Sunday, June 25, 2006

Consuming Identity

Consuming Identity

I engage daily in purchase transactions. These range from food, to gasoline, clothes, airline tickets. For each transaction I have numerous choices to make, one of the advantages and challenges of living in a resource-rich market-based economy. None of this is news. Each time I make a purchase, exercise my choice, I am acting out of my personal and social values. This transaction sends a message into the economic and production systems that encourages them to produce another item just like the one have purchased. By being ever more conscious in my buying, by becoming increasingly discriminating in the sources of the materials or the fairness of the labor practices involved, for instance, and being willing to pay for those qualities and practices, I am bringing my values to bear on the economic system. At the same time I constantly remind myself that such a frame of reference is extremely privileged, and available to a limited set of the world’s population. The element of change I can bring about through the transaction is nanometric, but valuable nonetheless. This is the story I tell myself.

This story, however, has had others help write it. Cultural conditioning, class bias, inherited and unexamined values, media exposure, and my own instinctive desires all play a part in its crafting. This part I can own. This is who I am as a consumer, an evolving aspect of my identity. However, there are others who make it their business to usurp that authorship while overwriting or overriding that identity. The intention through advertising and other forms of commercial-based media messaging is to relocate my awareness from my ever-emergent who to what I am as a consumer. That is: To objectify myself, to condition what I see as I reflect upon myself, as if the image in the mirror is the end of the reflective process. After all an image is a thing and we are very image-conscious.

Consider the following from the Art Directors Club Annual No. 34 of 1955: “It is now the business of advertising to manufacture customers in the comfort of their own homes.” “To manufacture customers”—what a dehumanizing and impossible imperative. What a misapplication of the industrial mind-set. And yet it was the overarching and brilliant strategy to control and commodify self-perception. In some ways, the very notion of personal spiritual or cultural freedom, that part of myself that I consider most sacred and inviolable, is put at risk here by an intention to redefine it as solely economic and dependent. According to this advertising imperative, I am only me in relation to the material world and what I buy or own, and more insidiously, to some fabricated projection of how I ought to be.

1955 was a watershed year for the commercial world which emerged post World War II. That year televisions numbered 30.7 million and were possessed by 50% of the population. Three short years later, there were more TVs than people, homes, or cars. For quick context: 1955 was the year that MacDonald’s and Disneyland opened in a hail of optimism about the future; “Queen for a Day,” an early form of what we now call reality or tabloid television, began broadcasting; the first atomic reactor began generating power in Schenectady, NY; the first bus boycotts began in Montgomery, Alabama; “Rock Around the Clock” (a telling title for our time) was one of the most popular songs. This is just to mention a few cultural signposts.

While 1955 was certainly not the beginning of the advertising industry, the new media opened up vastly increased opportunities for persuasion. The industry has become what I consider a place of genius (if understood for what it is) for concatenating a sophisticated understanding of the human psyche, pathways for influencing it, and the use of communication tools to effect that influence. Its precedent lies in propaganda; its deepest shadow was already known as “brainwashing.” It is an industry of people highly sensitive to cultural currents who recognize no limits for inventively co-opting what is deeply human in me and in my relationship to others and the world as a tool for further objectifying my “self” as an image—all the while maintaining the illusion of real experience. I would suggest this is true for each of us depending on how we relate to cultural identity or the degree to which we share in a collective unconscious filled with archetypes having different names but common characteristics.

There is nothing simpler, more direct and engaging for people than story telling. It is an ancient art, a living art of communing with our fellow humans. Storytelling is an efficient means for experiencing authentic voice. I intuitively experience someone’s truth (or untruth) as they tell me their story whether biography, recollection, or fiction. I also experience my own truth or untruth as I tell my story; story telling has powerful reflective capacities. Interestingly, story telling is having a significant come back in Western culture as a way of reclaiming that voice so polluted by cultural messaging systems. I imagine that you can probably guess the most recent trend in the advertising industry—the use of story telling because of its assumed authenticity, its ability to convince or engage.

An historical precedent for this twisting of veracity was the innovative use of photographs in print ads in the 1920s. The photographs replaced illustrations because the new medium told the truth (“camera don’t lie” was the theory) while illustrations were no longer convincing. We have come to understand that cameras do “lie” and that photographs are alterable representations, so much so that they are no longer accepted as evidence in court. Ethical practice aside, this is the way the advertising industry goes.

As a consumer, I live in the rift between who I am based on self-knowledge, and what the world of commerce is trying to make of me based on self-image. While a purchase transaction is nothing more than an exchange of value, there are other layers of meaning that play out through it. The story that compels me to the purchase, including a dose of self-interest, whether driven by legitimate or imagined need, interfaces with the product’s or service’s story, including what and how I was made aware of it and what it is trying to say about me. Sometimes the stories mesh nicely, other times not. I experience a degree of dissonance and integration emerging within almost every transaction I make. Being awake to those feelings, which constitute the soul of the transaction, is a step beyond conscious choice in consumerism, and toward returning “who I am” as I author my story and “what I am” according to others, to their appropriate domains. This is, of course, a powerful and sacred exercise in individual freedom and a central challenge for our time.

John Bloom © 2006


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