5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced


Every now and then an actor or acclaimed folk music icon from the '60s "sells out" and the whole world loses its mind, as if we'd never seen a human work for money before. As sad as those moments are, it's even sadder knowing that there are marketing guys in suits behind EVERYTHING ELSE around us. For example ...

Some Public Protests Are by Hired Hands (and Breasts)

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced

If there's one thing the media love, it's the chance to make pictures of boobs politically relevant. That may or may not be why the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN hit a nerve, since their members are known for spontaneously ripping off their clothes in response to oppression, burqas, Islam, churches, and anything that doesn't have boobs on it. From the media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that FEMEN is a grassroots movement of angry women who just happen to hate all forms of fabric. Oh, and that every single member of FEMEN just happens to be young and really attractive.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

They also hate "morals," apparently.

Why is it that all the topless protesters in FEMEN are nubile, taut-skinned women with symmetrical breasts? Wouldn't most organic protest movements accept a healthy mix of stretch marks and wrinkles, maybe an extra nipple here and there? The answer is that there's nothing "organic" about FEMEN, except maybe its members' hair products. Members are usually salaried, are paid to protest, and audition by flashing their breasts. Because nothing says "feminism" like hiring women based on how perky their boobs are.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

"Well, team, I guess the moral of this story is- aw, dammit."

Unfortunately, choosing media attention over the purity of one's cause is not unheard of in American protests, either. You might pass a group of people on the street holding signs and yelling about how we have to ban ducks because they poop in our reservoirs and think, "Well, they're misguided, but at least they're doing what they believe in." But that's not necessarily true: Wealthy groups from all over the political spectrum have been caught paying people to protest their causes. One union that picketed work sites demanding better wages and benefits for employees was found to be using homeless people as hired protesters, paying them $8.50 an hour.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images

Clearly, we must hire someone to protest this abuse of homeless people.

Two Guys Are Behind All Recent Pop Music

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

When we turn on the radio and hear a pop star singing about losing her pet monkey, we want to believe that the singer did have a monkey, and she did truly lose it. That's the way music is supposed to work: Artists have personal stuff they want to write about, they record songs, and then radio stations play the songs 500,000 times until everyone hates them for existing.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

"Fuck your fucking monkey, Ke$ha."

But it turns out we've been hating the wrong people. Or rather, we've been hating too many people, because most of the iconic hits of the last 10 years were written by the same person. If you have attended a photogenic pool party in the last five years, or even watched a video of a pool party while sitting alone in your house, chances are you were dancing (or crying) mostly to music written by a guy called Dr. Luke. "TiK ToK"? "Dynamite"? "Till the World Ends"? "Wrecking Ball"? Pretty much any song by Katy Perry? They're all the work of this single relatively unfamous songwriter, who has written or co-written 40 hit singles since 2004. Add in Dr. Luke's frequent co-writer Max Martin, and these two guys have pretty much written everything you have ever heard if you were born in 1999.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty

I would have mentioned Max Martin first, but clearly he is less respectable because he didn't go to song medical school.

But Martin and Dr. Luke are just the most successful examples of a whole obscure industry: songwriting teams who make their living churning out material for other, more attractive people. Members of these teams can decide whether the song they're writing this week should be aggressive nu-metal or a sassy breakup ballad: For example, a writing group called the Matrix produces songs for both Shakira and Korn, while Max Martin wrote for Backstreet Boys and a Welsh metal group called Bullet for My Valentine.

It might seem dishonest, because for the last few decades we've been conditioned to believe that musicians are singing about their own sexual conquests and trips to the club. But the arrangement works out well for everyone: Performers get near-guaranteed hits, and songwriters get to work in the industry without having to cover themselves in bacon and jump into a pack of wild dogs, or whatever it is singers are doing during live shows these days.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

I think I saw Pink do that once, but it might have been the acid.

Some Young-Adult Fiction Comes from Factories

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

"Well," the readers among you might say, clutching your threadbare Kindles to your chests, "at least fiction is still a bastion of pure artistic outpouring." Sorry to let you down even more than the unreality of unicorns, but it's not true. Now, don't get me wrong: The young-adult fiction world, like the musical world, is still full of wonderful, talented people writing stuff with both selling power and artistic integrity. But that's starting to change. A company called Full Fathom Five recently appeared on the scene and soon became infamous for hiring low-paid writers to churn out pseudonymous young-adult novels. The writers, mostly recent college graduates desperate to get published in any form, were threatened with legal action if they admitted that they worked for a book-writing factory. Oh, and did I mention that Full Fathom Five is run by James Frey, the rich ex-frat boy writer who pretended to be a badass cop-bashing drug runner so he could sell fake memoirs?

A Million Little Pieces A1 VEICAN MOER 4A Beel OPRAMS Club M S 111-41 11111 James Frey
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

You gotta have street cred if you're gonna make that Oprah money.

Depressingly, Frey's business plan has worked out pretty well. His first mass-produced novel roused a bidding war over movie rights before the manuscript was even finished, which allowed producers to give input on the book's content (they requested that certain objects be added to the book's storyline to increase merchandising potential). Frey's writing factory has since evolved into a multimedia platform, pumping out young-adult stories that can be easily transformed into catchy movie pitches and merchandise.

Worse, Frey's cynical movie grabs aren't even original cynical movie grabs: His latest book/movie project is reportedly about adolescents from 12 different tribes who are forced to fight each other to the death for supremacy, as if none of us could recognize a Sweet Valley High ripoff when we see it.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Random House


But Frey's misadventures are just a super-exploitative version of something that's already common in the young-adult market. Like any other industry, publishing wants books with a "we'll make you a lot of money" guarantee. So it's common for publishers to hire companies called book packagers that brainstorm ideas they think will be big among teenagers ("It's like the Baby-Sitter's Club ... with chupacabras") and then bring in a writer to flesh out the story. Once the writer has produced the book, the packager edits it and sends the finished "package" back to the publisher.

One of these book packagers, Alloy Entertainment, is singlehandedly responsible for producing the book-series-turned-TV-shows Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars. So that book on the shelf about sexy teen weresharks might be something the author dreamed of writing ever since her father was killed by a wereshark when she was small, but it's just as likely that an editor somewhere thought weresharks were going to be big in 2014 and the writer had a big dentist bill.


Celebrity Personalities Are a Joke

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images

We've seen it a million times: A child star hits 18 and decides to swap her childish "Disney" image for a new, sexy one. The media jump to attention (see "boobs," above), and newscasters interrupt dull reports about some nuclear meltdown to discuss Former Child Star X's Hottie Makeover. Is she being manipulated by a cruelly exploitative industry? Is she simply expressing her healthy adult sexuality? Nobody asks if she's just signed with Larry Rudolph. They should probably ask that.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Aviceda, via Wikimedia

The Internet reached its millennial quota of sexy ex-Disney-star performance images
in November 2013, so here's a picture of a button quail.

Britney Spears' and Miley Cyrus' "sexy" makeovers both happened right after they hired Rudolph, a guy who has made a career out of celebrity rebranding. Each woman's rebranding started with a "controversial" performance at the VMAs, and both involved vaguely phallic objects that people could giggle about while still safely showing them during news clips. Rudolph's trick works because people love to argue, and they especially love arguing about things that involve partial nudity. While media commentators angst about sexuality and exploitation, Larry and his clients are laughing all the way to their gold-dust-snorting parties.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Michael Kovac/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"I just bought a whole new set of organs."

Rudolph is just one example of a "reputation manager," a professional whose job is to make sure his celebrities stay in the news and try to prevent them from killing too many people on film. If things don't work out and Justin Bieber beheads one too many hostages on camera or something, reputation-management companies also offer SEO services that manipulate what people can find out about their clients online.

So, if you're a famous actor and beloved of the liberal establishment, you might pay a reputation company a couple of thousands of dollars a month to ensure that the first few pages of Google results for your name don't mention that you were once arrested for tying up and terrorizing a woman for hours.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Unrelated picture.

Well, no big deal. Everyone knows Hollywood is fake. But at least regular Joes on the Internet writing about their local novelty cupcake store can be trusted. Except you know what else is fake?

A Whole Lot of Online Reviews Are Manufactured


Much like celebrities do, professionals, small businesses, and multinational companies can all hire people to "manage" their online reputation. At its most honest, this means small businesses trying to delete the 10 bad reviews left by that one customer they kicked out after he wouldn't stop yelling racial slurs at the pizza oven. At its worst, it means hiring people to write dozens of positive reviews on sites like Yelp and Angie's List, all talking about how your poultry-canning company is awesome and totally did not give any of their family members any intestinal parasites at all.

Sean MacLeay

"I didn't really need that third of my liver anyway."

This fakery has even extended to book reviews: Authors can hire companies to write anywhere from one to hundreds of reviews on Amazon and elsewhere praising their poorly written novel for changing their life. And don't think you can spot every spurious review by its suspicious enthusiasm and poor grammar: It's been estimated that about one-third of the product reviews online are probably fake.

5 Symbols of Free Speech You Won't Believe Are Mass-Produced
Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"Screw the people on Cracked. James Frey is a total badass." -an Amazon review, probably

Social media is another area that now has fewer trustworthy ingredients than that old Soviet MRE you found buried behind a toilet in Afghanistan. Want to be more popular on Twitter? A company in Bangladesh can get you 10,000 followers for $20. Others can find people to like you on Facebook or to click on your YouTube videos, because apparently that high number is worth all of the lonely nights you'll spend crying and eating ice cream flavored with your own self-hatred. Social media sites and Google are constantly trying to detect this stuff and boot off fakes, but it's not easy when you're up against people with more money than dignity. At this point, all we can hope for is that some of the Twitter-following spambots gain angry sentience and destroy us all before it's too late.

C. Coville got Twitter followers the hard, old-fashioned way: by posting pictures of unusually fat birds.

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