Consider this: if you replaced the panda with a business executive in a suit — the capitalist par excellence — it would totally shatter the symbolic functioning of the advertisement; this intrusion would rupture the commercial’s marketing force. The capitalist ideology at work here would collapse under its own weight once we realize the horrible fact that an ambiguous panda is the only thing standing in the way of our seeing the true violence of capitalism; in other words, if we just disambiguate the absurdly comical panda-figure, then we see that we’re actually always suffering violence done by real people, not by imaginary pandas, as the commercial wants us to believe. Indeed, it’s almost ridiculous how easy it is to disintegrate the ideological functioning here: replace the panda and the whole thing turns into a horrible farce. Destroying the “panda” — the core of the fantasy — is the way to dissolve capitalist ideology in this case: the panda is the sublime object, the mask that sustains an ideological fantasy as if to say capitalism really is this innocuous.

To understand this, we have to see that the panda-figure is so enigmatic, so bizarre, that it keeps you searching for a reason why it’s there, a reason for what it’s doing. The point not to be missed is that sustaining your curiosity is precisely the function of the panda: it absorbs your attention so as to obfuscate, to mystify, what would otherwise — if it were a human being — be a strikingly obvious case of brutal violence, akin to the work of an SS or KGB operative. So think of it in the following way: if a human did these same things, the commercial would inspire not laughter, but horror. This horrible violence is what’s really happening every day. It’s no coincidence that we say we’re “bombarded” with advertisements, pushed more and more to buy, to consume, to enjoy.

But it would be too traumatic if a human being played the role of the panda, violently imploring you to buy, eat, and enjoy the cheese. And that is why, in all seriousness, the panda represents the crucial pivot point or “crux” of ideology today, the enigmatic figure which traps the imagination in a closed loop of fantasy; the panda deflects our critical gaze – fully operative, of course, in the case that a business executive played the part – reflecting it back to us, distracting the critic and getting the critical view out of the way so that we can feel comfortable enough to respond in laughter, effectively sustaining the ideology.

The truly grotesque thing about this commercial, however, is the hideous blank stare that the panda directs toward its ‘victims.’ It doesn’t even speak; it just acts. So there are two things at work in this character: (1) its plain absurdity, the ridiculous spectacle of a panda being there at all, and (2) its sublime character: its stare captures the look of its viewers, draws the consumer in (it gazes into us), standing in for the hole in the symbolic understanding, Lacan’s object a, the result being a perpetual non-satisfaction of our curiosity, an irresolution of the question ‘What the hell is this thing, and what is it doing here?’. Once the gaze is captured, the panda suddenly acts, violently breaking the rules. But this should not stop us from seeing the more insidious ideological point of this rule breaking: the panda figure is made all the more absurd – all the more laughable (enjoyable) – by its rule-breaking: it’s just that much easier to deny what’s actually going on here, to say to oneself “that is such an absurd thing that the whole point of this commercial must be some farfetched joke, there’s not really consumerism/capitalism playing itself out here.” Thus the viewer finds it all the more believable that this couldn’t possibly represent anything other than a fantasy, couldn’t reveal something about the functioning of a social system, of capitalism (and capitalist ideology) itself. At least, this is the advertisers’ wager.

The violence in the commercial is thus senseless on two levels: first, of course, the violence is totally unnecessary, and, second, it’s not clear what on earth the panda’s motivation would be, or if this would-be animal, which we’d normally distinguish from human beings for its lack of conscious intentionality, could even have a motive at all. And therein lies the danger. For once we fail to determine a motive, we have given up the critique; only if we can figure out the underlying cause can we reveal the workings of the system itself. This is why comedy, with its absurd figures, can be so subversive: it temporarily suspends our judgment, postpones it from reaching its “target.” With figures like the panda as its mascots, capitalism, and other ideologies, thus thwarts anyone who wants to get at the true language of ideology.

So if we laugh at this commercial, then ideology is functioning flawlessly. If, on the other hand, we come away confused, then, although we haven’t “bought into” the joke, we have still failed to puncture the horrible thing going on here, to resolve the ambiguity. In effect, unless we penetrate this commercial with a critical gaze, the ideological schema remains in tact, we walk away puzzled or apathetic.

Further, I’d assert that when the capitalist puts on the ‘mask’ of the panda, we feel that we are somehow more free in our decision to obey the command and to buy the cheese, because, after all, it’s just a panda… We might even think that because we can laugh at it, we have command over it, we “get” the joke, understand it, and thus maintain a dominant position of anxiety-free knowledge with respect to the otherwise potentially threatening ideological injunction: it is much easier, and much more gratifying, to confront the agent of capitalism in panda form, than to confront it in human form.

Here, a major problem is that while individuals today feel relatively autonomous, thanks to modern democracy, liberated from the violence of an outside force, of a religious, military, or cultural imposition, they nevertheless submit to the demands of the supposedly “benevolent” authority of the absurdly comic figure, whether this figure is a panda, or a self-deprecating idiot, or a silly spokesperson with strange quirks (see examples 1 and 2).

We should see in all of these commercial figures a strict equivalence to the kind of ideological activity that happens in the political realm: political leaders such as Berlusconi maintain their charisma and power not by following and administering the letter of the law, but rather by openly admitting that they break the law, so as to stand at an ironic distance to their actions; they do not deny responsibility, but rather make a much more subversive move: in their overt hypocrisy they deny that the notion of responsibility is itself important. So what we should see in the comic character of the panda here is that capitalist ideology has managed to convince the consumer that capitalism, after all, is just a game, shouldn’t be taken too seriously; the message is that, because capitalism is “the best we can do,” we might as well laugh, might as well stand at an ironic distance from our activities in the market, might as well enjoy the product and ignore the system that created it.

And this is, to be precise, the same mark of a smug self-assurance that says “things are under control.” It is an attitude that pervades yuppie culture, from the “life is good” brand, to other obsessions with reducing anxiety, from Zen Buddhism and yoga all the way down to smoking pot and partying non-stop.

Ideological critique is that which seeks to identify the symbolic operations that sustain an ideology, and these objects are harder and harder to find today, because they are cloaked in the mask of an innocuous, absurd joke. But luckily for the critic, the ideological coordinates of this commercial are rather simple. Most people probably have an automatically averse reaction to something in this commercial anyway; it is vulnerable from the start because of the panda’s senseless violence, which I expect many people do find unsettling. And, again, all we have to do as critics in this case is to replace the panda with the true agent of capitalism, the banal (and for that reason all the more terrifying) human being, in order to get at the point. We should thus see this as an incredibly clear illustration of our theoretical concepts.