Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture, Part III: Appropriation

Usually when I talk critically about advertising I focus on the ways in which advertisers seek to convince you that their product is a necessity if you wish to be a certain kind of person. This goes way beyond just crafting an image for yourself. We've gotten past that to the point where you can really BE a certain kind of person just by owning the right stuff. But this discussion often neglects another way that advertisers play the identity card. Appropriating some icon or word or idea that has deep cultural significance for the target demographic is at the top of the list of Sleazy Things Advertisers Do, in my book. Tapping into the emotional or ideological significance of some powerful concept just to peddle your shit is about as low as it gets. Here are some examples:

Peace Love the Gap (or One of These Things is not like the Others)

Joey Ramone, who has a lot in common with Jesus as it turns out, wears Doc Martens

Pepsi, Obama, whatever. It's all about the Hope.

Che, who wears Converse on his neck like all good revolutionaries

But I'm not sure what to think of this one. It certainly is an example of blatant co-opting of cultural (religious) iconography. But there are a couple of significant differences. For one thing, this example is meant to serve a political rather than economic goal. And the political goal is a worthy one in and of itself. It's true that political representation and funding for social services are allotted based on the census, so getting underrepresented populations to participate in the census is a respectable cause. And it may also be true (as the creator of this ad campaign says) that religion is the best way to reach this demographic. But it's still an appropriation of something with great cultural significance for political purposes. And that doesn't sit well with me. I'm interested to hear your take on this.


  1. Anonymous12/15/2009

    I think the ends justify the means in this case. The reality is that you have to reach people where they are, and religious institutions carry a lot of clout with the majority in this demographic. Also the political purpose in question is one that benefits this demographic so I don't think it's exploitive.

  2. Well, technically Jesus wasn't born because of the census...

    I have mixed feelings about this too, but think it's probably harmless in the end. I agree that it's the principle of the thing though.

  3. I agree that the census poster is for a good cause, but I don't think it's right to use the authority that the church has in people's lives in this way. I mean, we object when churches tell their members who to vote for, right? This doesn't seem that different.