Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Errin's class final

• After reading NoLogo what are your thoughts on the relationship between consumerism and the media?
My first thought is that the media pours fuel on consumerism, people ask for clues from the media, and get them and consumerism is one of the ensuing consequences. Why does the public crave to be told what to buy, what to desire? The answer may come from the boredom that sets in once the novelty of a purchase wears off. The boredom turns into lust for more, or something new, and the lust smolders waiting for a triggering event. Advertising is part of that triggering event, as is the coverage by other forms of the media. Consumerism sounds like a dirty word, but it really is an appetite. It is the triggering of an appetite that doesn’t get filled with a single purchase.
In a way, the media wants to seduce you, but not only you personally, the seduction needs to happen in massive proportions in which entire segments of society fall for it, creating a new demographic, if possible. That seduction is consummated when you and a hundred-thousand others buy the item. However, the act of buying is only the beginning of a relationship that constantly changes the face of what triggers a person’s wants. Looked at from a different angle, if the media were to suspend advertising and return to public service functions only, the appetite may remain latent in people’s heads but the pace of the world’s economy would come to a crashing halt.
Fads were present from times remote and were triggered by the monarch (or concubine) and what was ‘in style’ or by the shocking effect of conspicuous consumption. The lust was latent nonetheless. What was different in remote times, or at present time in remote, media-less places is, the pace of consumption. The pace of consumption is driven, ironically, by the masses of poor young people that want to be unique in some fashion, that earn money and insist on displaying purchased items both as clues to their identity and as synonyms of their upward mobility. The media exploits this insecurity by creating narratives and experiences that, taken alongside the public’s craving for belonging to a group, make for a very convenient marriage of delusion and fantasy.
Some of these narration-campaigns have been off the air for a while, but their echoes still remain. Philip Morris’ “Marlboro Country” was such a legend, insisting for decades on the association of its cigarettes with depictions of both square-jawed men and landscapes featuring cowboys, horses and cattle. The Marlboro legend proposed a mythical lifestyle that audiences found appealing and drove sales of cigarettes far above the level of consumption that the demographics would suggest.
The remarkable trick the media brings to bear is the justification for specific, targeted consumption. Tobacco could be used in many ways, not just cigarettes, after all. But the cowboys don’t smoke a pipe, nor do they inhale it from a tin, or chew it (actually, they do chew it, in real life, but not in the ads). The magic that an item needs is what the media makes; the media is your trusted friend (Klein 7) that brings you what is cool, attractive, and desirable. Then, it follows that tobacco consumption, without the media, would (perhaps) revert to a strata of society, instead of whole-fabric appeal. This, of course, is the goal of the current ban on tobacco advertising, part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement.
The impact of the media on consumerism would seem to be that of an accelerant, a factor that stretches and deepens consumption.
• In what ways do media contribute to things like “branding” and the “co-opting of cool”?
Branding, or brand creation, needs exposure; the media reveals and propels the concept. The media takes the ethereal cool and pimps it for eyeballs (Klein 74). Branding is the process by which a commercial entity intends to create a metaphor for itself. Branding is the transcendence that begins when an artificial, but significant, difference is imprinted into the public’s mind about an item, in the midst of many similar items. The media steps in as a vehicle for the branding, a way to repeat and imprint that difference, until the public stops considering such differences as artificial and treats them as rock-hewn fact.
Levi’s (and all other brands) are just trousers made out of a coarse cotton fabric, dyed a cheap indigo blue copied from what was worn by sailors originally. But, among all the then and now available trousers, Levi’s remain and have become an integral part of the American narrative, be it in the last century or the one before. So then the question is, how does an icon become such? The answer is not intuitive, since a single criterion is not associated with such a status.
Ubiquitousness alone won’t result in legend, but exposure at key moments will make it possible. Milk, potting soil, wood are articles that have resisted branding attempts until the present time. Drinking water, fertilizer and glue have conversely been co-opted into a category that set them apart from their non-branded shelf mates. Try finding plain tap water alongside Perrier, Evian, Aquafina. Or find on the shelf plain fertilizer, and not Miracle-Gro. Good luck finding plain glue, and not Elmer’s glue. It was the media through advertising that turned the idea behind these products into a reality in the public consciousness.
The process of brand manufacture follows a typical pattern. The item is adopted by media creators in an ad agency, where the image is to be shaped and defined. The language is agreed upon and the product hits the store shelves with ads that integrate it into people’s lives. Examples of late are the iPod/iPhone sub-brands within Apple Computer, products that transcend a fixed physical appearance and now could be associated with just about anything. By portraying the iPod as an integral part of everyday life, using hip young people dancing and beat-driven music, Apple co-opted coolness and made history.
Without the media, the convergence of video and print ads as well as movie placement, Apple would have nothing more than another gadget, among many like it. The media then enhances, stylizes, transfers coolness and helps hungry corporations to hawk their wares, much like the old time traveling salesman or carnival barker (of snake oil fame).

• Is your identity shaped by the media? Why do you think so, or why not?
My identity may be shaped by the media more than I care to look. I see a lot of media-pimped images that hit their target and create the right feelings of craving and lust. I’m a kid from the media age, I see things as spun by the TV and have to consciously disengage and deconstruct. Whether we are ready to recognize it, or not, the media shapes us, much as we shape language, or think we do. The shaping takes place right out of the cradle, as soon as we start to notice our surroundings and compare our playthings with others’. We want what others have.
I remember clearly the Matchbox toy car commercials, and how I burned to have a few more for my collection. Likewise, my kids now pine for whatever comes on the TV, my sons don’t do it anymore, but if it’s pink, or has fairy wings, I’m in trouble. They have taken to shouting in unison “I want thaaa-aaat!” whenever the commercials come on. Is the commercial shaping them? I don’t know, but I can only suspect that it has become part of the narrative of their childhood. What parent can turn a deaf ear to a child’s plea for a new toy?
Along the same vein, comes the exposure to music, something that I thought was an important part of my teen years, only to realize that I didn’t need it, or crave it if there was no radio around, or Walkman. For my kids, it is much the same, they have music that gives them something to sing along to, and that they rock out to. I get a thrill out of our shared experience of Rockband, especially the songs from the eighties that they sing so well.
If we add TV shows and layer the exposure, there is no question about it, our cultural GPS in America only works by means of these shared experiences. They all seem to have a common thread running through them, and that is one form of media or another.
• What benefit/detriments come from a society whose ideals are shaped by popular media?
Society will blow around like a leaf in the wind, with no anchors possible. Anchors like tradition and religion become meaningless if society instead chases a hedonistic reflection of itself. In some aspects, it could be argued that the media presents to society an anti religion. Where religion seeks to harmonize the common individual with God, or a state of enlightenment, the media would suggest to the same common man that the hedonistic pursuit and chaotic state of being is a far more organic and natural course to take.
This argument can only move forward if you can, for a moment, think that God is down one path at the fork, and on the other an anti-god. As such, cultures that have persisted through time have built themselves upon an order that was somewhat theocentric (Egyptian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) and most decidedly not reliant on the media for propagation, at least not commercial media. Likewise, traditions (of the not-exactly religious kind) that have persisted to current times (folklore, celtic tradition, norsk, African) are based on codes that establish safe practices and unsafe or forbidden practices.
The current state of popular media for the westernized world, taken as a whole, is one that eschews self control, rules and responsibility. It can be argued that it stands in opposition to orderly society. In that sense, the USA has the enviable position of being at once, a cradle for religious fervor across the world (evidenced by the rise in the new century of power for a class of political activists that called themselves Christian conservatives) and a major source for the hedonistic and media-centric entertainment world, as evidenced by the proliferation, influence and dominance of western music, technology and culture.
Not surprisingly, many cultures and peoples are much affronted by the immense footprint of American media. There are also dire warnings that our American culture is really the tool of the devil, and as such, they feel they need to strike back with whatever they have at their disposal. Take, for example, the middle east. There is a wide perception that American media is tantalizing and titillating, but ultimately destructive to their way of life. Their traditions, their way of life and their religion could very well be erased by a society like ours. With the modern media being a strong agent for change and disturbance, and our country shaped by it, the fear that we will assimilate them and remake them into our image is well founded.
• What is the effect on democracy?
Consumerism feeds the globalized-corporation model. Democracy aspires to at least not exploit the labor force and not cheat them of union wages and such. Globalized corporations aim for the lowest possible production costs, specifically avoiding unions and jockeying for whatever country will agree to its terms. In economies other than democratic, the masses of fit, hungry, and teachable workers will leap at the chance of employment, even if in the process they exchange human rights for a day’s pay. Democracy is incompatible as an ideal with the modern globalized marketplace.
Authoritarian-type governments are well suited to the modern marketplace however, with few people to answer to, corporations (or more properly speaking, contractors) are free to damage the environment, behave unethically towards their workers and do whatever they need to do to compete and make the product at maximum profit and lowest cost. The media makes consumerism appear appealing, even the norm. The proposition comes full circle when the exploited worker wants to work even harder at the sweatshop to afford the goods that will give him the status that the media bombards him with.
Democracy is subverted in a consumerist state (Klein 441), its people numbed to the abuses perpetrated against faceless cuasi-slaves in equally faceless contractor dungeons. Democratic ideals require people with knowledge of this oppression to behave ethically and vote with their wallets for those in the marketplace trying to make a change, and like Klein advises “…build a resistance…” (Klein 446).

Works Cited
Klein, Naomi. No logo taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador, 2000

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