technologically and taking up agriculture and bioregionalism, they are at the mercy of the attention-grabbing, sexually intoxicating invasive realm of corporate advertising and their primary tool of persuasion—the corporate brand name.

Advertisers, note Helmers and Hill, “don’t want to persuade people to buy their products, because persuasion implies that the audience has given the issue some thought and come to a conscious decision.”  Instead, advertisers wish to compel people to buy a product “without even knowing why they’re buying it—as a visceral response to a stimulus, not as a conscious decision.”[2]  They accomplish their goal of resonating in the mind of the consumer through two unmistakable strategies: the monotonous, shiny, meaningless simulacrum-images Nealon identifies and the constant, pound-it-into-your-skull repetition of brand names and taglines.

The opening chapters of White Noise do little to advance the plot of the book that develops later on.  Instead, we are given a slice of the lives of the Gladney family, a quasi-cultured middle-class clan who live a life remarkably typical of the mid-Reagan era suburban American household.  Their interests are varying and diverse, a hodgepodge of hobbies and concerns. Devoid from their lives are old traditions like eating at the dinner table and attending church; instead, their weekly rituals involve a combination of take-out Chinese food and the uniquely postmodern (or post-postmodern) medication that is grocery shopping.

It is in the grocery store that Jack Gladney and his wife Babette encounter Murray, an ex-sportswriter turned Elvis-studies scholar and a colleague of Jack’s. Murray thumbs through packages of pasta, the different box shapes, brand monkiers, product names, descriptive compositions.  Some of them he’s heard of on television advertisements, some on the radio, some in magazines and newspapers.  All are appealing and camouflaged: “everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material,” he says, struggling to navigate which choice is right, knowing all along there’s likely no discernable difference between the many products.[3]

But how deeply embedded can a brand name really be, how submerged into the unconscious?  Viewers of a 2014 Nationwide commercial starring Peyton Manning are treated to the quarterback humming the same catchy, merry jingle as he performs various tasks throughout his day, including bathing, working out and even eating a sandwich, whispering “Na-tion-wide is on your side.”[5] Certainly you’ve heard someone hum the McDonalds song while not eating a hamburger, or heard someone say out loud Just Do It  or Got Milk or there are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s

 

[1] Nealon, Jeffrey.  “Post-Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism.”(Stanford University Press: 2012). Print, 9.

[2] Helmers, Marguerite and Charles A. Hill. “Defining Visual Rhetorics” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2004), 2.

[3] DeLillo, Don.  White Noise (Penguin Books: 1985), 37.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Nationwide.  “Jingle, Featuring Peyton Manning.” (Nationwide: Youtube, 2014).  Web.

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