February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Another free trial

By |2018-03-21T19:02:14+01:00September 7th, 2014|Area 51|
Whether the question is about North Korean children or Netflix free offers, the answer is half-truth.

etflix is sorry that I left. As a thank you, it wants to offer a new free trial. But I never joined so I never left. I don’t deserve thanks, let alone a reward. Never mind, says Netflix, let capitalism be capitalism. Just select “Enjoy Another Free Trial.”

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe marketing as refined through the online amoeba has no choice but to reconstitute basic notions of reward by tickling increasingly itchy “send” fingers. Why connect reward with its deserving it’s already a pre-approved bonus? If 50 is the new 30, why can’t the minor deceits of salesmanship gradually make for social truths?

We live in a linguistic Pandora’s Box. Gifts are free, which is odd since they should be (though restrictions apply). Membership means “earning” huge numbers of reward points — unless you see them as a teasing calculation of previous and future patronage.

Sales pitches and consumer urges have always slept entangled and cozy in the same bed, their progeny a population whose wellbeing gains luster through big and small bonuses.

Even victims earn points. Wake up with an undesired man on a college campus and maybe you’ve been raped, or abused, or drugged, or maybe all three. You’re on the right side of valor if you speak out, turning the tables on a would-be predator and leveling an imbalanced male-female playing field — assuming, that is, the event played out the way the victim remembers. Any later rethinking — based on alcohol and bad judgment — nonetheless allows for a Netflix solution, which is to pretend something is that never was (“welcome back!”) or offer a vague, one-size-fits-all apology (“I have made some mistakes.”)

“Don’t worry,” adds Netflix in its return-to-what-you-never-hand enticement, “there are still no commitments…” And there, of course, is both rub and sore: a promise uncommitted makes for many more of the same, a pledge only as sincere as its text-length moment. Which potentially makes every lunch into a free lunch and quietly transforms 53 (or 63) into the new 13.

The Netflix vision of enjoyment has a partner in the latest United Airlines safety video. Dispensing with 50 years of tedious sobriety (“Place the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth…”), its replacement features gallivanting flight attendants in exotic places making puns on life rafts. It is very cool, very cute and very catchy. It’s also remote from imminent peril, asking entertainment to speak in its stead. The prospect of duress is buffered to give passengers a soft landing they can live with. With so many potential victims around, coddling is a business’s best friend (short of hiring therapists and opening on-board pharmacies.)

In 1965, the counterculture Rolling Stones released a song called “19th Nervous Breakdown,” a catchy, depression-themed parody that become a hit without anyone reading the lyrics (“You were always spoiled with a thousand toys but still you cried all night…”) Mick Jagger snarled at the artificiality of a culture he would later come to depend on, a transformation shared by executives at Netflix, if not Apple, with worth and net worth confusingly becoming one and the same.

In late August, the head of the Italian Northern League agreed to visit North Korea in part of what might be admissibly characterized as a stunt. But since the League has long been called xenophobic and bigoted, Matteo Salvini had little to lose.

He returned praising a state “that provides everything,” including a sense of community, a “great respect” for the elderly, and children frolicking in the streets, “and not just on play stations.” Predictable derision followed, with one newspaper calling the remarks “bizarre” and noting his failure to mention human rights abuses, the country’s personality cult, and extensive rural hunger.

But in fact he said nothing bizarre. Nearsighted perhaps. Even naïve. And also about as far you can get from Netflix or bonus points norms (commercial travel to North Korea is non-existent so there’s no market there).

The exasperated Salvini retreated to the comfort of the ropes. “The American lifestyle,” he said, “is not the only one that exists in the world.” Here, suddenly, was a 21st-century rightist using the Italian Communist Party’s favorite mid-20th century line.

If the attraction of Netflix is manipulated sincerity, the allure of tyranny is manufactured nostalgia, whether its makers are Russian or North Korean. In between are acres of uncommitted static in which even oxygen masks offer up own dance numbers.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.