06 October 2008

Bullshit (First in an Irregular Series) ~ CREDO Mobile Advertisement

credo ~ noun (pl. credos) 1 a statement of a person's
beliefs or aims. [. . .] -ORIGIN Latin, 'I believe'.

A week or so ago this flier arrived in the mail. It is an advert from CREDO, a mobile phone service being peddled by Working Assets. The CREDO marketing slogan is "More than a network. A Movement." The campaign (which, from what I can tell, began late last spring) is being run by Duncan/Channon a San Francisco based advertising firm.

Here is the text from the back of the flier I received in the mail::
Did Your Phone Help
Elect Bush/Cheney?

Sorry to say, but AT&T's political action committee contributed the maximum amount allowable by law to the Bush/Cheney campaign — twice. So, go ahead, check out your mobile phone. And then check out the mobile phone alternative you can trust. It's called CREDO Mobile, and it's mobile phone service that stands up for your values, brought to you by Working Assets.

On the other hand, if you're happy with your mobile service just the way it is, accept this photograph - suitable for framing - as your gift from a real, ahem, Richard.

To get your phone in line with your values,
get in touch ASAP.

And here is a (slightly different) version of the advert I lifted from the DC web page:

Well, initially, I just tossed the advert in the trash without even looking at it. But my friend Susan - smart and observant as usual - fished it out and said she wanted to keep it to bring to discuss with her class. When I looked at the mailing I thought, well, it is pretty funny. But Susan pointed out (in terms considerably more polite than I use) that it really is bullshit in the technical sense. And so I want to use this to inaugurate a semi-regular feature aimed at puncturing purveyors of bullshit. It is especially useful to start with the self-righteous.

What is the problem with the advert? First, while it does not exactly lie, the CREDO advert presents facts selectively, thereby exaggerating the partisan nature and potential impact of AT&T's 2004 campaign activities.
(1) How much did the AT&T PAC contribute to Bush/Cheney in 2004? One might think it was an enormous sum. After all, the words scrawled across the photo of Dick Cheney proclaim "Thanks a Million!". But, according to the Federal Election Commission, during the 2004 election cycle the AT&T Inc. Federal Political Action Committee (AT&T Federal PAC) gave just $5000.00 to Bush/Cheney campaign. They had done the same prior to the 2000 election. That is the "the maximum amount allowable by law." The AT&T Corp Political Action Committee (a distinct entity) gave similar amounts in the respective years. This hardly is a huge amount of money. If we keep in mind that Bush-Cheney '04 raised over $260 Million it appears for what it is ~ literally a drop in the bucket. And, like it or not, such contributions are legal. Ask Barack Obama.

(2) If we look at the contributions the AT&T Federal PAC made in 2004 to all candidates in federal campaigns, including not just the Presidential race but House and Senate contests too, the split is nearly even between Republicans and Democrats according to OpenSecrets.org. The PAC made a total of $394,000 in campaign contributions ~ 51% of that amount went to Republicans, 49% to Democrats.
So, let's say that I want a mobile provider (or credit card or a soup manufacturer or whatever) that reflects my "values." Does that mean that I want one that 'sorta, kinda' tells the truth? Do I want one that sets criteria of truth and falsity aside in order to market its products? And, more practically, what attitude would I expect such a company to adopt in communicating with its customers about say, terms and conditions of service? This is an especially important question if, as the CREDO folks encourage me to do, I am looking for a mobile phone service provider I can "trust."

Second, of course, is the question of what "a movement" of cell phone users looks like. We are dealing with illusion here. The CREDO advert wants to make us feel like we are acting politically. But it is unlikely (and here I am being charitable, since I actually think it is impossible) that the "values" I might express as a consumer are anything like the judgments and concerns and interests that animate political action. Politics requires acting in concert and, typically at least, acting in public. Choosing a service provider for my cell phone is an individual and a private act.

So in the first instance, the CREDO advert contributes to the erosion of public discourse. It does not lie. Like all good propaganda it is careful to avoid saying anything that might be shown to be false. The advert is not playing on the terrain of truth and falsity. It wholly abandons those criteria and it does so, moreover, for blatantly commercial purposes. And in the second instance the advert further injects moralism into our politics. It invites people to feel like they are acting politically, inviting too a sense of superiority on the basis of consumer choices. (Is this different from the superiority middle schoolers feel when their clothes or gear is properly branded?) This layer of moralism makes it even less likely that those who receive the advert in the mail will look for the truth. And it is just the sort of self-righteousness that fuels a politics of resentment against those whose choices are informed by anything less than my refined moral sensibilities.

How, in other words, do you sell mobile phone service? First peddle bullshit, then distract your audience from the fact that that is what you are doing. What a credo!
Disclaimer: Nothing I say here should be taken as a defense of Bush or Cheney. If you read the blog even sporadically you'll know that I consider them shameless liars, dangerous ideologues, and, arguably, war criminals. Nor should my criticism of CREDO be taken as an endorsement of AT&T or its political activities. I use a different service provider. Nor, finally, should anything I say here be taken to imply that I find the existing way of financing elections in the U.S. attractive or justifiable. Money, after all, is not speech. Try paying the I.R.S. with words next April. More modestly, try paying your cell phone bill with words next month. That said, as Susan repeatedly has impressed upon me, PACs in particular and campaign finance more generally, arguably are less threatening to democratic politics than other sorts of financial influence.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

You make a good point on this nonsensical ad. Consumption as political act - yea right.

It should be pointed out though that several years ago AT&T embarked on an aggressive campaign to win cable/telecom deregulation. As of 2005 they spent over $140 million. By now it's certainly grown substantially. Here's a link to the Center for Public Integrity's report on the issue.

In the end, if people want to turn back AT&T and the rest of the cable/telecom industry, we should be agitating for publicly owned telecom infrastructure.

Also I'd like to hear more on your take of what would constitute a political movement here in this age of Madison Avenue electoral campaigns.


06 October, 2008 08:15  
Blogger Brad said...

I know this post is from ages ago, but I just came across it, and a couple things struck me.

First, you did some nice research into how much at&t contributed to bush/cheney and how that compares to their contributions to all politicians, democrat and republican. However, your attack (on whether using this phone service is choosing to be part of a movement) shows you clearly don't have any firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be a credo/working assets customer.

Getting phone service through this company is a statement that some people choose to make in opposition to the power of large corporations of any kind (including large telecoms) in and of themselves but also vis-a-vis their influence on politics/elections. That statement is a value statement. Values bring people together, so there is a sense of solidarity. This alone may not constitute a movement, but this is only the beginning of being a credo/working assets customer.

Every month and at other times via email, working assets/credo gives customers opportunities to petition their congressional reps, senators, president, government officials, and/or business entities on a variety of issues, spanning from local (city/county/state level) issues to national/international issues. These petitions come in the form of letters, emails, faxes, and phone calls. Choosing working assets/credo is choosing to at the very least be exposed to more of what is happening politically...perhaps to get more involved politically both locally and nationally...in any variety of movements...and to join those movements to whatever extent a customer chooses. If working assets/credo invited customers to "become part of a movement" solely as a way to invite that sense of moral superiority, I would agree with your assertion. However, that is absolutely NOT the reality.

The "Thanks a million" tag on the photo is not an accurate representation of how much at&t contributed. You're right to point that out...as is your teacher friend. However, you could have done better with your research skills about the other issue (about whether using working assets/credo for phone service is a choice to be part of a movement). Your reaction to what you perceive as moral superiority is evidence of something just as counterproductive to our politics: cynicism.

Nevertheless, thanks for helping to clarify some things about at&t's political contributions. All the best to you!


09 November, 2010 00:25  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Brad, Thanks for the comment. I am afraid we disagree. But nothing wrong with that!

I think moralism in politics is dangerous insofar as it typically proves ineffectual and so transmogrifies into resentment. That is a big claim that I will not defend here. Second, I know that Credo/Working Assets solicits your signature on petitions and complaints to elected officials. But that is a consumers approach to politics. Our officials proposed outlandish policies (and enact many of them) and they get outraged letters from credit card hodlers. Te same thing in France brings people into the streets. That is a movement. How many other Credo customers do you talk politics with on a regular basis? How many of them do you take concerted (as opposed to serial) action with? Third, I have had a Working Assets credit card. They are the face on the card which actualy is run for them by precisely one of the big scary corporations that you say you want to avoid. (At the time is was Wells Fargo!) If you want to extract yourself from the corporate world - not a bad aspiration, I'd add - join your local credit union. Or find a locally owned bank that is committed to financing local loans (in Chicago, for instance, South Shore Bank was one such). But Working Assets is a laugh. Finally, if you ask me the sort of bullshit Credo pushes in this advert is cynical. I am interested in something like effective critical engagement in politics. What Credo is peddling is a "feeling" that you are doing something. There is a big difference.


09 November, 2010 10:47  

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