Tag Archives: consumerism

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

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?

3 Comments

Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Power

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Leave a comment

Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay

The Cloud: Harbinger of Potential Paradigm Shift

This relates to the previous post about technology and cultural change. In the news lately has been mention of Apple’s jumping onto the cloud bandwagon. As you probably know, this model of data purchase and storage keeps one’s files in the ether, so that they are accessible to you from any device with an internet connection. [cue inspirational music] No longer will our hard-drives be plagued with the tyranny of space-hogging music files! No longer must we contemplate whether or not to download that latest movie or television show! Now, we can just stream them, more or less, anytime we want, because these companies know that we own it.

This has curious implications for society’s concept of ownership. This type of technology uses an ownership-as-access model, rather than the more traditional ownership-as-possession model. Instead of physically having something (however broad the definition of “physically” has become recently because of all this technology), what we now have is access to that something any time we want. This change has been prepared for, I’d argue, because of previous technology like digital music (to replace physically tangible entities such as vinyl records and CDs). We have become accustomed to gradually separating the idea that we have something with the physical existence of that something. And we seem to be accepting it. Perhaps it’s not problematic at all, but I can see scenarios where this (new?) association of ownership with access, rather than possession, could become legally complicated. Or, it may become the case that because ownership is becoming dominantly associated with access, that access will come to stand for–or at least will become associated itself with–possession.

In any case, this seems to be an important, underlying paradigm shift that is not getting quite the attention or discussion that the miraculous new technology itself is getting. Maybe we’re heading toward a more communal model or ownership–where we all together own and help to store the things we consider ourselves to have. But I highly doubt people in America will think of it that way. These music files I’d essentially share with the large companies who store them for us, and the millions of other consumers who have access to them, are mine.

3 Comments

Filed under Contemporary, Technology

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”?

——————

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Commodification, Contemporary