You've heard of pre-emptive strikes. Now welcome to the era of pre-emptive co-optation. That's the kindest word for what millions of viewers heard during the 2009 Superbowl, when GE used the work of the Great Depression's most famous songwriter to sell its myths about prosperity.
In its first Superbowl ad since 1981, GE riffed on the classic, the Wizard of Oz, to make the case that if America updates its power-grid we will see brighter days ahead. With Yip Harburg's "If I Only Had a Brain" playing in the background, the ad closes with the Scarecrow walking off into the sunset toward a radiant city on a yellow brick road.
What viewers may not know is that Harburg was a committed socialist who spent three years in South America opposing US involvement in the First World War. He was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and was best known for his depression era anthem, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"
That song, which was all about the cheating of the American worker by the bosses, begins, "They used to tell me I was building a dream..." and ends with the refrain: "Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
That one of the world's most powerful military/media-mega corporations would use the bard of the laid-off worker is creepy. But there's more. GE, which among other things owns NBC, reportedly spent $3 million on their Superbowl ad in order to launch a campaign called NOW, with the tag line "innovation we don't have to wait for." While we can all get behind alternative energy and a smart new power grid, the idea that prosperity and growth are right around the corner is nothing more than smoke and wizardry. Moreover, will GE share the profits if public money buys the grid? Unlikely.
The fact is, for most American workers, there's no rainbow, only more pain and losses coming. "If I Only Had A Brain," might be a good anthem for GE. "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime," is back for workers.