For A Better Life
November 5, 2004 6:15 AM   Subscribe

The Foundation For A Better Life. A non-profit, non-partisan, non-religious, organization that doesn't want your money, but that simply believes, "the values we live by are worth more when we pass them on." What kind of values? Strength. Dedication. Vision. Sacrifice. Soul. Persistence. Commitment. Compassion. Hard Work, Class & Courage, and more. Their billboards and TV ads are all around, but if you're like me, you probably had trouble figuring out who they were from...
posted by NotMyselfRightNow (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What the fuck is 'Soul'? Was Gandhi the forerunner to James Brown ?
posted by biffa at 6:24 AM on November 5, 2004

i posted this on monkeyfilter a while ago... i kept seeing the billboards and wanted to know who was behind it. at first i thought it was a republican thing (the company owner donated money to the RNC, but not really all that much as it turns out).

but like i said then - it's nice to see someone who believes in something trying to share that with the rest of us, in a non-invasive way. the ads are simple, clean, and if i'm going to have an agenda pushed at me, it is nice to have it done this way.

(in sharp contrast to this approach are the anti-abortion ads my wife saw a few days ago, with graphic images of aborted fetuses. so graphic that the TV station actually had to run disclaimers before airing the ads. now as far as agenda pushing goes, i'll take the "pass it on" ads any day over that awful fearmongering.)
posted by caution live frogs at 7:05 AM on November 5, 2004

can't please them all:
posted by subpixel at 7:08 AM on November 5, 2004

My first thought was Co$. But no, Anschutz Corporation, headed by Philip Anschutz: Republication pro-religious sports and media magnate. More about it here: A short bio on [Forbes] magazine's website describes him this way: "Promoter of family-values agenda." Others say he is better described as a promoter of his own brand of militaristic patriotism.
posted by raygirvan at 7:11 AM on November 5, 2004

You mean they aren't the Mormons? They look exactly like all the old LDS 'moral values' ads.
posted by darukaru at 7:11 AM on November 5, 2004

Priming the pump of war by Dion Dennis, who views the message as essentially Fascist.
posted by raygirvan at 7:17 AM on November 5, 2004

My favorite virtue: Teamwork
posted by SPrintF at 7:22 AM on November 5, 2004

Actually, in a thread on this group a few years back, it was said that these folks work hand-in-hand with Bonneville Communications, which is part of the taxable wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But they may have been mistaken.
posted by silusGROK at 7:28 AM on November 5, 2004

I think the Mormon connection is correct. I remember when these ads first came out--the sponsor was not given as Foundation for a Better Life, it was given explicitly as the LDS. Same style of ad, same voice in the voiceover.
posted by adamrice at 7:40 AM on November 5, 2004

The Dion Dennis article confirms it. Furthermore, this Brigham Young University page mentions that Gary Dixon, President of Foundation for a Better Life, was formerly Vice President of Bonneville Communications.
posted by raygirvan at 7:41 AM on November 5, 2004

Metafilter Junior Detectives are on the case!
posted by hughbot at 7:47 AM on November 5, 2004

These ads are vaguely disquieting, in a THX-1138/Brave New World/Stepford Wives/1984 kind of way. The fact that it's not clear who's doing it or why just adds to the creepiness.
posted by alumshubby at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2004

The Dion Dennis article disgusts me, and is the kind of thing that could turn me into a right-winger if it becomes too prevalent among my colleagues on the left.

Has the left become so nihilistic that compassion and patience are now considered Nazi-like "conformist mythologies and virtues" that we must rebel against? Jesus fucking Christ, the left I knew was supposed to be all about compassion, for the poor, for women, for gays and everybody else who hasn't gotten a fair shake. And if patience, hard work, vision, strength, persistence and courage are equally suspect, then it's surprising we even got close to 50% in this election. Without them, we'd have been far more completely routed despite the present administration's bumbling incompetence - and we probably would have deserved it.

I agree with alumshubby to a certian extent: that the ads are a little disquieting insofar as we don't know who's doing this or why. But could we give them at least a little benefit of the doubt? Surely it's a good thing if people are more compassionate, gracious and determined; maybe, just maybe, it might also be a good thing to remind other people to be as well? Even if the people behind it happen to have Republican ties, why can't the value of courage be something we might (horror of horrors) agree with them on?

For fuck's sake, why the hell does the promotion of virtue incite comparison with Goebbels? If Dion Dennis was posting here, I'd probably be calling him a troll and invoking Godwin; the fact that someone seems to have awarded a PhD for this kind of bilge depresses me. If wanting to be a better person, and hoping to inspire others to be better people, makes somebody a Nazi, then Sieg fucking Heil.

Disclaimer to raygirvan: I notice you didn't say you agreed with Dennis, so I don't want to make it sound like this tirade is directed at you. I'm glad you posted the link - seeing that article just crystallized a lot of the things I despise about my own side in the culture wars...
posted by ramakrishna at 2:38 PM on November 5, 2004

When I was a kid, in a different part of the country, the very sweet ladies auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan held a bake sale. Local paper showed cute grannies in white hoods selling trays of cupcakes. Didn't make 'em any less evil. When nobody was looking, they were perfectly willing to burn your house down.

This campaign is NO different.
posted by gimonca at 4:20 PM on November 5, 2004

Anschutz is the money behind it, that's for certain (I've dealt with their company and spoke about this project with them). They get all the ad space donated or in trade, and pay only for the production and other hard costs.

Not sure who does the messages, but the money is definitely from Anschutz, who also tries to produce 'family friendly' films and other entertainment such as sports. He is the majority owner of Qwest Communications and is/was the owner of many railway companies.

Comparing this to the KKK is just sick.
posted by cell divide at 4:25 PM on November 5, 2004

I stand 100% behind the comparison. Quoting the article linked above, "Billionaires and oilmen do not spend money like this just so we'll be better people." It's a front, and if you believe otherwise, you've been played.
posted by gimonca at 8:02 PM on November 5, 2004

Disclaimer to raygirvan

I thought the exposition a little pseudy, but the comparison apt. It's not that the values expressed are bad, but historically, appealing to simple pushy virtues has been very much a feature of Fascism. Seeing "strength" and "hard work" in the same list, I immediately thought of "Kraft Durch Freude" and "Arbeit Macht Frei". The Reeve poster is positively Nietschean. As gimonca says, given the previous affiliations and activities of those behind the campaign, it'd be naive to view its intention as altruistic.
posted by raygirvan at 4:39 AM on November 6, 2004

it'd be naive to view its intention as altruistic

It sure would, and one thing that's always bemused me about MeFi is how naive so many of its supposedly hip, hyperaware, skeptical members are. But then I remember all those hip, hyperaware, skeptical people who went to Russia in the thirties and were charmed by Stalin and came back all enthusiastic about the Soviet Union. Those pink-cheeked collective workers! Those magnificent ideals of humanity and progress! The friendship of nations! Same old world, same old propaganda, only the lyrics and the suckers change.

And no, I'm not calling anyone a fellow traveler or a Stalinist, for chrissake, any more than Dennis was calling them Nazis. It's called historical discourse.
posted by languagehat at 7:21 AM on November 6, 2004

Quoting the article linked above, "Billionaires and oilmen do not spend money like this just so we'll be better people." Says who? I'd spend money like this so we'd be better people if I were a billionaire. I'm kind of amused by the assertion of this claim without any factual support whatsoever. At least the article demonstrates that the quote is nothing but the opinion of one "Linfield College administrator JoAnne DeMay," whom I have no particular reason to believe about anything.

Since we appear to be in the business of making nasty comparisons here, well, you guys are starting to remind me of George W. Bush: our enemies do what they do only because they hate freedom. There can't possibly be some real, honest reason their cause might appeal to them. Ever consider that the reason Anschutz want a right-wing social policy is because they want people to be better, and not the other way round?

Granted, I don't think that such policies accomplish such a goal at all, but I have to laugh at the claim that "it'd be naive to view its intention as altruistic." First of all, if this is really just a cover for a fundamentalist Christian or American nationalist agenda, why the hell are a Hindu and a Chinese on the billboards? But even if it were a cover for fundamentalist Christianity, why do you assume that's not altruistic? Wanting to save people from hell is a genuinely altruistic thing, however false the factual beliefs are underlying the motivation, and however much damage you might do on the way.

Maybe I'm just starting to get sick of hip hyperaware skepticism. People who've lived around evangelicals are usually impressed at how happy they all seem to be. Meanwhile, we angst-ridden urban skeptics seem to sit around getting ever more bitter at the evil world that elects Republicans and doesn't make enough room for everyone who wants to be a professor of comparative literature. And I'm starting to think some of that bitterness comes from an impoverished conception of virtue: for far too many on the left, being a good person consists of recycling, shopping at Whole Foods, volunteering for activist groups and maybe giving to panhandlers. We rarely talk about honesty or courage or determination - and when someone does, we use our "historical discourse" to cast aspersions on their motivations. As ever, deconstructing is more important than doing.

The Reeve poster may be "positively Nietzschean," but does that make it intrinsically bad? Isn't there something admirable about the fact that he fought against his sad and deteriorating condition? (And FOR stem-cell research, I might add - is this one more of the right-wing causes we must be suspicious of?) I mean, even putting aside the fact that Nietzsche wasn't himself a Nazi (his last coherent written words were "I am ordering all anti-Semites to be shot"), what's wrong with strength, with trying to rise above one's given condition? Should we all just accept our fates and go gentle into that good night, never fighting to make anything better? If that becomes a dominant line of reasoning on the Left, God help us all!
posted by ramakrishna at 9:17 AM on November 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

Ever consider that the reason Anschutz want a right-wing social policy is because they want people to be better

Should our opinions of a corporation be based on swallowing their public relations campaigns?

This is an attempt on their part to claim "these good things belong to us, and not to you". The next step is a claim that fundamentalism = compassion. It clearly does not.

It's legit to be offended and outraged. And yes, people should counter by acting on their outrage--I think (?) we agree on that.

The Dennis article? It's "inside baseball", not a means to convert the ignorant. But...still some good stuff in there.
posted by gimonca at 10:56 AM on November 6, 2004

This is an attempt on their part to claim "these good things belong to us, and not to you".

Item 1: the Foundation's name is in much smaller print than the rest of the ads; there's no URL, phone number or address given; it appears that the Foundation is not very well known, given that many of us had apparently not heard of it before; and the name "Foundation for a Better Life" has no obvious right-wing or Christian connotations. When you're blowing by one of these billboards at 55 mph, how are you even going to know who "us" is? With the nice KKK grannies, you know they're KKK, and so the niceness makes the KKK look better. Who, exactly, is this supposed to make look better, when they're not even explicit about who they are?

Item 2: many of the people in these ads are NOT the "us" of the fundamentalist Christians or hard-right nationalists. As I said, the ads depict a Hindu, a Chinese, and a guy fighting for stem-cell research. By what twisted logic does that come to say "these good things belong to us, and not to you"? Or "The next step is a claim that fundamentalism = compassion"? Um, last time I checked, Gandhi was not a fundamentalist, nor was Christopher Reeve, nor was the guy who stood in front of the tanks in China. If this is about a fundamentalist agenda, how come so many non-fundamentalists are being held up as the ideal?

Should our opinions of a corporation be based on swallowing their public relations campaigns?

I don't see how that question matters - as far as I can tell, the Foundation for a Better Life basically is these advertising campaigns, and the administrative apparatus to put them in place. AFAICT, their web site doesn't even tell you who they're funded by - how on earth is that PR for Anschutz or anybody?

If the ads said "Brought to you by Coors and Exxon" instead of "Foundation for a Better Life," then sure I'd be cynical. But they don't. I don't see how this is going to sell any more oil, or for that matter any more Republican candidates.

If there's anything I think it's legit to be offended and outraged about here, it's your offence and outrage.
posted by ramakrishna at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2004

I like the values they promote and I like how they're promoting them.

There's nothing wrong with reminding people to slow down and smell the roses.
posted by ruelle at 1:45 PM on November 6, 2004

We rarely talk about honesty or courage or determination - and when someone does, we use our "historical discourse" to cast aspersions on their motivations.

It's not out of any desire to put down such virtues - just dislike of being sold them via a package of simplified icons, where the reality is more complex or even unreliable. Compassion, for instance, ignores Mother Teresa's politics. Besides, historical discourse is one of the reasons to mistrust it; we've seen similar packages before. It reminds me a lot of the Way to Happiness campaign.
posted by raygirvan at 2:31 PM on November 6, 2004

If you bought a shirt, would you care if you found out that it was made with child labor? It's only a shirt. Nothing wrong with a shirt. This one doesn't say it was made with child labor...ignore its origin, and you can just pretend everything's alright.

Objects in modern society do not exist in a vacuum, all the more so for media messages. We should be smart enough to recognize the context and the references, particularly the non-verbal ones. As far as no obvious right-wing or Christian connotations goes, well, plenty of people have definitely picked up on something, and their hunches have proven correct.

Happy children?

A relaxing vacation?


Still thirsty?
posted by gimonca at 8:00 PM on November 6, 2004

raygirvan: okay, here I'm a bit more sympathetic. I do question the inclusion of Mother Teresa. Not because of her anti-abortion politics as mentioned in the link, though. Those aren't likely to be the first thing that comes to mind when a viewer thinks of Mother Teresa, and anyway I think part of the point might have been to avoid a political litmus test of any kind - I doubt that Anschutz agrees with Reeve on stem-cell research, or with Gandhi that the optimum economic organization is small self-sustaining communities. What gets me about Mother Teresa (I don't recall my source for this, so please correct me if this is an urban legend) is that she's on record as opposing economic measures that might actually improve the lot of the poor in the long run, because she wants people to remain poor so that she and others like her have something to do. If that is the case, it's a false compassion in my book.

Having said that, though, I do think that's a matter of details, not of disagreement with the whole campaign. "We have seen similar packages before" - sure, in Buddhist Jataka stories, in programs of moral education for children... most of the "historical discourse" argument seems to rest on the claim that it's only Nazis and Stalinists and fundamentalists who put up simplified images of virtue, and I think that's just false. Recent left-liberals may generally refuse to, but I'd say that's a failing of recent left-liberalism, not of everybody else. Being an academic, I do have some problem with the oversimplification here, but c'mon, we're not going to get everybody to read Aristotle's Ethics and think it through. For some people these billboards may be the best way to inspire them to better themselves.

gimonca: Your analogies are getting weirder and weirder. Child labour (arguably) means that people are getting hurt and their life opportunities diminished in the production of a commodity. What is going on here that's comparable to that? There is a man behind it who contributes to right-wing causes. If you consider supporting causes you disagree with as being comparable to employing child labour, then you, sir, are no liberal. Moreover, you're probably going to wind up boycotting everything that's not produced by Ben and Jerry's if you're going to hold that belief consistently.
posted by ramakrishna at 9:04 AM on November 7, 2004

Well, at the risk of repeating things, some people are seeing things here that you're just not seeing at the moment. And from my point of view, your assertions--that we should ignore context, historicity, motives, connections--are invitations to be credulous and weak.
posted by gimonca at 1:08 PM on November 7, 2004

The sun on the meadow is summery warm,
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm,
Tomorrow belongs to me.

The branch of the linden is leafy and green,
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen—
Tomorrow belongs to me!

Those beautiful children, they sing so sweetly! It brings a tear to my eye. Only a cynic would find the spectacle anything but uplifting.
posted by languagehat at 2:43 PM on November 7, 2004

Mother Teresa ... urban legend

I've never heard that particular one, but the Aroup Chatterjee book raises plenty of similar issues.

Having said that, though, I do think that's a matter of details, not of disagreement with the whole campaign.

Ignoring detail - writing off analysis as mean-spirited snarking - is exactly what the makers of this kind of propaganda want you to do. The details are the key to seeing that it's spin. Another example: Ghandi. He started his career as a lawyer, and his achievements were down to superbly intelligent strategy in disrupting an authoritarian political system. What does it say about this campaign that it just represents him as "Soul"?
posted by raygirvan at 6:27 PM on November 7, 2004

some people are seeing things here that you're just not seeing at the moment.

Exactly, and I'm not seeing them because they don't exist. Or at least you haven't provided a shred of decent evidence that they do. I love languagehat's approach in particular here: don't bother answering any objections to your claim, just restate the claim using a quote and some snark!

It seems to me less like I'm ignoring context and more like you two are ignoring content. Question, gimonca and languagehat: suppose we have a MeFi thread about pizza, in which Steve_at_Linnwood posts a comment listing all the good pizza places in his hometown. Are you going to be offended and outraged by his pizza advice, on the assumption that it must have the ulterior motive of creating a Republican dictatorship because he happens to be on the right side of the political spectrum?

Since I've been complaining about bad analogies myself here, let me expound a bit on why I say that: as far as I can tell, the only evidence that either of you have for your claim of a hidden agenda here is that this foundation is funded by Philip Anschutz and Philip Anschutz contributes to conservative causes. If "X contributes to conservative causes, X says Y in public fora, therefore Y is a front for the real hidden agenda of promoting those conservative causes" is a sound argument in your books, then we have as much reason to be suspicious of Steve's hypothetical pizza listing as we do of the Better Life campaign, at least assuming that Steve contributes anything to the causes he supports.

raygirvan: Okay, fair enough on the general point about details being important, but the details especially don't convince me that it's spin - at least if by "spin" you mean "having a theocratic/nationalist agenda," rather than "trying to interpret particular figures in a particular way which suits one's goals." That the campaign is spin in the latter sense seems inarguable, but name me an interpretation of any figure that isn't. Your problem with the Gandhi poster seems to be that the campaign is depoliticizing him. Which might be fair enough - except that we also have a picture of a student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square, surely an equally good example of "disrupting an authoritarian political system," even if the student's strategy wasn't as good.

To Steve_at_Linnwood in case you're reading this: I'm not trying to single you out over anything in particular; I have no idea whether you contribute to conservative causes, or even whether you like pizza. I use your name here only as the first example that came to mind of an intelligent right-wing MeFite, and I'm hoping you won't object to the characterization.
posted by ramakrishna at 1:15 PM on November 8, 2004

We're not talking about pizza advice here--it's your analogy that doesn't hold water. We're talking about a large corporate entity and a major ad campaign, a marriage of right-wing christianity and corporate power, telling everyone that everything's wonderful, and so are they. It's not. They're not. The ads are lies. In the language of the Dennis article that you don't like, you've been "outsmarted".

I've got a whole bagful of further analogies, and snarks...maybe later.
posted by gimonca at 2:43 PM on November 8, 2004

ramakrishna, your analogy is ridiculous. There is no history of pizza being used as a front for a hidden agenda of promoting conservative causes; there is a great deal of history of this kind of superficially innocuous Kirche, K├╝che, Kinder, Strength through Joy imagery being used as a front for the worst kind of reactionary ideology. If you don't want to think about it, fine, but don't insult us while you close your eyes.
posted by languagehat at 5:16 PM on November 8, 2004

languagehat: If you don't want to think about it, fine, but don't insult us while you close your eyes.

That's awfully rich coming from someone whose previous post ignored everything I had to say and simply restated its own point with sarcasm. If you're feeling insulted, join the club. You still have yet to show me any causal connection by which these ads will actually promote a nationalist or fundamentalist agenda, given that
a) they explicitly hold up non-Christians and non-Americans as exemplars of virtue, in non-subservient roles and even anti-authoritarian ones (see the Chinese in front of the tank); and
b) you have to dig far deeper than 95% of a billboard's viewers ever will in order to find out who's actually promoting it - see below, or above.

I've thought about this just fine, thank you. I've yet to see any evidence that you have. Closing my eyes to evidence is what it would take for me to agree with you.

gimonca: I sometimes wonder if we're looking at the same ads. "Everything's wonderful, and so are they?" As I've said before, these ads barely give you clues as to who "they" even are. There's no "Brought to you by the Christian Coalition," not even "brought to you by the LDS," no indication of who you're supposed to be associating with these ads beyond a small-print announcement of a firm nobody's ever heard of. But beyond that, I don't think they are saying "everything's wonderful" - if it were, why would you need to "pass it on"? Virtues are things that most of us usually don't have enough of, but should have more of, and one way to teach people to be more virtuous than they are is show them images of people whose virtue is inspiring.

As for being "outsmarted"... that would be those lefties who provide the right with so much ammunition by snarking at every mention of virtues and values in public fora. I'm continually bewildered that in the US "moral values" - something indispensible to living well - so often means "we hate gays and want women barefoot and pregnant," as it did in the past election. But, I'm afraid, it has come to mean this largely because so many lefties agree that public promotion of virtue and moral goodness must imply the pushing of a right-wing agenda, even when the promoters specifically go so far as to include icons (like Reeve) who are hostile to that agenda. And as long as being left-wing means being suspicious or even hostile to moral values in general, what sane person would ever want to vote left?

We all got seriously played last week. If you guys have your way, that will continue. You can continue to feel smug and superior to all those poor earnest slobs out there if you want, but me, I'm going to get on with making the world a better place and myself a better person.
posted by ramakrishna at 2:13 PM on November 9, 2004

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