A mutual fascination between the communications industry and the far right is nothing new. The Nazis admired American advertising, anti-Semitism boosted tabloid newspaper sales and after the war, Madison Avenue borrowed a trick or two from Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. So it’s not surprising the marketing community is entranced by the success of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party – the established logic of marketing being “if people like it, it must be good”, with ethics and a social conscience imported from somewhere else.
This week’s Campaign feature on the Brexit Party front man goes further than the dispassionate analysis of his tactics you might expect from the trade press. It actively celebrates and helps to mythologise him as a public figure. There he is, in luxurious black and white, grinning at us from a hundred magazine stands and agency reception tables supported by congratulatory drop quotes, checked only by the obligatory “we thought long and hard about this” editorial disclaimer. Needless to say, it’s not the hand-wringing in the body copy that has the impact.
Equally sinister, but more ludicrous, is the breezy attempt to draw some “objective” lessons from Farage’s success. “Be bold,” suggests one “not offending anyone is not the cardinal virtue of advertising” as if describing Trevor Beattie in the 1990s rather than one of the 21st century’s leading enablers of race-hate.
History is important here. The book we should all read, but probably don’t have time, is Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. Arendt was a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany and her book is the definitive analysis of the rise of the far right in Europe in the first part of the twentieth century. Among a long list of terrifyingly relevant insights (check out her widely shared passage on lying leaders) she describes how an unwitting celebration of extremists as “fascinating cultural phenomena” by thought leaders of the time was fundamental to their eventual triumph.
Their views weren’t just normalised, they were indulged. “If you put the policies to one side for a moment,” the cocktail-hour conversation went “You’ve got to admire the man’s charisma and how the whole thing works…” And so the cult of personality advances.
There are differences between our time and the 1930s – not least the likely result of any Brexit party victory being chaos rather than the trains running on time – but this week’s Campaign is an example of why we need to be urgently aware of the similarities.
Those ego-fluffing portraits are hitting the news-stands the same week that Farage’s transatlantic crush is leading rallies in openly racist chanting, a tactic which many analysts believe could win him the next US election.
In that, he may be “finding the people who are most important to him and delighting them” as Campaign would have it. He’s also advancing a global emergency.
– Al Deakin, Director of Insight