By Nilanjana Goswami
“The things we own end up owning us”.
The entire spirit of this saying lends itself very readily to all sorts of dystopian scenarios. A recent example is an affront the Belgian Royal Family claim to have faced due to an advertisement campaign led by the fast-food giant, Burger King. The U.S.-based chain is going to launch its brand in Belgium next month, and has accordingly prepared an advertising campaign asking Belgians to vote online to “crown” the true ruler of Belgium. The candidates are the brand itself, and King Phillipe Leopold Ludwig Maria, the 7th sovereign of Belgium.
The poll, conducted on an online platform, notes King Phillipe’s coronation in 2013 and opens with the words “Two Kings. One Crown. Who will rule? Vote now”. One has to choose between the Burger King logo and a cartoonised version of the monarch. If one votes in favour of the 57-year-old monarch, he/she is asked 3 questions, like “Are you sure? He won’t cook you fries” and so on. With every successive question, the “Yes” button is either diminished in size or moved to a corner, while if one votes for the brand, the vote is accepted at once, without any ensuing questions.
Mockery of the monarchy
This has run afoul of the Royal Family of Belgium who, as their spokesperson has emphasised, do not wish to lend their image, cartoonised or otherwise, to any commercial venture. Despite the reasons proffered by the offended party, it is easy to infer that Burger King’s spoof-poll has been considered an affront to the very dignity of the Royal Family itself and the sovereignty it holds.
It could also be argued that Burger King is playing on echoes of sentiments debated in the Belgian Referendum of 1950. Famously called the Royal Question, the referendum was conducted in order to determine whether monarchy should be abolished. This event took place in light of the authoritarian policies of King Leopold III (King Phillipe’s grandfather) that had allegedly gone against the provisions of the Belgian Constitution and had created a rift between the King and his government during the Nazi Occupation. Massive protests came in the wake of his eventual reinstitution, and he eventually abdicated the throne in favour of his son Baudouin.
Capitalism and the commodification of culture
The situation isn’t that of a capitalistic venture trivialising an issue. This is dominance through soft power. The perpetrators seem to have absolutely no qualms with turning all forms of authority and nobility into a farce that makes sense only to loyal consumers.
The U.S., by virtue of its superpower status, is the single-most powerful socio-political arena that is capable of churning out a commercial culture that affects the needs, wants and goals of a global audience. Every other day, a new brand appears in increasingly remote locations, peddling fast-food or soft drinks. Soon, the world demands what America demands.
Along with amplifying the outreach of this effective brand of hegemony, this has also given its participants cause to question and gradually undermine ethnic, social and cultural norms (or authority) that don’t fall in with their new capitalistic, consumerist aspirations. Consumerism invests heavily in moments, impulses and images that are as ephemeral as a camera-flash. These moments seem to cultivate some profound meaning but they are stripped of it if taken out of the capitalistic framework.
Ridiculing society for commercial gain
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance of an alliance of commercial ventures and favourable representation of the particular brand resulting in a product generating more debate than unconditional approval (that consumerism hopes to achieve). The soft-drink giant Pepsi caused controversy in India last year when the company devised a campaign advertising the product as a distraction from a significant student protest. Then arrived the now infamous Kendall Jenner campaign that aired on social media recently. Most have argued that this commercial undermines the spirit of public protests at a time when women’s rights and LGBTQ protests are being orchestrated widely in response to the rise of various right-wing governments all around the world. Quite fitting a development, probably, for a generation that had the inhumanities of the Gulf War broadcast right into their living rooms.
A decade ago, such questionable representations could have been received as parodies. Now, with so much debate about mainstream culture on a daily basis, people are becoming increasingly intolerant of anyone refusing to abide by social norms. This tussle in Belgium, that looks apparently harmless on the surface, is indicative of the rise and rise of global capitalism. If left unchecked, this will definitely gain traction that will lead to the undermining of the cultural spirit of any endeavour that doesn’t subscribe to, or isn’t endorsed by, consumer-culture. As can be seen in this instance, it isn’t the citizens of Belgium, but participants of this very culture who have voted. And if this socioeconomic mechanism has the capability to make us suspend our cultural identities with just one vote, maybe it is high time we begin to stand clear of the dominos before they start to fall.
Featured image source: Flickr
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