Steven Heller

Branding and Totalitarianism

VTR Date: October 20, 2008

Steven Heller discusses how branding came to be such an important value.


GUEST: Steven Heller
VTR: 10/20/2008

I’m Richard your host on The Open Mind.

To be sure, you may not see this particular Open Mind conversation until some time from now, when perhaps the memories and indeed the scars of all the “branding” (both successful and unsuccessful, both worthy and quite unworthy) that took place during the long, long 2008 Presidential campaign season will have lessened somewhat.

But, perhaps like me, you will see some real relevance in a stunning new book to what has gone on during this rather unprecedented race to achieve political power through images or brands … aping both commerce past and present, and 20th century totalitarianism.

The book is “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State”.

It’s author — my guest today — is Steven Heller, Co-Chairman of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and in the past a Senior Art Director at the New York Times for over three decades.

Now, perhaps “Iron Fists” was best introduced in a New York Times Book Review by Christopher Benfey.

“How did a practice as vile as branding become so valued, indeed, the very mark of value?”, asked Professor Benfey.

“Officials in the past have branded slaves and criminals … today, cities and colleges have joined toothpastes and soft drinks in the battle for ‘brand loyalty’.

“Steven Heller’s ‘Iron Fists’ makes a sophisticated and visually arresting comparison between modern corporate-branding strategies — slogans, mascots, jingles and the rest — and those adopted by ‘four of the most destructive 20th century totalitarian regimes.: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and Mao’s China.”

This reviewer further notes that “As he pursues his four ‘case studies’, Heller, by means of unsettling images and shrewd analysis simply restores the vileness to branding.”

And I would ask my guest today how that vileness in branding relates to “cities and colleges” joining “toothpaste and soft drinks in the battle for ‘brand loyalty’.” What is the relationship between the totalitarian’s use and this other, softer kind of branding?

HELLER: Well, I would first state that branding isn’t vile. Branding is a way of capitalist life. It’s probably a way of non-capitalist life. Religion branded long before business ever did. And you can view it as vile or you can view it as something that is only vile when it’s applied to vile or evil ideologies, regimes or ideas.

But the, the way these things work together and the reason why I did the book is to show that quite honestly if you take something that is essentially benign and you manipulate it in the right way, for the wrong ideas, you will be able to move masses. That’s the whole notion of, of branding.

It’s about creating a loyalty. As you said before … a brand loyalty. It’s about changing people’s minds. It’s about enforcing ideas or ideologies or products on those individuals and it’s about developing a means of creating profit. Whether it’s a political profit or an economic profit.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t the very concept of branding … of forcing something upon us, removing a … an exchange from the rational level to the irrational level … isn’t that what branding is? Isn’t that bad in itself?

HELLER: I don’t think so. I think that branding, as I say, is a tool, for … it could be informing as well as instituting. And the point is in Iron Fists, these totalitarian regimes used branding to underscore their ideology. But, a cereal or a toothpaste … branding is used as a distinctive device. It’s used to create distinctions among products that are essentially the same.

Or they’re used to create distinctions among products that are quite different and you want the public to know that. Some of the products that are branded are quite beneficial to us all. There’s nothing evil about them. I’m sure if you go back in their history, you’ll see that child labor may be used when it shouldn’t be, or whatever. But the fact is once you’re producing a product and we all consume products, this is part of that process.

HEFFNER: Yet, you know I’m, I’m puzzled by your saying that because as I read the book I thought, “Aha, here is not just a wonderful artist … a wonderful … a wonderfully creative person who, who uses imagery in such a magnificent way … but one who, himself, probably is very much concerned by the use of images perhaps … you’re not that much concerned about the Decalogue, or the injunction against graven images, but I thought you, perhaps, were on that side, as one who saw branding as a use of the irrational.

HELLER: I’m on the side of understanding what images say to us. Of being literate about imagery. But I’m in the business of creating images. At the New York Times as an Art Director for the Book Review, I was creating illustrations to go with stories, to go with reviews, which helped package, but also helped the reader invest themselves in that particular article or review.

I see imagery working both ways. I mean we live … you’re right .. I’m, I’m not against graven images and I know many people who grew up in a culture where graven images were prohibited, who rebelled against that and used imagery to its best purposes.

But the reason for doing this book, which came out of a book that I wrote on the swastika was how imagery can be perverted. And how we have to be knowledgeable, we have to be aware of how that imagery is perverted and then work very hard not to be manipulated by these things. I think … as I said, the brand itself … is, is somewhat neutral.

It’s how it’s used and how we respond to it. We can be complicit in how branding is used. Or we can reject the tenants of some branding, of the, the “badder” branding.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting, the worse branding or the “badder” branding. You mean branding itself is neutral.

HELLER: Branding …

HEFFNER: … it’s an art, it’s a technique.

HELLER: It’s a technique. I mean cattle were branded. (laugh) … you know … they were branded because a farmer wanted to make sure, or a cattleman wanted to make sure that his, or her, cows were not taken by other farmers or cattlemen.

A brand can work very well, it can work for the Democratic Party, it can work for the Republican Party. You may embrace one or the other ideologies and that brand will underscore what you believe. So in that sense there is ah, ah positive nature to branding.

HEFFNER: You say “underscore” … you mean by appealing to the irrational?

HELLER: No, I mean by appealing to the conscious and the subconscious. Of course … of course, in terms of many brands, it appeals to the irrational. And we’ve seen that happen over and over again. But we’ve also seen it happen beyond the realm of branding, just in the realm of rhetoric. And branding is a form of rhetoric.

HEFFNER: Yes, indeed. And when you say it’s a form of rhetoric, this is my concern, whether it’s the visual arts or whether it is rhetoric when you go below the level of consciousness … you join those two together.

But when you do something, an appeal to the unconscious, isn’t that a denial of our basic humanity?

HELLER: I’ll grant you …

HEFFNER: Isn’t it dirty pool?

HELLER: I’ll grant you that it has been used that way. I mean I quote Aldous Huxley …


HELLER: … in his Brave New World Revisited, where he talks about the manipulation of the mass through subconscious means. Through the famous PC quotes in his book, is the … in the movie theater, the two seconds or split second of popcorn, which comes on the screen and it forces people to feel hungry for popcorn. I think the popcorn could also … the smell of popcorn also makes people Pavlovian … gives them a Pavlovian response to these things.

But, yes, once you start going below the surface, there is something that is intrinsically deceitful about that. And therefore it can fit into, it can play into the hands of those who are truly trying to be deceitful as the Nazi’s were so brilliant at doing.

HEFFNER: You see that’s why it was your quotation from Huxley that … right of the beginning of the book … that set me off on, on that whole chain of thinking. And I was thinking of Neil Postman …


HEFFNER: Amusing … or entertaining … ourselves to death. And I thought …”ah, here’s someone who does this in terms of the vilest possible use of the unconscious” An iron fist jamming things down our consciousness. And yet, you, you say that it’s just a … it’s just an every day tool. It’s a capitalist tool …


HEFFNER: … that you say.

HELLER: I know, it seems paradoxical, but I, I believe that it’s possible to have these two views. To view the act of doing it, in one way. And then viewing the actual result of doing it another way. And I think it’s, it’s … I say this in the book … right in that … probably the same paragraph or close to it. That branding a frozen food or an insurance company … you don’t have to use an iron fist to get down the throat of, of your public. You have a choice in this country and in any kind of free country … not to accept the brand. I mean it’s hard because you get bombarded and that’s been the canard of advertising for a long time. And I’ve always felt that advertising does it’s best to reduce our resistance to knowledge. To being an informed consumer. But at the same time you can choose to turn off that television, or you can choose to turn off the, the news paper.

In these “iron-fisted” countries you had no choice because the barrage was consistent. Ongoing. And you know nothing else. Ever since this book came out, I was hearing from people who lived through the German experience, the Nazi experience or the Italian experience.

One woman wrote me a note saying that when she was a young girl in school, they got up and they sang the Mussolini songs and they quoted his mottos. And there was no way of getting around it.

I, I kind of remember that as when I was in Boy Scouts …. (laugh) … you know … I still remember the mottos.

HEFFNER: But, you know, I thought … just shows you how deceptive the printed page is, or the visualization is, or what you want to read into a book. I thought that you really were saying that the equivalent of the Iron Fist is the degree to which we are, in our own society, surrounded by … and no longer at our own free disposal, really … sure, you can turn off the television set … I can turn off the television set. I don’t have to participate in the branding.

But by the time you branders, those of you who know so well how to brand … have appealed to the unconscious, the subconscious, the subliminal me … I’m not quite the same as a prisoner of the Nazis, but not that far from it.

HELLER: Well, first of all, I’d argue I’m not the brander. As an Art Director in an editorial context for the New York Times I didn’t brand.

HEFFNER: What do you call it?

HELLER: … in the, in the same way. I editorialized. I worked with artists and, at times, writers …


HELLER: …to convey information. Now you can, you can make the broad statement that all of that is branding, but then I think we kind of trivialize the branding experience.

I think the branding experience … it can be seen in, in two ways. I mean we were talking before about Edward Bernays … he created the idea of propaganda in this country.

An idea that really came from religion. It came from Pope Gregory. The idea that he would send his Jesuits out to propagate the faith because he was losing his audience, so to speak.

Edward Bernays brings propaganda into this country as a positive attribute. He’s saying that the more we can accept ideas as citizens, the better off we’ll be. And he used very different means … not unlike what the Nazis eventually did, but very different means from what came before him to help manipulate the mass population.

HEFFNER: Well, I …

HELLER: And in his case … in some cases, he felt it was for the good.

HEFFNER: Yes, but most of his activity was spent getting women to smoke cigarettes …

HELLER: Right.

HEFFNER: … and large corporations to be able to sell more of their goods, etc.

HELLER: Yeah, I agree.

HEFFNER: So, citizenship is one thing. Sales are another. And so you were right about this being a, a part of our free enterprise system.

HELLER: Yeah, I mean I think if we accept that the free enterprise system is built on a great many flaws … then we can talk about branding as entirely vile.

But if we talk about the free enterprise system as a system that we live with and that is going to be very hard to change, even with the nationalization of banks, then we have to kind of parcel out, and apportion what’s good and what’s bad and try to understand the difference, where that line in the sand is drawn.

In producing Iron Fists, in writing this book and researching this book I had a very clear focus that there were four regimes … and there are more than the four regimes, but these were the four paradigmatic regimes. These were the regimes that did it so well. And ultimately influenced … for good or bad … branders today.

HEFFNER: What was the common element that enabled them to do it so well?

HELLER: Well, first of all … absolute power.

HEFFNER: It helped.

HELLER: It helped. (laugh) It helped a great deal because they had control of the printing presses and control of the advertising offices. The interesting thing about this, though, is that it started before they had absolute power. Certainly the Nazis started their branding technique …


HELLER: … before … as, as a campaign … it was part of their electoral process.

HEFFNER: Free advertising.

HELLER: It was advertising. I mean they paid for the advertising … they actually bought an advertising agency.

HEFFNER: No I didn’t mean free advertising in that sense … that it was for free. I know that they bought and paid for … no, I meant the advertising that is free and not compelled.

HELLER: Yes, indeed.

HEFFNER: But that’s where it began.

HELLER: It actually began in Germany prior to the Nazis. There were a number of graphic designers … and industrial designers who found a way to extend a product line by using consistent graphics. And that … we didn’t call it … or they didn’t call it “branding” then, but that’s what it was. That was the beginning of commercial branding. They basically borrowed from religion. They borrowed from the cross and the star and the crescent and they applied it to corporate means. And the fact was … that was … the turn of the century was the beginning of this mechanical age. Where industry was growing and industry was absorbing other businesses.

And in Germany, the AEG … which was the major electrical company … that was the first evidence of mass branding in a nation.

HEFFNER: And the others?

HELLER: Other companies followed suit. And there were different kinds of graphic techniques that have also fascinated me. Which I talk briefly about there, but I write about in other places. There was something called the “object poster”. The object poster was the first time a product was actually celebrated on its own for being its own product. And it became a piece of art that branded the product. It was an addition to their logo, you literally saw the product beautifully rendered on a poster and then you saw it multiple times on street corners and, and on hoardings.

HEFFNER: What was the product that was primarily sold by the Nazis … was it the hatred of the Jews, was it the strength of the Fatherland, was it revenge for Versailles? What was the essence?

HELLER: Well, I’ll tell you the first product was Adolf Hitler.


HELLER: That was the first product. And then … what he proposed, what he proffered was the second product. And that, of course, was revenge for Versailles. It was revenge against those elements in society … the Jews being the primary focus of this, who betrayed the society and ultimately the growth of the Fatherland, their Manifest Destiny became a product to sell.

And all the other things were ancillary. You know, they, they … helped to brand themselves by creating this structure … this system of uniforms, of uniformity, of icons that represented a whole slew of things within their culture. Whether a mother gave birth to more than three children, or whether a boy had reached a certain level in the Hitler Youth, all these things were commemorated with, with pins that were part of their branding program.

HEFFNER: But as I understand it, and please correct me if I’m, I’m wrong here … this was all a part of going below a level of consciousness. This was part of going to the viscera of the German people.

HELLER: It was definitely going to the viscera. It was … but Adolf Hitler was very clear … sadly … in Mein Kampf when he described what he needed to help move the people. Now a lot of it had to do with his rhetoric and the slogans that were used over, and over and over again. But he also understood graphics. I mean he was a wanna-be-artist. Everybody says had he become an artist we would never have had the Third Reich. But he wasn’t that good an artist. But he understood what graphic symbols meant to people. Interestingly, he was jealous of the Russians, of the Communists … they had a red flag, they had a hammer and sickle. And he would stand around during demonstrations and see these great signs and symbols being carried about. And the, Frieh Corp or the Stahlhelm or the Nationalists who came out of Germany … after World War I … they didn’t have a uniform system.

So he set in motion the idea of getting a logo, which became the swastika and creating an initial set of guidelines by which that logo would be supported by color and shape, etc.

HEFFNER: Was it any color? Or was it the red?

HELLER: The red was extremely important. The red meant different things for different cultures. The red means something different for China, it means something different for the Soviets. And it reads “blood” for the Nazis.

HEFFNER: Do the Fascists use red?

HELLER: No, the Italian Fascists didn’t use red, they used black.

HEFFNER: Black and brown.

HELLER: Well, the Germans used brown … the Italian Fascists …

HEFFNER: For the Brown Shirts.

HELLER: … used black and then they accented it with a lot of Mediterranean colors.

HEFFNER: Color that is of great significance.

HELLER: Color is extremely important, that’s where you get to the viscera. That’s where … people have responses to color that are, are hardwired. And certainly when you see it enough, whether it’s the viscera or it’s, it’s consciousness … you start relating to these things.

Just as, you know, Apple’s apple … we relate to Apple’s apple as, you know, at least for my group of people the best technology around.

HEFFNER: Well, you talk about “hardwired” and I guess we come full circle, because that’s what we’re getting back to, isn’t it … an understanding, those who understood the nature of the human mind.


HEFFNER: As Bernays presumably learned from his uncle Sigmund Freud …

HELLER: Right.

HEFFNER: … the hard wiring. In this matter of Iron Fists, you were right, of course, they had the power … and they imposed, through their iron fists, but they did understand the hard-wiring, didn’t they?

HELLER: They understood the hard-wiring, they understood what spectacle could do. I mean Alpert Spear was a genius, he wasn’t a great architect, but he certainly was a genius when it came to spectacle. Leni Riefenstahl wasn’t necessarily a great film maker, but she was amazing with her editing and with her cuts. There’s actually a film that preceded Triumph of the Will … that she did about a year before, where everything was anarchic; she couldn’t get the staging down pat. So they understood you had to stage. I mean … in, in my research I found that in the early days of the SA, the Brown Shirts, there were only about 5,000, 6,000 of them, but they would continually recycle the units so that the marches would go on for five hours and it would seem like there were 30, 40, 50,000 people.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any relationship between that understanding of hard-wiring and what we’ve experienced in the political campaign, the Presidential campaign?

HELLER: Well, I write a … in the “campaign-stops” blog …

HEFFNER: In the two minutes we have left.

HELLER: … for The New York Times and I’ve been covering just the graphics. And this campaign has been a much more inspiring graphic campaign. Certainly on the part of Obama than on the part of McCain. But you can see the, the nuances of … that, that certainly come out of an “iron fist” mentality and how they’re branding their companies.

HEFFNER: In rhetoric, I presume, as well as in visual arts.

HELLER: Certainly in rhetoric and that’s where most people get their … you know, feel their passions. But the visual arts underscore … I mean Obama uses a very consistent typeface called Gotham, he uses a color that I call “Obama Blue” and he has that wonderful “O” … that has been his logo, his “brand”, and it’s worked very effectively for those who want to embrace his point of view.

HEFFNER: This has become a more subtle kind of advertising, hasn’t it?

HELLER: Oh, definitely.

HEFFNER: In, in politics, as well as anything else.

HELLER: Well, in politics it started … it started slow. I mean we’ve always had a lot of kitsch related to American politics.

The one thing that I will say … the red, white and blue … the American red, white and blue … anybody can use it in any way, shape or form. In any of these “iron fisted” countries you couldn’t use the color combinations, or the logos without permission and they were restricted by decree or by law.

HEFFNER: Let’s hope we don’t get there. But, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about this … for me and obviously for you, quite fascinating field. Do you think we’re going to go into it more and more and more?

HELLER: I think we can’t help it because we’re in a, a media age. I mean we get everything now on our Blackberries and on our iPhones and on our computers. And that is … it’s heavily textural, but very visual.

HEFFNER: Thank you again, for joining me.

HELLER: My pleasure. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.