Heidi Cee in Plain Sight
I was mostly left cold by the presentations at last Friday's School of Visual Arts symposium on propaganda, entitled "Where the Truth Lies," until a late-afternoon speech by media studies professor Stuart Ewen brought chilling contemporaneity to the timeworn issue.
Before Ewen spoke, I was intrigued by aspects of Stephen Duncombe's talk, which urged leftists to create "ethical spectacles," i.e. participatory, openended acts of subversive imagination. Professor and "life-long activist" Duncombe lost me, however, when he mentioned "Spielberg-style emotional manipulation" as a bad thing. How participatory can his aesthetic be when it shuts out the whole generation of people (too young to be among his colleagues, perhaps, but surely including his TAs) who were weaned on E.T.? If there's something unethical about that spectacle, I have yet to discover it.
Reagan-era political battles and cultural rifts still perplex many in academia. That's why I was so fascinated by Ewen's speech, which described a real threat to academic freedom that is advancing while many professors focus on the problems of the past. In the spring of 2007, Ewen says, Hunter College's Department of Film & Media Studies offered as part of its major a course in "stealth marketing" with a curriculum designed by IACC (International Anti-Counterfeit Corporation), "a non-profit organization devoted solely to protecting intellectual property and deterring counterfeiting." In essence, IACC's raison d'etre is to lobby for legislation against knockoff goods on behalf of its member companies. One of these, the Coach Corporation, manufacturer of shoes, handbags, and accessories, put up ten thousand dollars to fund the course.
A corporation-funded university class with a curriculum created by corporate lobbyists is questionable enough, but further violations of standard academic protocol were apparently involved here. According to Ewen, it appears that the class was the result of a direct request made by the president of the university to the department head. No tenured teachers were told about the department's new curricular direction; an untenured (therefore more pliable) faculty member with no marketing background was selected to teach the class. The anointed instructor voiced objections to the assignment, but ended up teaching the course anyway, with continuous supervision from a Coach lawyer. At no time, the Coach overseer stipulated, was the company's involvement to be mentioned in any of the completed class projects.
The product of this semester-long crash course in surreptitious advertising, termed a "college outreach campaign" by the IACC, was an elaborate fiction better suited to a creative-writing seminar than the classes in media criticism normally held within the department. Using authentic-seeming fliers, social networking websites, and a blog, the students wove a narrative concerning a nonexistent Hunter undergrad named "Heidi Cee" and her lost Coach bag, a precious gift from her boyfriend that she was desperate to recover. Heidi ponied up big reward money for the no-questions-asked return of the bag, only to find that she had been taken in by a knockoff. Incensed, she took to the internet in an attempt to crush counterfeiting. The campaign concluded in May with an anti-counterfeiting event at Hunter where IACC literature was distributed, along with free food from Olive Garden. Heidi explained her absence at the crucial event by claiming that her "uncle in Jersey" had suffered a minor stroke.
My jaundiced view of higher education usually prevents me from waxing sentimental about academic freedom, but I confess to sharing Professor Ewen's outrage in this case. When Ewen questioned the Ohio-based p.r. firm that created this course about the "Heidi Cee" project's deceptions, he was told by one of the firm's spin artists, "That's what kids do these days: create fake people on the internet." The spin doctor wasn't wrong; the web is hospitable to (young and old) perpetrators of unverifiable lies and half-truths. Some corporations appear to be eager to subsidize and magnify these transgressions, to the point of using universities as laboratories in which to grow profitable lies. Ohio State University, Howard University, and University of Miami are among the schools that have hosted IACC campaigns similar to Hunter's.
In this context, it's hard to cheer Coach CEO and Hunter College alum Lew Frankfort's recent donation of a million dollars to his alma mater.