you can learn a lot when people hate you
Not too long ago, I went to a party being thrown by Rob, a sociology graduate student and friend of mine in Madison. Soon after I arrived at the party, he introduced me to a fellow sociology grad student “Peter”, who he thought I would like to meet.
Before I could say anything, Rob tried to connect us: “Peter, this is my friend Rahul— he’s a marketer. Rahul, this is Peter. Peter is a socialist.”
A socialist? “You mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice. For the record, what Rob said— quite possibly among the most awkward introductions of all time— was not intended as a joke. Peter actually was a card-carrying socialist.
“Oh, you mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice.
Peter did not laugh at my Obama joke, which was intended to point out the ridiculousness of trying to label a US President a socialist when real dyed-in-the-wool socialists see him as nothing of the sort. Instead, Peter tilted his head and gawked at me inquisitively, perhaps as if I had just descended from an alien planet or if I was a bizarre, mythical object he had previously only read about.
I suspect that Peter thought my comment was in earnest. I suspected that despite the fact that we had just met, Peter had a lot of prejudices about me, and I probably had a few about him (though less than he probably thought).
Despite this most auspicious of beginnings, Peter and I didn’t actually talk at all. Though he showed few outward signs of contempt, I knew that there was far too much baggage associated with being a marketer even for normal people, much less for a guy who genuinely believed that the entire capitalist system was perverse and corrupt (or is that just a stereotype of a socialist view of capitalism?). I really wanted to have a chat with the guy, but there was already too much between us, and we melted back into the crowds around us.
Over the years, I’ve had any number of encounters like this. Like:
- The fellow who was buying a bookshelf I was selling, and was about the most chipper man you could ever possibly hope to meet— until I told him I was selling it because I was going away to business school, upon which he morphed into a frothing attack dog whose demeanor literally frightened me. He dropped the price he was offering me from $20 to $5 and growled as he drove away.
- The guy who refused to talk to me like a normal person because I suggested that Wal-Mart was not “evil.” I gave examples of positive things Wal-Mart has done, and gently suggested that consumers are also responsible for American consumption habits. At this point, he basically deemed me a subhuman and just barked out a barrage of anti-corporate warhorses at me without allowing me to respond to them.
I have a lot more stories like this that I’ve compiled over the years, and I sense that these stories are not unusual for people who do what I do, particularly if you run in the circles that I run in. I don’t see this as an entirely bad thing. I try to be an ambassador for the “dark side,” as some have dubbed my line of work. Sometimes you can reach people just by being civil, thoughtful, and responsive to their concerns. Other times, people have already made up their minds and choose not to view you as a human anymore.
Regardless, I value these experiences because time has revealed to me that the world advances not as a monolithic block of people who all think the same thing, but as an evolution of cultural tensions that, while frustrating, keep the world in check and prevents society from changing too radically too quickly. And these tensions from the front line of the culture wars make for good stories too.
when public enemies hit the mainstream
As I write this, there are massive revolts occurring across the world; in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, and why, even here in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, revolution is pretty popular at the moment. But then— rebellion has always been popular, and as far as I can tell, it has always been cool, especially with the youth.
But one of the most interesting aspects of rebellion is how, after some countercultural nuisance spends years enraging, irritating, and aggravating the mainstream, it eventually permeates it. It is at this somewhat perplexing juncture that this formerly toxic social element is repackaged and sold by mainstream entities as perfectly respectable and worthy of celebration. And deserving of our money, of course. This year’s (2011) Super Bowl featured two ads that perfectly illustrate my point.
The first Super Bowl ad was one featuring Eminem. This ad, by Chrysler, told an elaborate narrative about the auto industry, a story involving strength, conviction, and vision, followed by a subplot about hardship, regrouping, and an eventual Biblical-style resurrection. Chrysler employed two metaphors to develop this tale of the auto industry’s Second Coming. One was somewhat direct: the tale of Detroit, which due to the failures of the auto industry, had undergone at least most of the ad’s described trajectory of riches-to-rags-back-to-riches. The second metaphor employed was more indirect, and told courtesy of one of Detroit’s most famous native sons: Eminem, whose personal life saga has also thematically mirrored the narrative recounted by the ad. Yet, despite this, Eminem is an interesting choice of a mascot for the notoriously conservative American auto industry.
“Ten years ago, Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.”It might be hard to recall, but nary 10 years ago— and as few as 6 years ago— Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. Countless news sources like CNN, a litany of advocacy groups, and innumerable prominent politicians (including no less than President George W. Bush himself, in fact) described through recurring soundbites Eminem’s personal role in elevating school shootings, teen drug abuse, domestic violence, homophobic hate crimes, and various other signs of declining social order. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.
Many commentators from the public sphere lamented that Eminem had ‘sold out’ by appearing in a car commercial (despite the fact that plenty of Eminem’s close contemporaries and labelmates like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre had all done it before). But to me, the far more noteworthy element of this story is that a Big Three automaker wanted this erstwhile scourge on society to represent them. But they did, and it seems like few people in the mainstream thought twice about it once they saw the ad. While some questioned whether he was the right candidate for the tone of the ad, there was little controversy about the appearance of a guy who once recorded a jaunty little tune about brutally murdering his ex-wife while his young daughter looked on. Though his Slim Shady persona was jarring and disturbing to the American mainstream in the years of 1997 to 2003, now he’s just another familiar celebrity face.
The same thing has happened to Ozzy Osbourne, our second case-in-point. I wasn’t around for Black Sabbath’s heyday in the early 1970s, but from my understanding, people genuinely though of Ozzy and company as Satanic and poisonous to our childrens’ souls. Their proto-metal featured dark and disturbing imagery, impossibly heavy guitar work, and lyrics about nightmarish and supernatural phenomena. In the 1980s, Ozzy was even sued by some parents for allegedly causing kids to kill themselves (though he was eventually acquitted). And here is Ozzy Osbourne on Super Bowl Sunday, selling us on Best Buy with his good chum, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (whose popularity, incidentally, is also considered by many to represent a serious decline in American society).
Of course, this ad comes on the heels of many years of Ozzy being in the public spotlight. But it’s still interesting to note that his popular reality TV show did little to cement the idea that Ozzy is a responsible, upstanding individual that represents the paragon of American virtue. Quite the opposite, in fact; it documented in graphic detail just how messed up he still is. But the cycle of the mainstream re-appropriating countercultural values means that America loves Ozzy anyway.
Converse, the Clash, and Metallica
Interestingly, the cases of Eminem and Ozzy are not isolated incidents. Such examples abound. I was recently in a normal, everyday shoe store and saw an entire wall of countercultural icons that had been packaged and sold as rebellious accoutrement by Converse. Look at the bands featured here:
The Clash, AC/DC, the Doors, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix. These bands at one time symbolized a serious rejection of mainstream sensibilities and aesthetics. Two of them were viewed as harbingers of dark, anti-Christian devilry; two more were icons of overt sexuality, drug abuse, and debauchery; and the last represented virulent anti-establishment politics. But here, Converse has commodified their images and symbolism (i.e. the fact that ‘the man’ hates them and views them as a threat to social order), and explicitly resells their names as pre-packaged rebellion in the form of fashion accessories:
Looking at these shoes invites the questions: who is buying these products? What is the demographic, and what is the psychographic?
“One of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.”The first thought that comes to my mind when considering the target consumer for these shoes is of the movie Juno. The protagonist of Juno is an uber-self-aware teenager (played by Ellen Page) whose entire goal in life seems to be to mash as many trendy references into her dialogue and personal consumption patterns as humanly possible. As far as is discernible, however, Juno is not interested in appreciating these references on their own terms (e.g. actually listening to their music); instead, she is far more interested in exploiting them to gain social capital and acceptance from her social network, which she does through incessant name-dropping.
Are people like Juno the target market? Probably. There’s a big pressure in our consumer society these days to not necessarily show that you like anything, but to show that you get all the right references; to demonstrate that you’re hip enough to at least know what good taste is, even if you don’t necessarily have it yourself. And as an added bonus, as the shoe below demonstrates, one of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.
It’s not hard to understand why all this happens: Capitalism knows full well that anything popular enough to get our attention is probably popular enough to sell. And at its heart, marketing is all about meeting untapped consumer desires— even when the untapped desire is to undermine the very system that is providing the raw materials used to fight it. It’s an irony that is most likely lost on the people who end up buying Clash shoes. But hey, if rock’n‘roll is about rebellion, maybe the most rebellious act you can do these days is actually just admit to conforming.
“A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, 2004.
How would this man fare in his attempt to hug random pedestrians if he didn’t have a sign? What makes the sign such a powerful legitimizing tool for something that many people would consider an otherwise sketchy activity?
Here is a Snuggy-like product that I came across at a local hobby store. See anything odd about it? Thanks to the shoddy production work on the box, the woman appears not to be wearing a comfortable robe, but a piece of military-issue MARPAT digital camouflage.
Incompetence of this caliber is hard to excuse in a competitive market— especially when the product you are trying to sell is clearly a shameless rip-off of another, more popular product.