A Scathing Indictment Of Corporate Culture

I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Breakfast of Champions today. Had I read it as an undergrad like a good English major, I might have been persuaded to skip out on an ad career altogether.
Critic, Marek Vit, says, “The novel attacks many things: slavery, racism, commercial greed, jingoism, ecology, capitalism, imperialism, overpopulation etc., all of these aimed precisely at modern American society.” I’d add to this list, branded communications. Witness the preface:

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use in a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, not is it intended to disparage their fine products.

Do not get lost in the author’s fine manners. Few books in modern history take on brands this cleverly. His hero, Dwayne Hoover, runs a Pontiac dealership. He also owns a Holiday Inn and several Burger Chef restaurants. Hoover is convinced his assistant, Francine, wants a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in return for sex. And so on.
There are also telling passages woven throughout the text. Vonnegut’s alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, plainly sees the desperate state we’re in.

Trout saw a broken guardrail ahead. He gazed into a gully below it, saw a 1968 Cadillac El Dorado capsized in a brook. It had Alabama license plates. There were also several old home appliances in the brook—stoves, a washing machine, a couple of refrigerators.
An angel-faced white child, with flaxen hair, stood by the brook. She waved up at Trout. She clasped an eighteen-ounce bottle of Pepsi-Cola to her breast.

While non-fiction books like No Logo take the issue on directly and in a fashion that’s hard to ignore, Vonnegut’s novel has even more power. Like so many literary artists, Vonnegut spent time writing branded communications. He was a public relations writer for General Electric. Who better to “break it down” than someone who sees all sides of the issue?



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.