Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture


You Are What You _________ (Own/Drive/Wear/Etc)

As the Christmas season approaches I'm basically turning into a grumpy old codger. Things that usually just irritate me are downright pissing me off. Things like jewelry ads and gendered toys and the talking heads yammering on ad nauseum about retail sales and "black Friday" (which isn't now and never was the biggest sales day of the year, I'm here to tell you). Next thing you know I'll be yelling at the neighborhood kids from my creakity rocking chair on the front porch. But since it's too cold to sit on the front porch grumbling and shaking my fist at the world, I’ve decided to begin a series of posts that illustrate, on their own and with no additional commentary needed, what’s wrong with our consumer culture. Enjoy.

I Am Jeep.

Life. Well Spent.

Everyone will worship you.


  1. Anonymous12/01/2009

    Oh, I never caught the Sears one, and that's been their tagline for a long time. Interesting. As if life is something you spend like money. Because everything is commodified in a consumer culture, right?

  2. Diamondsforhorses12/01/2009

    I can't find that clip from fight club that goes something like "you are not your car, you are not your job, you are not your bank account...wake up and live" but it's totally apropo here.

  3. Anonymous12/02/2009

    For those of us that aren't as bright (or jaded) as you, an explanation for your strong feelings on these commercials would be interesting. I personally like the Jeep commercial. I find it inspiring -- it makes me want to get outside and enjoy life.

  4. Well, I'm not Rachel, but I assume these ads are problematic in her view because they either imply (or straight-up say) that you ARE the things you own. In other words, Jeep is creating this cool identity for you that you can buy, and then you won't just be the shmuck you are now, you'll be this cool, hip, outdoorsy person, just by virtue of owning a Jeep. And this is a pretty typical marketing ploy in our culture. Instead of having to work to become the person you think you should be, you can just BUY all the right products and they will make you into this new person.

  5. I would add to Riley's explanation that a lot of Christmas ads equate loving someone with buying them shit. As if the only way you can show someone you love them is to shower them with gifts. For one thing this ignores and downplays all the real work that goes into caring for your family and loved ones on a daily basis (anyone can buy some shit, but being there for your kids everyday takes committment and character). For another thing it's really classist. Does the unemployed parent who's struggling to make the mortgage payment love their child any less because they didn't spend hundreds of dollars on gifts for them? These ads seem to imply this.

  6. What Riley and Monti said.

    I think this issue of equating personal identity with material goods is a huge problem in a consumer culture. Persuasive advertising basically amounts to "all the cool kids are doing it." This just seems like cultural bankruptcy to me - when you as a person are nothing more than the goods you have accumulated. It makes you understand why people jump out of windows and off bridges when the stock market crashes, and it also makes you realize that neither global warming nor economic recession nor resource depletion will ever stop us from accumulating shit we don't need. Because in a consumer culture, without that shit, you're nothing.

    OK, now I realize I really am turning into an old codger. This is a bit hyperbolic, but you get my point.

  7. Michael12/02/2009

    I don't think you're being hyperbolic at all. Your description sounds pretty accurate.

    You have been really grumpy lately, though.

  8. Have you seen the new Nestle toolhouse cookie ad? The tagline is something like "bake a little love for your family."

  9. Oh yes, 'tis the the season for hyper-consumerism.

    I find it interesting how capitalism has managed to take a major religious event—something that religious people tend to view as sacred and having a meaning that runs deeper than worldly concerns—and turn it into a kind of social engine for generating tons of cash. People would probably be stomping mad if Sears had a guy dressed as Jesus selling home appliances. So, Santa Claus serves as a convenient proxy for symbolizing a religious holiday, thus enabling business to utilize the event in generating cash flow without seeming offensively profane.

    This association between Santa (the giver of gifts), hyper-consumerism, and a major Christian holiday have been around for so long, that a kind of linkage is being formed between religion—an aspect of personal identity—and consumerism. This indirect association starts early as children are introduced to the concept of Santa Claus at the youngest of ages. For adults, the association continues with messages that to be a good Christian, particularly at this time of year, one must give of oneself. The consumerist imagery around Christmas, in turn, modifies this message: to give, one must purchase.

    It makes me wonder why some religious people have focused so intensely on a simple turn of phrase, "happy holidays" as a threat to the religious meaning behind Christmas when the religious underpinnings of the holiday were undermined long ago by forces of economics and capitalism.

  10. timberwraith,

    You've produced a far more sophisticated (and totally accurate, I think) critique of this dynamic than I'm currently capable of in my grumped-out condition.

    I think a lot of times this ironic obsession with a simple phrase like "Happy Holidays" vs "Merry Christmas" is a vent for the frustrations they feel with the deeper issue. It's just that the deeper issue is complex and involves massive corporate, social, and political forces that are difficult to grapple with and hold an intimidating amount of power in our society and is hard to analyze or articulate. So instead the focus becomes this one smaller issue which has come to symbolize the bigger one, and all their energy is poured into that instead. There's a similar dynamic going on with the birther movement, but in that case it's often fears and hostilities that are no longer OK to voice in public that became symbolized by the smaller issue. And this isn't just a feature of conservative politics. I think hate law legislation and same-sex marriage activism often becomes an outlet for progressives when we feel overwhelmed with the deeper underlying issues and social attitudes that are so much harder to confront and change.

  11. I understand the grumpiness. I used to get pretty grumpy around this time of year, too. Most of my grumpiness used to surround the blatant hegemony of Christianity at this time of year.

    During the past fifteen years, I've usually decided not to celebrate the holiday. At this point, my general reaction can be summarized as, "Meh." I've come to see Christmas as a strange cultural event that takes place with me acting as more of an observer than a participant. It's as thought I'm an anthropologist visiting a strange land experiencing other people's unusual customs from an outsider's perspective.

  12. Heh, that's supposed to be "though" rather than "thought."

  13. I don't get grumpy about this stuff because I have TV. That seems like a radical thing but we just don't want to spend money we don't have on cable. And we have internet. I enjoy the Christmas music, the Christmas lights around the city and the prospect of having time off to see family and bake and cook and do whatever.

  14. I agree with Lyndsay on enjoying the lights and the family aspect of christmas but this year I am way more attuned to all of the consumerist BS that abounds. The whole "I love you because I bought you a diamond or lexus or TV or Game" thing really pisses me off. I wish people could just realize that someones love for you is better shown through everyday actions than through presents one day a year.

  15. Anonymous12/07/2009

    How'd you come across these ads? Watching tv? just sayin'...

  16. Walm@rt's ads are maybe worse than ever lately. Live Better, or something like that is the slogan.
    The commercial that really gets me is the one where grampa saves SO MUCH money at The Mart that he can afford to visit his grandchildren for the holidays. Gross...

  17. Yes, Anonymous. I watch the Colbert Report most evenings after the kids are in bed, and all three of these were on during one Colbert show.

    The thing is, I don't buy into the whole "if you don't like ads you shouldn't ever, ever watch TV" thing. We record the shows our kids watch and zap the ads, but at times the show I want to see is on live, so I don't have the option of skipping the ads. What I resent is the equating of personal worth or identity with the items a person owns or buys. This is my specific problem in this critique. I didn't say that all advertising is bad or that nobody should watch TV. You may conclude that, but there's no need to project it onto me.