The Real Thing is the New Black
Consumers have become dead tired of advertising and branding. Now, they want ‘authentic products’, and branding today has reached its most self-contradictory phase where authenticity is the latest craze.
Andrew Potter (known from The Rebel Sell) looks in his recent book (The Authenticity Hoax) closer at this hunt for authenticity. He is doing it through the lens of the economist Thorstein Veblen’s legendary ’conspicious consumption’ concept, i.e. ostentatious consumption designed to show the world that you are somebody.
It has been a good 100 years since the grumbler Veblen launched the observation that consumption no longer was physical consumption only, but also a way to signal status. The phenomenon ’conspicuous consumption’ has also adopted many different shapes since then – we have for example experienced the vulgarly bragging of the postwar ideal where everything had to be big and chromium-plated, as well as the 68’s conspicuous anti-consumption where everything had to be subversive – the latest addition so far is ’conspicuous authenticity’ where everything has to be ‘genuine’ and natural and not marketing engineered.
Some find that Veblen’s ideas are not relevant anymore because the class society is not what it used to be – but not Potter. On the contrary, his point is that status is relative and no matter how alternative the consumption pretends to be, the purpose is still to differentiate oneself in a way that provides you with status. In his opinion the variations that the specific executions of ’conspicuous consumption’ has undergone in the course of time, actually confirm Veblen’s thesis, and prove that ’conspicuous consumption’ is always weaved closely together with the ruling (classes’) ideological movements and flows.
The anti-capitalistic pillow fight
The longing after ‘genuine’ products dates back to the 1960’s where the countercultural values became widespread. Everyone wanted to be alternative, hip, anti-capitalistic and “cool” in some way or another. And even though it to a great extent was about appearances and self promotion, it was actually not only an aesthetic standpoint according to Potter – it was also political and ideological, since it at the same time contained a critique of the mass society, which was inspired by the critical left wing intellectuals. The capitalistic society and its institutions were seen as one big suppression -, control- and standardization system and as a continuation of this understanding the idea occurred that by behaving differently and unconventionally you could work against the “system”.
The “cool”-system stands or falls with the fact that we on the one hand have a hegemonic conventional culture, while we on the other hand have an alternative subculture with its own systems of meaning, taste and style, which are contrary to the mainstream. And that the two cultures live in separate worlds – at any rate, for some time - until characteristics of the subcultures are spotted by the marketing systems’ “cool hunters” and sold to the masses in a degenerate edition.
However, this presupposes that there is a time lapse between the subcultures’ origin and the mass cultures’ adoption of it. With the spread of the Internet, this time lapse has disappeared – and “cool” dies because “cool” lives of and in this time warp. Today, when some new counterculture arises in Berlin or New York or Amsterdam, it does not take many clicks before it is known by the masses worldwide. So mass cultures and subcultures today are in a constant dialogue – and are therefore, almost not to be distinguished from one another: ”We no longer have the mainstream, we have the hip-stream”, Potter says. And in this whirlpool, all sorts of sub- and mass cultural signs intermingle in one single hotchpotch where it is no longer possible to see “cool” as an alternative standpoint. Protest-movements are not what they were – anti-nuclear power, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization have (maybe not without a certain (self) irony?) been replaced by staged pillow fights – April 7 is the official pillow fight day (see if there is a pillow fight near you on www.pillowfightday.com).
Cool is dead – but the distancing from the mass society is still going strong - maybe even stronger than ever before, since it now has taken the form of an almost existential fear against “the modern”. The previous more political oriented opposition against post capitalism (exploitation, globalization, environment, military, etc.) has been replaced by a far more diffuse critique of the whole modernity project as alienated and fake. At the same time, the resistance has become a mass-phenomenon. So-called ordinary people indicate that we live in an ‘artificial’ world where nothing is what it seems to be, and that life increasingly appears empty and hollow: “Reality” TV, Facebook “Friends” and an endless line of treachery politicians.
The world is a fake – drink organic coffee
According to Potter the American market analyst John Zogby is one of the first to pay attention to consumers’ longing after ‘genuine’ products. In two big investigations of peoples’ values (done in 2005 and 2008) Zoghy discovered that they were dead tired of branding, and instead of wishing for all sorts of things, people now express a deep-felt need to “reconnect to ‘the true life’, and disconnect from the illusions that everyone from advertisers to politicians make us believe are real” (The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, New York: Random House, 2008). When he asked the consumers to characterize what they were seeking, they answered ‘authenticity’ – but it was immensely difficult for them to concretize, what they actually meant by authenticity. The concept authenticity functions more as a container of general skepticism towards characteristics of what we call modernity: secularization, which has left the human being alone in the universe; marketization, which commodifies our lives and identity; liberalism, which focuses on the individual freedom and devalues the community – and last but not least technology, which, as a Prince of Darkness, drives this whole development inexorable forward.
The hunt for authenticity is an indignant, emotional, romantic revolt and it is searching out all domains that appear to be unaffected by modern mass-production and capitalism. It is driven by aversion towards marketing, branding, consumerism and everything commercial - and by a nostalgic longing for old fashioned ways of doing things and artisanal production of any kind. It has a fetish for poverty because poor people after all are free from the modern consumption-tyranny and for the exotic, which looks different than the modern capitalistic society (if you are able to display both traits, you have a trump at hand, e.g. India which is poor and ‘different’ – so far, or Cuba which is poor and non-capitalistic – so far). And finally it – like the true Romanticism from the old days – has a passionate love for the big, wild nature.
Dear God in Leaven
’Conspicuous authenticity’, as Potter, not without a certain sarcasm calls it, is a new status consumption that signals sturdy old fashioned moral and spirituality, as it was before mass-production destroyed everything. The Danish super chef and entrepreneur, Claus Meyer who, if any, has incarnated the authentic on the Danish home ground – illustrates the phenomenon in an exemplary manner with his prison project where he is teaching the inmates to cook under the motto that ‘God is in the homemade leaven’.
The food category is a very good example of the authenticity vogue and at the same time it clearly demonstrates the stiff competition that is the driver in any status consumption – also authenticity consumption: First everything that was organic could function as an authenticity status symbol but then ecology became too mainstream – many supermarkets got big, organic sections – therefore really conscious consumers began to demand foodstuff which (also) was produced locally – and now the products have to be handmade also (preferable homemade, of course). An ‘un-availability spiral’ has been put to work, which all the time ensures to separate some that cannot hang on anymore: organic products are more expensive than non-organic, local products are not just expensive but also harder to get the hold of – the handmade are both expensive and hard to get and it is few who can make the products themselves (if they also have to do other things like work fx). Status hierarchies are always based on including some and eliminating others – and ‘conspicuous authenticity’ is no exception.
According to Potter, the consumption of food clearly displays the hypocrisy that permeates ‘conspicuous authenticity’ in general: here the privileged consumers have succeeded in disguising their wish to differentiate themselves in a moral and idealistic discourse in which biodynamic vegetables and tender local beef is not only a question about having good taste but also about being a decent human being. Again, poor Claus Meyer’s and his gourmet kitchen intentions to encourage the good in people, is a shining example.
The rest of us can console ourselves with the fact that any status hierarchy and any form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ exactly because of its ’conspicuousness’ often ends up being ridiculed – there are apparently always som subversive ironists out there. One of them is already peeling the feathers of ‘conspicuous authenticity’ with his small workshop where you can get your pencil sharpened by hand artisanalpencilsharpening.com - it is quite expensive of course!
Links for authentic consumption:
Andrew Potter’s slides for the conference about Authenticity and Branding