In 1988, John Carpenter released his polemic against commercialism and the media. Most know it as the film in which Rowdy Roddy Piper turns up at a bank with shades and a shotgun, and says, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Others will know it as They Live.
While Piper’s absurd action-man line remains the internet’s favorite part of the movie, it isn’t the most iconic scene, as that belongs to the shot below. This is the moment in which Piper’s character first sees the subliminal messages contained in every commercial board and advertisement across the city. In this science fiction, they’ve been put there by the alien invaders that have blended in with humanity—this, and supreme command over all broadcast and paper media, is how they control us.
With the special ’80s-cool shades on, the veneer stopping us from seeing the truth of our existence is removed: dollar notes read “THIS IS YOUR GOD,” signs tell us to sleep and work for eight hours each, and bold instructions such as “OBEY” and “CONSUME” keep us supressed in the cycle of consumerism. We are slaves to the working world.
As blunt and obvious as Carpenter’s B-movie manifestation of the commercial world is, it has lasted. To watch it today, the film is clearly dated by its mullets, but its metaphor is perhaps stronger than ever. Our lives are steeped in the reality of They Live even moreso than in the late ’80s.
But what Carpenter didn’t account for as much is that we would be so accepting of having our lives dictated to by commercial entities. And more than that, we gladly participate in spreading their campaigns, especially with the remix culture and mass sharing that the internet has accelerated. Facebook’s innocent beginnings have been lost to a swathe of disguised adverts and surveillance programs, and in between it all we share snapshots of our personal lives. They—in this case governments and corporations, not aliens—record our video calls, watch our timelines, and spy on us in the streets with CCTV. Our Rowdy Roddy Piper was Edward Snowden and the sunglasses were the leaked NSA files, but has this proof of how the world works changed anything, really?
And isn’t it telling that one of the most powerful multinational corporations these days is Google, a company that was initially a search engine. The most valuable currency in today’s world is information—not just the “where is a good restaurant near my location” kind, but where we are, what we’re doing, and how we’re spending our money. Our actuality was once dystopian fiction, and we know this, yet we’re complacent about it. We might even encourage it. It’s this that Terry Cavanagh’s new freeware game Grab Them By The Eyes understands.
In it, your task is to construct signs to place above your burger stand on a street corner. You play as Jay, an older fella, who has been confronted with unfriendly competition by a couple of hip twenty-somethings, who operate under the company name “Filthy Burger” (so, FB, like Facebook?). The deal is that whoever gets the most customers to their burger stand by the end of the week gets to stay on that hot spot, while the loser shoves off.
To this end, you have to make tactical purchases of sign customizations to attract the most number of customers possible. You want flashing colors, attractive messages (or ones that insult the competition), and spinning text to grab the most eyes. Brilliantly, you can buy one sign that actually flashes the word “CONSUME,” in what has to be a nod to They Live. And as with the film, this videogame effectively distills commercialism to its most shallow form, one that acts as an exposition of today’s consumerist climate.
It could have been that you win the most customers by having tastier burgers than the youths. That’s how we like to think the world works. We love the idea of meritocracy. But that isn’t how it works in Grab Them By The Eyes, and for the most part, it doesn’t work outside of it either. Success here is only won by being the most visually demanding business, by being the loudest asshole. Further, you have to keep your stall’s appearance fresh, as each time you use a sign component, it reduces the customer-grabbing value by one. The people demand entertainment above everything else.
Cavanagh was inspired to make Grab Them By The Eyes after a trip to New York, but it belongs to any city where you have to hustle to survive. Especially those undergoing gentrification where youthful start-ups are pervasive, looking for the quickest way into peoples’ purses, finding ways to exploit their sensibilities, or to simply win their attention. It’s a world in which you need to look good to sell, and with the rampancy of selfies and photo-editing, we’re all trained in the art; your appearance is critical to your brand, personal or otherwise.
Divulging all this is the form that your competition in Grab Them By The Eyes takes. It’s the stereotypical, beard-and-glasses business-savvy hipster, typical of those found roaming the commercial world’s Vatican City, the home of blue chip companies, Silicon Valley. That they’re challenging an old man is an apt appropriation of how our merchandised planet has materialized this new breed of start-up evangelists. If Jay loses this competition he probably loses his entire business, and goes broke. The youths, when losing, likely find another industry to invade and rise through, as that’s what they do and how they survive.
They’re spurred on by the ease of access to market research (social media included) and mercantile endeavors that information technology has afforded. If anything gains popularity—be it runaway llamas or white-and-gold dresses—there will be companies looking to associate themselves with it. It’s all about being seen, being trendy, jumping on any opportunity to make a quick buck, and the momentum this runs on is generated by the majority of us. We’ve accepted advertising as a constant hum in the background of our lives. We even applaud it with acknowledgement if it’s silly enough—when I briefly worked at a PR firm, I was asked, as a twenty-something, to help create “viral content” that would boost a client’s spread on the internet, and it worked (and I hated myself). Our new masters aren’t an alien race but a home-grown convent of corporate overlords and their eager sycophants in tow.
We could wear Piper’s sunglasses and see nothing change through their tinted lenses nowadays. But there are those out there that would try to convince us that we certainly could, if that’s what it took to have us spend our money. Everything is a hoax. But at least we all look good as we chew fervently on our bubblegum.