Category Archives: Commodification

Becoming Complicit: How I Got Sucked into the Disney Racket

About a year ago, I wrote about the reflexive, layered marketing endemic to theme parks. Well last night, I tentatively entered into the “magical” world of the master of all self-promotion: Disney. It was quite the moral struggle, and I’m fairly certain I sold out by going, as will soon be revealed. Consider this post a penance; a form of reparation, inadequate as it may be. Words are cheap, but at least critique offers some substance, however meager.

As I walked with the endless flow of consumers people toward the sounds of the big band, I tried to console myself by saying that I was only entering the periphery of this evil empire, and it was for a swing dance (my rebel base, if you will), and it was free. But alas, I was still complicit in the well oiled money-making machine. As one of my dance partners remarked, we were the entertainment at Downtown Disney that evening. We had played right into the promoters’ nefarious plan: Disney had us working for free to keep the non-dancing crowds there longer. We captured their attention for a few minutes or more with our performance of a bygone era’s social scene, complete with pseudo-costumes. In delaying their journey from one end of the shopping area to another, we helped to break them down so they’d empty their pocket-books at some food stand, overpriced theme restaurant, or over-blown souvenir shop.

The novelty of our dancing to the 1940s music was buttering them up, providing a free service to both the watchers and to Disney by making these consumers think they could afford to spend more at the retail and dining outlets because they’d just experienced a free show. Not that these folks wouldn’t have spent money without us: visitors of Disney come prepared to do so. It’s part of the deal: you know you’re going to drop a couple hundred, especially if you’re there with the kids. But the genius of Disney is that once you’ve done that and you’re inside their cocoon of nonstop entertainment, you feel like you’re getting it all for free.*

Aside from the incessant marketing and consumerism (and the odd sensation of being entertainment in/for a place I object to on principle) the other thing that struck me about the whole experience was the way people dress at the Disney resort. Even on the edges, in this themed outdoor mall, people wore the trappings of the brand. It’s part of the experience of visiting this carefully constructed space: wearing mouse ears on a hat or made out of inflatables, sweatshirts with the Disney name or Mickey’s face on them…the many souvenir outlets make the possibilities of being a walking advertisement endless.

This is all done proudly and arguably to excess. Hats and glasses and clothes and balloons, all can be anchored on one individual! Who dresses like this is “real life”?!! But here, being over-the-top is sanctioned, encouraged. The more branded swag the better! It shows that you are a loyal consumer, a real lover of Disney and its many lands and cartoon inhabitants. And it is understood that this is the way one should be. The little girls wear princess hats and the little boys wear Woody cowboy hats or Indiana Jones fedoras and the grown-ups wear anything and everything with the Disney name on it. And you just know that most of it was purchased here, in the ill-defined confines of this sprawling resort. The hat-wearers may only be here for the day, but the people with the branded clothing are in it for a multi-day Vacation: they are the ones staying in the themed hotels, making a destination out of this glorified retail establishment.

I have no real conclusion. Just a sense of amazement, mild disgust, and guilt at having participated. Because in spite of understanding the mechanics of what was going on and objecting to what dancing there meant, it was still enjoyable. I may not have given them any of my money, but I did (in a sense) give them my labor in return for the pleasure of live music and the space to engage in the best form of exercise ever invented. I didn’t stay away. And that’s why Disney always comes out on top. Damn it.

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*This idea is not mine, but Dan O’Brien’s.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Nostalgia

Merrily Spring-boarding from a Book Review to Thoughts on Nostalgia: A Review of a Review of “Ready Player One”

In the September 5th issue of Time magazine, there was a one-page book review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. This post isn’t going to discuss the book itself, as I haven’t read it, but rather some issues that the reviewer, Douglas Wolk, touched upon in his article.

Briefly, the book seems to be about 1980s video games being played  in a dystopian future, and one game in particular that, if beaten, can give the winner unimaginable riches. In his review, Mr. Wolk points out that this book has been talked about for a while now, and that this talk is “acutely nostalgic.” Then he goes on to a section entitled “Pop Culture Eats Itself.” Yum!

Wolk ties the excitement surrounding this novel to a particular idea presented in Simon Reynold’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The idea being that the current turn in artistic expression is toward rehashing. Toward the celebration of the bygone. Toward nostalgia. Sequels and mass-culture entertainment drawn from existing stories and cultural landmarks abound. The presumption is that art used to, once upon a “better” time, strive for originality. (This is itself a nostalgic lament.) I would point out that all this re-making and referencing capitalizes on an imagined audience’s predilection for nostalgia. After all, movies and books and even some visual art gets produced because those with the money to back these projects believe that they will see a return on their investment. This artistic turn toward nostalgia that Wolk and Reynolds note we’re being bombarded with in popular culture is in no small part in the service of marketing. In the service of commodifying (self)reflexive nostalgia to feed the masses, in the hopes that they might fill the pocket-books of the creators and their patrons (if we want to stick with the idea that this is all art in some form or another).*

Onto a second, slightly related point that comes up in the article about the value of nostalgia in and of itself–at least in the world of (pop)art/culture. Again, my thoughts have strict limitations as I have not read any of the books being referenced in his review (shame on me!), but when Wolk writes that we should rue the day that science fiction starts looking toward the past (and, oh crap, thanks to Cline’s book, that day is today!), I wonder what kind of “trouble” he thinks we’re in, either creatively or socially. He concedes that “all that crap clearly meant something to people,” but bemoans the fact that Cline’s book doesn’t explore this. It just presents the 1980s games as a saving grace in and of themselves for the inhabitants of the dystopian future. (Oh yeah, there was also that winning money thing.) Wolk thinks there should be more commentary on that meaning.

Wolk essentially criticizes Cline’s novel for glorifying something that isn’t real enough; that does little to push the boundaries and say something new as it presents the nostalgic for mass consumption. Or maybe he’s angry that the glorification offers little analysis or critique. In any case, Wolk claims that this building-upon and making-new is an artist’s job, “not just to offer up comforting familiarity as a talisman against the void.” But I wonder if perhaps this could be one of the points of Cline’s book: that nostalgia is emptier than we’d like it to be.

*One final tidbit: Wolk refers to what he sees as Cline’s overuse of pop-culture references to the 1980s as “maddeningly fetishistic.” Exactly.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Book Reviews, Commodification, Media

A Question on Appropriate Analytical Tactics

This question came to me during breakfast while watching a morning “news” show. I’d like to think they were doing a segment on consumer advocacy or reports, but it’s just as likely this thought came to me out of the blue:

In a consumer culture such as ours, is a Marxian analysis of the means and mode(s) of production still relevant? When the emphasis is so heavily on the consumer side, is it even useful to think of power in terms of who controls production? Or is the real power more in the hands of the hegemony, which convinces most of us that it is consumption that counts? And in any case, what does it say about our socio-economic system, about the state of things, that our main source of “power”–or at least the source most consciously realized and discussed–is consumptive?

In a sense, that’s not even power at all…although this is where I tend to slip back into Marx (is there a way to avoid it?)…but it’s not “real” power because it’s not just consumer demand that dictates production and makes companies rise and fall–it’s capitalist interest. That elusive yet pervasive “good” that we discursively (and mentally–subconsciously?) glorify yet only understand through well-worn metaphors and (misguided) faith. And it’s marketers who influence consumption patterns, by studying and exploiting them. It’s all related in a convoluted chain of powerful influences in the (ultimate?) service of increasing capital. And we consumers–the identity that all of us are encouraged to wear like a badge of honor–don’t have nearly the power we think we do.

But this does little to answer my original question about the relevance of a Marxian analysis in the face of our overwhelmingly consumerist society, because I just slipped so easily back into Marx up there. Almost too easily…Marx may be useful if only because he helps us dispel the hegemonic myths about the culture in which we live: a Marxian analysis helps us to see the production side of things that tends to be obscured, even as it is vaguely glorified in the “jobs” trope that is so in vogue right now. And of course there is always commodity fetishism, a big part of our consumer culture. But the working class has yet to come to mass consciousness, and I still want something that’s a better fit to describe what’s going on at the consumer level that’s so in the forefront of our national consciousness, while at the same time taking into account what is obscured by this focus on these gargantuan myths of the power of this hegemonically imposed and nearly-universally embraced identity. I want it all revealed and deconstructed and fit back together in a contemporarily sensical way.

Perhaps I need more Gramsci to understand what’s going on, but what I really want is an analytic that is for us–that is grounded in this culture and this time, not imposed from another, however appropriate or partially relevant it may seem. However well we try to make it fit. It just doesn’t do enough to completely understand what the hell is going on, here. And there probably is at least one, I’m just having some difficultly remember what it is. A little help, folks?

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Power

Theme Parks and You: How to Consume Efficiently and Be Your Own Advertisement

As I stumbled around in 100 degree heat toward the next ride, futilely adding another layer of sunscreen to my saturated-yet-sun-dried skin, I was struck by an idea that doubtlessly countless others have had before*:

Amusement parks are a study in infinitely fractal, self-referential marketing and cross-promotion. Our presence as the willing public is their greatest opportunity, for we are a captive audience. Captives who have paid to be trapped in an endless barrage of merchandising. (A barrage made up of attempts clever, clumsy, and blatant alike. Often within what could be isolated as a single “pitch.”) It really is extraordinary (and also perhaps expected or mundane, which itself says a lot about our culture) the different levels on which this marketing happens.

The imitated voice of a famous rabbit Muzaks its way into our somewhat offended ears, telling us that now is the perfect time to upgrade to a season pass…so we can come back and keep hearing him give us these little tips and spend more time awash in a sea of themed advertising. Stores sell all sorts of products with the park’s logo on it, characters that the park is affiliated with, merchandise with the names of various rides, comic book character capes: everything you could ever want and very little you “need.” The rides are named after current, recent, or upcoming movies, reminding the public to go see them and be part of the national summer blockbuster conversation.

Perhaps this isn’t as extraordinary or complex as all that, and others have analyzed this phenomenon in more depth and with more care**, but when you start pulling back the layers, it certainly seems to be. Even while entering and exiting rides, patrons are reminded to go eat a turkey leg at a nearby snack bar, or visit a different ride or attraction. Everything is designed to remind the visitor about different aspects of the theme park’s financial interests so that they can support these interests by buying commodities that have been fetishized nearly beyond recognition and functionality.

Is that post-modern punk kid wearing that super-hero cape ironically, or seriously, or because it struck him as the appropriate thing to don while experiencing the corresponding ride? Are we playing these carnival games because we like that it involves hitting a representation of that pesky cat who always tried to kill the bird on the Saturday mornings of our youth, or because it involves the chance of winning an oversized plush doll that represents an entirely different cartoon character? Are we just pawns in several large, incestuous companies’ schemes to make sartorial advertisements out of us–soon all we’ll have to do is look in the mirror, and our shirts will subconsciously remind us that we really do need to go see that new super-hero movie. And then go buy a ticket and pay for parking so we can go ride the ride, and then buy a pen or hat or coffee mug to commemorate all of this.

Maybe none of this matters. It is what we’re paying for, after all.

Thoughts? Further unpacking? Anyone want to call “shenanigans”?

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Notes:

*Therefore, all of this could, indeed, be a product of sun-stroke.
**See, for example, a discussion of Disneyland in Postmodernism: a reader by Thomas Docherty; Satisfaction Guaranteed by Susan Strasser; Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World by Jane Kuenz; and Advertising the American Dream by Rolland Marchand.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary