Carriage Trade

 

“We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere. Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”

Linda Kaplan Thaler, Kaplan Thaler Group, New York ad agency

 

The forces of the market possess a momentum and inevitability not unlike the weather. These “forces” are all around us, manifested in ever newer, ever more spectacular products, buildings, and experiences. Market equilibrium is maintained by pervasive attention towards the perpetual “now”, which is almost as good as what will come after the this moment is upgraded. Each upgrade is followed by another, as the restless march toward an improved future plays out in a cyclical display of technological promise; the moment one catches up, another advance waits for approval and assimilation into a carefully articulated lifestyle.

Local versus Global

Because of recent U.S. foreign policy disasters combined with apprehensions about traveling abroad after 9/11, the notion of the global economy has lost some of its appeal. The hype over a utopian, worldwide, free-market system has given way to localized, boutique cultures that transform our idea of what “local” means. It could not be lost on any one who lives in New York that endless permutations of new retail, residential and leisure space have seemed to expand across the city like wildfire, setting up shop in the “deadwood” remains of mom n’ pop stores and former warehouses. For the locals who knew what came before, this process can be quite disorienting. If you live in a “transitioning” neighborhood, you might find it hard to keep your bearings. One recognizable landmark after another has been altered or disappeared, replaced in many cases by tall, unremarkable steel and glass facades that seem to have strayed far from their natural habitat among corporate offices in midtown. As new stores, restaurants and luxury housing proliferate, many familiar structures and jobs connected to them are swept away by the forces of progress.

Pardon Our Appearance

Giant pits replace one and two story former factory buildings. As voids replace solids and solids replace voids, neighborhoods are re-branded from working class/ warehouse/ artist into “cutting edge cosmopolitan”. While the idea of a “market” is fairly concrete, when combined with “forces” it becomes immaterial. Embracing contradiction, tangible things are offered in intangible ways. Luxury lofts are advertised like vacations; being at home is turned into an adventure without equal, the selective lens of real estate ads offer urban homes as idyllic retreats “just steps away” from this or that finery or desirable leisure activity. Through careful framing and cropping on realtor’s websites, an ordinary corner store is transformed into a quaint “Shoppe” that might be in an idyllic section of London or Paris but “happens to be” just down the street from your double-height, open-plan, ultra-modern loft. Blocks and blocks of workaday tenements and rustic brick buildings that housed small manufacturing and storage become “the utmost in urban sophistication with a host of exciting amenities”. As neighborhoods “renovate”, the urban fabric begins to look like a giant department store in the midst of changing displays, everything is tangential and nothing is secure. As every facet of experience succumbs to design, the packaging of the smallest gadget (an ipod shuffle) to the largest structure (luxury condominiums) demands the same careful articulation and positioning, flattening scale and experience into competing ad-space that perpetually seduces the “user”1. Every product or experience remains incomplete because it offers itself as the latest and the best. The hottest brands turn dissatisfaction into an ally, ever ready to be replaced at the consumer’s whim. Dust never settles because the newer replaces the new at a pace that dispels boredom, discontent and any uncertainty in the face of progress.

The Freedom of Choice

The urgency and frenetic pace of the market promotes impulse and sensation over analysis and discretion. Calls to action like “BUY NOW !!!!, ONLY 2 DAYS LEFT !!!! WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!!!! beg for a response, willing or not, to the demands and responsibilities of consumer choice. The “content” of decisions succumbs to the pressure to choose, placing emphasis on action for its own sake, regardless of its rationale. The need to act when faced with an immensity of choice retains more significance than the action itself, which, once completed, becomes another obligation successfully fulfilled, while the next one waits. As the choices made become equalized by the act of making them, superficial differences become paramount because they are the most “noticeable”, grabbing one’s attention. A politician’s hairstyle makes or breaks their campaign, as does a momentary lapse in restraint when viewed by sixty million people2. Composure trumps spontaneity in public as “risk” is measured with each new endeavor. Because little is chosen through reason, one false step could blow the whole deal through the wrong impression made or the wrong offense taken.

As limitless choice binds itself to an increasingly repressive politics, each looks to the other for a way out. Consumerism offers a distraction from the bleakness of today’s headlines as the realities of an out-of-control-administration-at-war surfaces and recedes between powerful advertisements that eventually return one safely to daydreams. Everyone knows that the nightmare of Iraq really exists, and everyone wants it to end, but it differs immensely from the products that bracket our narrative of it: it is not likely to be replaced by its newer, better version. The forces of the market are insistent, cajoling and perpetual. The forces of the market rely on fear: fear of buying wrong, fear of looking wrong, fear of terrorism. The forces of the market have slogans: JUST DO IT, BE ALL YOU CAN BE, ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT, YOU’RE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US. Colin Powell’s speech at the U.N. was “The Grand Pitch”. Echoing Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought us the Vietnam War, Powell slipped shabby intelligence past the world’s most influential audience; and they bought it.

Individuals of the World, Unite!

The forces of the market are not rational, true excitement never is. They move fast and leave the indecisive behind. Markets grab our attention on a daily basis as they go up and down. There is an almost god given rightness to markets. Speaking against their excesses is like blasphemy. Disparaging market “logic” may provoke anger in others for fear that next year’s “crops” might suffer from such negative thoughts. The individual is the epicenter of the psychology of markets. This individual is both unique and conformist. As constructed in advertisements, it is an identity that has what everyone wants, but also wants what everyone has. You are both the person who covets your neighbors new PRIUS and also the smug character who owns one. Existing between a have and have not, you are always in need and ever confident that your needs will be met by YOU; the system gives you confidence that you are on track, that you are different than those suckers that bought the wrong brand, but your attention mustn’t wane. A moment of doubt or insecurity and you will be one of them, the one on the outside looking in. The one who used the wrong toothpaste, hair cream, shoe polish and who’s in a panic about their plight.

The forces of the market want your (brand) loyalty; you are either with them or against them. Join forces and unite behind the collective liberation of individualism. This may sound contradictory, and it is. It is a perfectly formed contradiction that is reinforced by that ad that you just saw…. or that one. The ad says “BECOME AN INDIVIDUAL; BUY LIKE THE REST OF US”. But please, don’t just buy anything. Your identity is riding on the proper selection. It’s how you “find” yourself. It’s an update of the 1970’s “Me Generation” which spawned all those selfhelp books. Self-discovery via the market is where it’s at. It will liberate, entertain, and wow you. You show it some respect, some belief, and we’ll take care of those wrinkles, that bad breath, or any of your other flaws that might cause insecurities in social situations.

It’s Your Neighbor, Stupid.

We all know all this; we are savvy to advertisers and their deceptions. We are in an era of “post-advertisement”. We can see through the straight pitch, the corny appeal, the scare tactics, especially younger generations. How to reach “us” if we’re suspicious of “you”? The answer to this is WORD OF MOUTH3, or WOM for those in the know. This is not the old word of mouth, where companies would get new business through referrals, but the new word of mouth, where a buzz is created by the consumer, for the consumer. At BZZZ Agent, gun-ho consumers are recruited to pitch products FOR FREE, to their friends, and anyone who will listen. What do they get besides there own sample product? The meaningful experience of being an influential, a person who is “in-the-know”, a trendsetter. When identity is dependent upon brand identification, then those who identify brands control their destiny through shaping others. In an odd twist of communist era repression, your neighbor is not compiling a dossier to take to the secret police, but sizing you up for a discreet pitch to enhance their status from average consumer to “buzz creator”. As consumers begin to shape the “message” and the pitch is transformed from macro to micro, the consumer as a group becomes even more united through a large feedback loop. As hipness and cutting edge identities are now the means to sell beer and soap, the clunkiness of a top down message from the Organization Man’s desk to you is too slow for the current speed of trends and markets, so the consumer has now been anointed to the position of organization man, and the consumers may now organize themselves.

The Power of YOU

As bleak this might sound, like a kind of post-Orwellian nightmare where Big Brother is really YOU, there is potential for accidents and cracks underneath what appears as a seamless flow of incorporeal references to “reality”. The need to connect to what the “people” really want, so that they might keep buying more of it, presents an unavoidable level of engagement with the citizenry. Behind every poll for a politician or product is the implication that WE need YOU. “We report, You decide” would have profound implications if it were actually true. The obsession with You as an entity is generally a form of mock empowerment that offers the illusion of control, a seemingly benevolent but insincere offer of parity between consumer participation and political will which depends upon a continued alienation from the political process; ”We know the politicians control everything but we want to know what YOU think”. Our votes are relied upon to legitimize the largely corporate funded affairs that elections have become, but there is also a risk of the populace becoming “too” interested in politics. If the majority of the country realized the utter waste that one billion dollars spent (in 2008) on campaign ads represents, and that the mad rush to spend more than one’s opponents means that their votes are electing the winner of advertising’s equivalent of an arms race, perhaps the quadrennial spectacle would provide for more content and less hyperbole.

Bubble to Bubble

The alienation or distance from the political process, where the involvement of citizenship is replaced by the excitement and distraction of consumerism might proceed without interruption if not for the occasional uncertainty connected to bubble-dependent economies. The hysteria associated with each successive bubble over the last ten years has led many consumers to achieve ever-new heights of debt-ridden consumption under the belief that everything would “keep going up”. Participating in a kind of mass hypnosis, the collective wish fulfillment represented by the inflated housing market brings to mind a Monty Python sketch, where high rise complexes instantly conjured by a cheerful magician stand solidly on the ground until some of the tenants, doubting their reality, cause them to collapse. As solid and real as the seemingly limitless construction sites found in every section of the city appear to be, they are also a product of the psychology of advertising, which promotes and sustains the urgency required to maintain a market’s momentum. As obvious as it may sound, lulls in the market are bad for business, mostly because they allow psychological space to make considered choices, an anathema to industries that promote their product as a means for wish fulfillment and fantasy. As the profound flaws underlying this fantasy are revealed through the very real consequences of repossessions and evictions elsewhere in the country, a growing anxiety and discontent presents a true challenge for an economy that depends upon rampant speculation and hype.

Trapped in the contradiction of the “collective individualism” of an economy that relies on the mythology of individual choice within a system of mass production, consumers must resist questioning the market extremes of lifestyle culture through which the coveted goal of individualism is realized, while ignoring excesses which pose challenges to the stability of those homes, communities, and jobs that the forces of the market deems redundant. Being offered to play a role in the powerful narrative of consumer bounty has far more seductive appeal than efforts at finding transparency in its processes and consequences, and yet the forces of the market seem to constantly flirt with their own endgame, which, through a hubristic belief in the “freedom” of markets, encourages ever more risk as each bubble inflates. In order to maintain the interest of the populace, what’s “on sale” must remain relevant, and yet the current headlines seem only to offer news of impending financial collapse of this or that brokerage firm, which, unlike the millions who fell for shady sub-prime mortgage schemes, will largely be bailed out by the same financial system that failed to regulate what has now been revealed to be a sophisticated shell game.

We, The People

As it begins to show an influence on the all important consumer confidence index, the current economic climate presents a suddenly unpredictable scenario not unlike the months following 9/11, although certainly less dramatic. The solution then was to invoke patriotism to guilt trip an anxious public back to the mall, before an overwhelming sense of doubt or panic might undercut their belief in the powers of consumerism. If millions of people recognized that the longest boom in American history failed to dramatically change their circumstances, the relentless optimism which began in the 1980’s with Reagan and found its voice in the endless appeals to buy what’s “hip” and guarantees your “coolness” might become a tougher and tougher sell. What tactics advertising will use to engage an increasingly concerned public is anybodies guess, but it will be interesting to watch the attempts at transforming a spreading sense of doubt into a convincing sales pitch for new products that WE NEED, and need NOW.

Living in a media-saturated environment that equates happiness with overwhelming choice, the onslaught of information often neutralizes dissenting voices, less by outright censorship than by the unrecognizable qualities of opinions that exist outside the “mainstream”. As public space is transformed into advertising spectacle, and the public airwaves remain largely in the service of corporate interests, the means through which the average citizen develops an understanding of their circumstances, some of which lie outside the framework of their (significant) role as consumers, may be gradually shifting.

“Free” Speech

When bloggers appear on network television to offer campaign coverage, the significance of the Internet as fertile territory for public discourse on politics, culture, etc., is increasingly obvious to the media conglomerates whose “Top Stories” were once the only game in town. When the most informed members of the public turn to “fake” news for their coverage, something’s not right with the status quo7. When the most watched program on Fox holds “elections” to determine the outcome of its show, the market understands “the peoples” urge to speak.8 Who “the people” turn out to be, and whether “the peoples choice” is one more seductive package which provides diversion from relevant news is anybodies guess. The question remains: Is there a “people” that exists outside the forces of the market; is there such a thing as “FREE” speech?

Stay tuned.

 

 

back to
Market Forces / Part I
Market Forces / Part II
Market Forces / Part 1 and 2 at Galerie Erna Hecey

 

 

Footnotes

1. see Hal Foster, Design and Crime
2. Howard Dean’s “I have a scream” speech.
3. http://www.bzzagent.com/signup/NewAgentSignup.do
4. Media Watch-http://www.users.muohio.edu/kelleycs/2007/04/and-winner-in-2008-presidential.html
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_(film)
6. http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/custom/aetoday/bal-aeanchors1217,1,1340894.story?coll=balaetoday-headlines&ctrack=1&cset=true
7. Best-Informed Also View Fake News, Study Says
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/business/media/16pew.html
8. American Idol viewer’s votes decide the winner of singing contest.