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Spreading Doubt to the Masses
Guest Editorial by Mark Notermann

The Joseph Goebbels Project™ is an onion: The outside skin protects layer upon layer of meaning. Try to slice it up into something simple and digestible, and it might bring tears to your eyes.

At first glance, one sees the familiar components of many branded advertising campaigns: a logo, an image, and a familiar name—Joseph Goebbels. Most of us have heard of the infamous Nazi propagandist, but we probably don’t know his face. Look into this face on a poster and you see it composed of corporate logos instead of halftones. Closer yet and you see that the logos all belong to media giants and builders of the modern infosphere.

Detail from billboard. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev

If you have made it this far, artist and graphic designer Alexandar Macasev (mah CHA shev) has succeeded in his first objective as an advertiser—attracting and holding your attention long enough to see something interesting—maybe a little perplexing. The onion is now in your hand, wanting to be peeled.

So, what is the inference? That these corporations (Motorola, Internet Explorer, Disney, Apple, CNN, Windows) are evil? If this was Adbusters, that might be enough—a simple damnation; a sermon to the choir. This is not a niche magazine; but a full media assault: TV, radio, internet, postcards, billboards, and street posters—plastered as wallpaper—demanding you to notice. The Joseph Goebbels Project asks many questions, and offers few answers. This is where Macasev succeeds as an artist. The onion has many layers, and none of them are easy to peel.

If invoking the atrocities of the Third Reich were his only objective, it would have been much easier to use Hitler’s face; his intense eyes and cropped mustache are iconic enough. Macasev chose Goebbels as the star to put the focus on media consumption—not personalities. The Joseph Goebbels Project ran on the Streets of Belgrade during the BELEF Summer Art Festival of 2005. Macasev’s goal was to plant the seeds of doubt and a healthy questioning of media messages, and also to consider the vanishing boundaries between art, design and advertising by making an artwork out of a media campaign:

Sixty years after Goebbels, we find ourselves in a highly developed infosphere—the internet, twenty-four hour news, direct broadcasting, countless non-stop radio, TV and cable stations, mobile communications, etc.—which constantly barrages us (its intended recipients) with messages. There are ads for products, political programs or activist’s ideas, weather forecasts, information about terrorist actions or fashion trends. The overwhelming power of the media sometimes gets under our skin, but we nevertheless remain gluttonous recipients of the messages. Truth becomes completely irrelevant. We can freely say there is no truth. In the place of truth, we consume ideas from a huge marketplace of messages and narratives that we believe in without any immediate experience or judgment as to their truthfulness. As Goebbels might say today, “If you repeat the message frequently enough it becomes the truth”.

From the above, we can derive the following Joseph Goebbels™ principles:

  1. There is no truth.
  2. All information is irrelevant.
  3. History and media messages are mere narratives.
  4. Truth is what you choose to believe.

Dueling billboards. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev

Philosophy has been debating the essence of truth for thousands of years, so while these are not new concerns, Macasev found a way to frame the question in a contemporary and relevant manner. As the onion layers peel back, some interesting ironies are exposed:

Macasev had the unusual luxury of a client who gave him free reign over content and form. Without the City Council of Belgrade to support this project, it likely would not have been produced. The content is simply too strong, the commentary too controversial to be funded at the level necessary to be presented by a corporate sponsor. This ironically put Macasev in the position of propagandist—supported by the state, no less.

“Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority.”
—Joseph Goebbels

Posters on the streets of Belgrade. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev

The fact that it was produced at all makes the Joseph Goebbels Project successful on a certain level: It found an audience. By using an advertising media mix, Macasev sidestepped the marginalizing effects of both art galleries and underground street art and brought it directly to the public. There were some vocal complaints during that Belgrade summer about not being able to escape Goebbels’ stern visage in the pursuit of summer’s frivolity.

Another layer is the contradiction of using this manipulator to create a message intended to help people respond to media in a positive way. Gauging the success of this effort is more problematic, but one thing is clear: Goebbels also had the effect of helping Macasev’s practice as an independent designer. By remaining faithful to his own vision of this project, he took a step forward as an artist. His courage was rewarded with a higher professional profile and more clients.

The strength of this work is its ability to raise questions through layers of ambiguities, without losing the original intent. Recently, Macasev was asked to help an anti-Bush campaign, which he obliged by adding a red capital “W” between Joseph and Goebbels. With that small edit, I fear he could be diluting the integrity of the original project with politics. Our current political and cultural climate surely needs its critics, but it also needs dialogue—exactly the kind that the original Joseph Goebbels Project still can provide.

I sliced up this onion, hoping it might reveal some kind of truth. All I found were more questions, and an uncomfortable irritation in my sinus. Are these tears real?

Somehow, I doubt it.


Alexander Macasev is a Serbian graphic designer and artist, macasev.com

Mark Notermann is a Seattle-based graphic designer. He thanks Marcela Vorel and the Seattle AIGA for bringing Macasev to the Henry Art Gallery to present his work on December 7, 2006.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.20.2006 BY Speak Up
Armin’s comment is:

To me, the idea seems solid, well grounded and somewhat provocative – perhaps more so since I was immersed in all things Holocaust during high school, preparing for the March of the Living.

However, the idea starts to crumble with the introduction of the corporate logos creating the face of Goebbels. As you ask, Mark, the insinuation, in my mind, is that indeed these corporations are at the core of our problems, and that seems to be a fairly easy scapegoat. Blaming corporations for the way humans behave and interact is increasingly annoying for me. People are not swayed by their construction of "truth" around their products; I think people know to differentiate truth from pitch. The addition of the corporate logos is the one onion peel that doesn't make me cry.

On Dec.21.2006 at 05:29 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

In isolation, I find the metaphor powerful--the Goebbels face, the corporate logos--and staggering indeed.

When this is communicated using the same media it criticizes, does it loose its effect or does that reinforce it? That's not intended to be rhetorical. I'd like to know what someone who has happened upon this campaign felt about it. I couldn't amke any honest conclusion without being faced with this campaing myself, not in an article, review, or interview, to understand the impact it might have on me.

Armin, similar to your annoyance with "blame the corporation." I've grown tired of the bad-guy-is-a-nazi or so-and-so-is-Hitler analogies. These might be powerful for some, but for me, I almost instantly loose respect for the source of such a message. Such crude annalagies are an insult to the recipients intelligence.

"I think you won't understand the scale, urgency, or significance of this issue, so I'm going to connect it to a horrific historical event...then you'll understand."

I remember Veronique Vienne once saying that good graphic design makes you feel smarter.

Also of note: Steven Heller interviews Macasev

On Dec.22.2006 at 11:17 AM
James Gibson’s comment is:

I agree with Armin. It's the same sort of easy blame the corporate & capitalism for our failures. It's such an easy cop out for a larger discussion which is the effect of our participation in the market by spending our money. Yes, we are bombarded with messages, but we're not THAT stupid, that we can be completely brainwashed into throwing our hard earned dollars away, because we were influenced by the mighty corporations. People like this always forget the notion of demand, that as much as a corporation / marketing / advertising group pushes a product/service, it will fail unless people really want and demand a product/service.

It's the same argument that people make about "Sports Players getting payed WAY too much!" Last time I looked, that never stopped anyone from attending a baseball game. We ARE the reason why they get paid so much, we desire them, and elevate them to that status. It's no different with corporations, they can only succeed if we make purchases and sustain their business.

It seems to be silly to claim corporations and are evil, without taking a good look at yourself, your society & culture. All the things that contribute to give them power. His whole methodology of advertising / propaganda, has the same shock value and desired effect that an advertiser would use to promote. It's a bit contradictory.

It's nice to try to make an observation or statement about your culture, but this kind of thing gets tired so quickly. Just as reading an issue of adbusters. These aren't people interested in changing the world, they are much more interested in creating an image of rebellion and frustration, but offer no solutions.

On Dec.22.2006 at 05:45 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I think people know to differentiate truth from pitch.

but we're not THAT stupid

Then why is advertising effective?

When this is communicated using the same media it criticizes, does it lose its effect or does that reinforce it?

This is exactly the question asked by the piece. What other communication avenues will have the same impact with an uninterested public? And who has access and means to create a message with mass impact?

By appearing as a mass of contradictions, it forces us to ask these other questions and have this discussion. Advertising must resonate emotionally to be effective, and by nature it can't create the same effect for everyone. Creating a strong and possibly negative reaction is a necessary risk.

Macasev has given us a bit of a riddle—not to be solved, but to be considered. This is what takes the work beyond graphic design or advertising and makes it more of an artwork with a broad message.

It seems to be silly to claim corporations and are evil, without taking a good look at yourself, your society & culture. All the things that contribute to give them power.

Well said, and I think you have captured the essence of this project. He never says that corporations are evil. There are easier ways to accomplish that.

On Dec.23.2006 at 02:46 AM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Upon initial reading of this, I was pretty wiling to go along with most things already said here. But revisiting the comments have given me a different opinion.

"Blaming corporations for the way humans behave and interact is increasingly annoying for me. People are not swayed by their construction of "truth" around their products; I think people know to differentiate truth from pitch."

While optimistically I'm in agreement with Armin, this statement reminded me of a very powerful contradiction to it as well: the Nazi party was elected into power by what seems to be a generally intelligent and in fact not overly anti-semetic country. While there have been many have studies into what caused the Nazi's election, it still baffles a lot of us—regardless of answers. Many reports (including Steven Heller) have focused on the media onsluaght that was led by Goebbels. His mastery of grabbing the public's attention and matching the Nazi party up to commonly held beliefs and desires of the entire country is something to be marveled. (I dont hesitate to comment that he would be an amazing advertiser or media mogul in today's world).

This project, as I'm beginning to see it, is more of a warning than it is a denouncement. German's were swayed by Goebbels' message — perhaps because it was a message they truly believed in, or perhaps it there was enough of a message that they liked hearing that they were willing to block out the other parts. In our society where complexity is an understatement, we too have to become increasingly critical and questioning of the messages we recieve — no matter the source.

On Dec.23.2006 at 02:29 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Also, I think its important to note that Macasev id focusing his attention on media and communication "corporations." Whereas much propaganda focuses on a broad generalization that can usually be brushed off as general anger (you'll note theres no oil companies or weapons manufacturers here), Macasev is sticking to his message. I think its somewhat inappropriate to generaize it as "evil corporations" when he has been fairly decisive in his choices (although this is a place where I believe some critique is due)

On Dec.23.2006 at 02:41 PM
Aleksandar Macasev’s comment is:

Let me explain couple of issues:

The project is about "Joseph Goebbels" state of contemporary media culture and not about the man himself. The usage of Nazi iconography was very common in European art during 80s (Slovenian Neue Slovenische Kunst or Laibach) just to annoy or to be provocative. After a while it lost its edge and became just boring. This is not another "I'll use Nazi iconography and be cool". My point is that we could view the history (WW II) from another point of view. Not in the usual way movies depict Hitler as a caricature. German movie "Downfall" is an interesting example of such a different point of view (Hitler as a human as we all are?). Apart from that I tried to say that contemporary media culture is mainly based upon the principles of Dr. Joseph Goebbels. There are many others "fathers" of the media culture, like Edward Bernays (Freud's nephew), but Goebbels is the most paradigmatic for sure. Maybe we could learn something from Goebbels? And a very important point is that I don't depict the whole situation as bad or good. The "bad rep" is in the eye of the beholder ;) I am very often asked to take a clear stand. Are Joseph Goebbels/media culture/advertising... good or bad? I cannot tell and I don't tell. I just point out certain issues and leave them to the spectators to judge. I try not to judge.

As the blunt Nazi iconography is blunt and boring, so is the corporate bashing. Adbusters, Michael Moore or Naomi Klein are signs of past times. At one point it was interesting but it lost its edge too ("No Logo" became sort of a trademark... which brings up the another question about the efficiency of anti-media/corporate activism and is it possible at all). This is not another anti-corporate action. The contemporary media culture is represented by the most recognizable signs. I find that these logos represent themedia-sphere of today. The choice of the logos was also affected by the visual capacity of logos (they should be scaled down and still be recognizable). Interesting side effect is that almost all the logos belong to the US media companies ;)

I am convinced that broad audience just cannot differentiate truth from a lie. That is why media is still a very powerful tool. My point is that people tend to swallow everything served in media as the truth. The media messages we receive are mere narratives, stories and we choose to believe in them or not. I don't say that they are true or not. I just want to say that healthy scepticism could give us much happier lives.

There is very often a difference between American and generally European perception of certain issues like Nazism, corporate culture, media issues, politics in general. You guys here (as far as I know) don't have threatening extreme right political options as there are a lot of them in Europe. Also the general perception of the infamous Nazi war criminals is a bit different. It is also an interesting symptom that seeing corporate logos and Nazi iconography leads to opinions like that it's corporate bashing or "Nazi=cool, arty, provocative". Just noticing and willing to discuss.

Marks' article raises some very interesting questions about this project, as well as all the comments. I'd be glad to provide some more answers (and questions:).

More about the project:

Aleksandar Macasev
author of the Joseph Goebbels TM

On Dec.26.2006 at 03:00 PM