Part II: The Lonely Crowd

Mediating Thoughts

“The economic system [which is] founded on isolation is a circular production of [that] isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of “lonely crowds.” The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely.” – Debord

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(Puff at a cancer stick relieved that it will enable you to make a premature exit from this urban dystopia = Generic Philosopher Pose No.10)

I can imagine poor Debord having a mental breakdown if he were to ride the London tube. To witness an entire tube carriage glued to their iphones and ipads as they quietly observe urban solitude, not daring to break the heavy silence between people for the fear of coming across a bit too friendly and consequently mental, would be too much for Debord. Navigating the London bus system is already pretty daunting, but if you had Debord’s head instead of your own the ride would be psychologically apocalyptic.

Commuters on an overcrowded train

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The people who physically surround us are strangers because we consider the risk of face to face conversation somehow too much to take. We act like socially phobic robots on public transport, yet, conversely, you might have never met some of the people you follow on Instagram or Twitter but for some reason you feel like you know them. After all, you’ve seen what they’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner or even what they look like post-coitus. 

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You can take that ‘social risk’ and accost a complete stranger on the internet and spark a debate or conversation. You can even tell a celebrity or MP that you think they’re an arse hole. The consequences of our online actions seem much more trivial than what we do in real life.  Picking an argument on youtube’s comment section or trolling news articles is ‘normal’, but overhearing a group of stranger’s political debate at the pub and injecting your two cents into their discussion is comparatively ‘weird’. It’s ‘normal’ to ‘like’ a stranger’s selfie on Instagram, but giving a stranger a thumbs up on the tube is ‘weird’.

It’s easy to click that ‘like’ button, to ‘connect’ with people online. This might not mean, however, that the sentiment portrayed by the ‘like’ button means much. Are we psychologically engaged in our online interactions? Does technology put psychological distance between each other and between us and our behaviours? Sherry Turkle seems to think that it does. The TED talk below describes how technology has exacerbated an already existing catch-22 that humans experience.

What Sherry Turkle explains in her TED talk is that real life is messy but technology makes human relationships tidy. People say dumb shit all the time. People have emotions that sometimes get out of control.  But, people like to feel in control of themselves and their self-image and social media helps us to do just that. Debord argues that technology enables the “systematic organization of the ‘failure of the faculty of encounter’ and as its replacement by a hallucinatory social fact: the false consciousness of encounter, the “illusion of encounter.”

On the one hand we are inherently social beings, on the other we are fiercely competitive and care a lot about what people think of us. The most obvious place to see this inherent contradiction in action is in (some, not all – rave clubs tend to buck this trend purely because of the nature of the narcotics involved) nightclubs and bars. We head along to a bar, dressed in our most fashionable/suavest/most expensive gear to meet our friends because deep-down we care what they, or anybody else in the bar, for that matter, thinks of us. This is why Moet champagne bottles and VIP areas exist. There’s a heavy dose of showing off involved in a lot of social interactions.

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Social media is a complex exchange of glances. You watch what your friends are doing. You watch how they talk to each other on the comments sections of photographs. You watch how happy they look in those photographs. Knowing that you watch and judge other people’s social media behaviour you might watch and judge your own. You might carefully tailor what you put on Facebook. You craft yourself. They’re crafting themselves too. You might try not to craft yourself – but even this is crafted. Everything is edited. Everything is re-presented.

“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” – Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

This is why people on the internet seem better, cleaner, more friendly than those very same people who are sitting next to you on the tube. You only see the healthy breakfasts or really good looking sexual partners that your Instagram pal from the other side of the world displays to the internet. You only see their ‘good side’ in their hundreds of selfies. Sometimes reading people’s twitter feeds is comparable to watching an American sitcom whose script is so witty and punchy that you wonder why real life isn’t as full of pizazz. Why are my ‘real world’ friends not as funny/informative/in the know?

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People aren’t necessarily straight with each other, and with themselves, when they know that other people are watching. They can often mimic other’s behaviour to fit in.  People are hard-wired to ensure their survival in a group. What other people are doing sets a benchmark for what you should be doing. Your values and desires are shaped by the people around you all the more prominently when these are made public. Social media is group mentality on a colossal scale in an intense always on, always online, and always watching way.

“The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” – Guy Debord, Society of The Spectacle

Consequently, social media has a habit of exacerbating the two contradictory impulses of human crowd mentality (showing off whilst fitting in) in quite an alarming way to produce a culture that rewards banal interactions with banal ‘likes’. The ability to edit our personas online reduces the risk associated with human interactions and the result is a watered down version of ourselves that enables us to fit in with the crowd. Are we really true to ourselves online? Are the connections we make with those we interact with online merely superficial? Is it a connection born out of a fear of loneliness that only serves to reinforce that loneliness?

What does this mean for planners?

1. Likes mean practically nothing. Other than the fact that 62% of online traffic is formed of ‘bots’ and other non-human entities, the mere tap of the ‘like’ button means practically nothing.

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There are no real consequences to weigh up when you click ‘like’ or ‘follow’. If there is less risk to doing something then obviously the value of that behaviour is less. If you save a child from a burning building you are a hero. If you take a spider out of a bath, less so.

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Never form a strategy around gaining Facebook likes. Not only does your brand have to compete with liking a friend’s status or DJ/Photography/Cat Sanctuary Facebook pages, it has no reason to do so. If you’re so insecure as a brand that you want people to ‘like’ you online rather than buy your product and be done with it, then that’s a little lame.

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2. Social media “content” can breed banality. People now judge “content” do by how likeable or sharable it is. In order for it to be likeable it might not be challenging. In order for it to be sharable, you have to ensure that it is suitably bland or samey to other “content” so as not to offend anybody you share it with or, worse, portray yourself as some sort of nutcase. Cat videos, GIFs and memes are obviously more ‘sharable’ than Japanese Hentai Tentacle porn. This is why I populate my blogs with them. They’re populist and counterbalance what I hope comes across a little provocative.

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“Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society the world over… The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment.” – Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

When you put “content” out on Social Media, try not to care too much if it might form a negative backlash. Sometimes it is more helpful to divide and conquer your audience than be all-things-to-all-people. You’ll forge a deeper connection or (wretch wretch) “engage” with your core fans more this way.

3. Think about how you use social media to feedback on your creative work. If you judge the content you have put up by the number of likes it gets and then decide to produce something of the same ilk, labouring under the misapprehension that you have ‘tailored’ your content to ‘consumer preferences’ (which are poorly expressed through likes anyway), then you are not jolting people to take notice. By merely adding to the noise, to the number of generic videos or instagram shots of food, whatever brand you are working on cannot hold a defining space in people’s minds. It merely falls into the cultural mulch that forms the backdrop of our lives.

Culture: “It is the sense of a world which hardly makes sense.” – Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

When Debord states that “Culture is the locus of the search for lost unity. In this search for unity, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself,” he is speaking of how, through culture, we wish to relate to each other, to over-come the “lonely crowd” and our “lost unity” as a society. Unfortunately, when everything refers to everything else that was once popular or successful, you end up with nothing new. Ipso facto, “culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself.”

My other favourite philosopher, Baudrillard, wrote in his essay The Hyper-realism of Simulation (1976) that the use and abundance of media, signs, and symbols has so bombarded our culture that “reality itself, as something separable from signs of it…has vanished in the information-saturated, media-dominated contemporary world.” Photography, mass production, television, and advertising have shaped and altered authentic experience to the point that “reality” is recognized only when it is re-produced in simulation. Ie. ‘Real’ or ‘Authentic’ has its own inauthentic tropes, iconography and visual conventions. There are thousands of pictures of #nature on instagram that all look pretty much the same. “An air of nondeliberate parody clings to everything,” Baudrillard wrote. Everything seems to be an accidental parody of something else. Its all falling into the same cultural mulch.

So aim to produce something new, not something popular. Have faith in being in the ‘creative’ industry. Don’t crowdsource ideas. Come up with your own. Personally, I believe that planners should avoid holding up a mirror to society without making a comment on it. That comment could look at the accidental parody inherent in reality and make it deliberate and pointed. That comment should disrupt reality, not fall into the background of it.

4. Take what people say and do online with a liberal and generous pinch of salt.

There is nothing wrong with looking at cultural insights through social media, but the quantifiable ‘engagement data’ should not lure you into a false sense of security. What we really want to find out about is the motives behind the data. Why do people like something? They may be liking it ‘ironically’ or out of pity as nobody else has liked that friends’ post. Most likely, they are liking it because everyone else has.

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There’s a legendary anecdote that sums it up: A man is watching another man scrabbling around under a lamp post late at night, trying to find something. After watching for ten minutes, and sensing his desperation, he asks the man, now on his hands and knees,“Sir, are you sure you dropped your keys here?” The man looks up and replies, “No, no, I heard them fall about a block away.” Bemused by this confession he asks,“Then why on earth are you searching for them here?” To which he replies,“Well, because the light is so much better!”

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The moral is that although quantifiable data, such as Facebook likes or Retweets, allows for something to be quantifiable, it doesn’t mean it is where you should be looking. It also doesn’t mean that lamp posts should be looking at you either…. Which leads me onto my next post on Big Data.

Animals in Adverts

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“Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

If adverts are an intermediary between people/consumers and objects/products then, by (il)logical deduction, adverts are pets. I know you’re thinking that I’ve finally lost it, that I’ve cracked up. That statement, however, seems less mental when you consider how many advertising campaigns and brand logos feature animals; Barclay’s horse, PG Tips’ monkey, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Andrex’ puppy, Frosties’ tiger, Playboy’s bunny, Lacoste’s alligator, Le Coq Sportif’s cockerel, Penguin’s penguin, Dove’s dove, Jaguar’s jaguar and Puma’s puma to name just a few.

Animals have been used to carry metaphorical and symbolic meaning since, well, forever. The first caveman paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Roman and Greek mythology, Medieval heraldry, horoscopes, artistic iconography and now brands and adverts all use animals as a way of articulating complex ideas and adding a layer of meaning. Animals can aid people’s memory of a brand or product’s qualities without the need to bash them over the head with a brand proposition. A Platypus is the new mascot for First Direct as ‘The Unexpected Bank.’ A bunny is a sexually suggestive (“at it like rabbits”) symbol for Playboy without being overt. A jaguar is the perfect metaphor for a car that prowls about the urban jungle as it’s engine purrs smugly.

AMV/BBDO freaked me out in my first ever interview with the question, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” They weren’t just trying to keep me on my toes, they were trying to see how good I was at constructing a metaphor. I probably should have said a platypus rather than a puppy. Brands are metaphors for inanimate products and intangible services. Animals are living breathing metaphors. Their marriage is one of common sense.

A ‘Woof’Wagen over a ‘Volks/Folks’Wagen. 

Other than that dogs look hilarious with their chops flapping in the wind in a moving car, Volkswagen’s Woofwagen campaign by Adam&EveDDB centers on that old saying that dogs are like their owners. Put different breeds of dogs in all the different car models that Volkswagen have on offer and you have the message ‘There’s a Volkswagen for all of us’. Volkswagen can broadcast that they have many different cars whilst portraying a unifying message: Variety is the spice of life and variety enables us to define ourselves. Our dogs and our cars are suited to us, as the soundtrack ‘Me and You’ by Barry Louis Polisar reminds us, and luckily there is the breed of dog and breed of Volkswagen car for each and every one of us.

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The campaign, like many adverts featuring animals (The Bear and Hare John Lewis advert, also by Adam&EveDDB, being the most obvious) pulls at our ‘awww’ muscles. This isn’t just because dogs are cute. It’s because we can load animals with more emotional energy than we can humans. We are sceptical of human emotion, particularly when it is acted out in adverts. Their happy little faces, their tongues lolling out in 60mph winds are somehow more expressive than some loony tune grinning moronically and smugly as he winds his brand new VW around country roads.

We realise how much we love our dogs, how much we go through life with them by our sides. Oh yeah, shit. We do a lot with our cars too. People judge us by our cars as much as by which dog is sitting in the backseat. This advert is perhaps the truest manifestation of Baudrillard’s statement: ‘Volks’, meaning folks or people, has been transformed into ‘Woof’ signifying dog or pet. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”

Human + Car = Volkswagen

Pet + Car = Woofwagen

Car <—-> Pet <—-> Human

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So what if Volkswagen had decided to represent the diversity of their range by putting different people in their cars? We might have been judgemental of the human equivalent of the Afghan Hound in a red open-topped sports car. We might have considered the human equivalent to be a bit of a poser or a cliché (Bridget Jones’ mini break moment above sprung to mind). Similarly the dreadlocked creature (please comment if you know the breed) is wholly appropriate to be sitting in the hippy Volkswagen Beetle. Even if we hate hippies or posers in sports cars, we still liked the dogs that represented them in the ad.

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When animals appear in adverts there is usually something a bit more interesting at play than mere association, metaphor and pulling on our ‘awwww’ muscles. There’s a reason why you can take a buzzfeed quiz telling you what your ‘Inner Dog Breed’ is (courtesy of Volkswagen). There’s a reason why most viral memes and youtube clips feature animals. There’s a reason why a Guardian article exists on ‘The Growing Economy of Cat Videos.’ This is, quite simply, because we almost prefer animals to humans.

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We trust animals more than humans

“The pathos-laden presence of a dog, a cat, a tortoise or a canary is a testimonial to a failure of the inter-human relationship and an attendant recourse to a narcissistic domestic universe where subjectivity finds fulfilment in the most quietistic way.” – Baudrillard

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‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is a fantastic stereotype. To be honest, I reckon I wouldn’t mind being one. The tragedy is that ‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is portrayed as an eccentric loner, who, too bizarre to hook a fella and have children, has ended up filling the void of human affection in her life with tens of cats. She gives them all different personalities and names, she is acutely aware of how they interact with each other. She settles their clawing scraps with each other like a mother would bang her children’s heads together. She watches out for the weaker one in the pack, making sure it has extra food. She knows which one is a bit naughty and enjoys shredding the curtains.

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Animals are passive receptacles for our emotions (The link here is for my good friend Joel’s piece on Cat Cafés, possibly the best description of cats ever written). We can project our feelings onto animals. This is why talking dogs, donkeys, meerkats and ‘Grumpy Cats’ are almost larger than life than real humans. We give animals dependable caricatures and turn our furry four-legged friends into psychologically predictable sort-of-human-beings. Grumpy Cat isn’t really grumpy. We have projected a human emotion onto the animal. We can put words into their mouths.

Humans, however, respond with their own words and their own feelings. They aren’t passive receptacles. Humans formulate their own meanings, they have their own emotions. Humans respond to things. Humans can hold back emotions too, they can say one thing and mean another. An animal, however, can only ‘say’ what we want it to ‘say’.

Perhaps, consequently, we are more likely to trust a talking cat telling us to ‘Carpe Diem’ than we would a human being. O2’s ‘Be More Dog’ campaign tells us to embrace, with the mindless enthusiasm of a dog chasing a ball, new mobile technology, to sign up to O2 Priority, to keep texting and mobile internet surfing without due care or cynicism.

If a person came on screen and told us to seize the day on behalf of O2 we probably would have a degree of cynicism. Humans have motives. Animals don’t. If my one-eyed geriatric cat pissed out of his litter tray then I wouldn’t think that he is doing this to annoy me. If my boyfriend pissed out of the toilet then I would probably question his motives (unless he was really, really drunk and then I would probably consider him to be something of an animal). This is because we know (or at least I hope we know) that animals actually do not have the same complex psychological mechanisms as our own. Animals are motivated by food, sex, a tummy rub and that’s about it. When an advert puts words into an animal’s mouth you forget about the human aspect of what it’s communicating. It puts one more dividing line between the marketeers in the boardroom talking about brand propositions and USPs and you as a potential consumer sitting in front of your TV. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”

I would argue that mobile phone providers, like O2, have experienced the “failure of the inter-human relationship,” despite many of their brand propositions harping on about customer service and connecting people. This isn’t O2’s fault. Like as with energy, internet and public transport, consumers do not want to pay their mobile phone bills. These kinds of things are seen as ‘negative purchases.’  We expect to flick on a light switch without having to pay for it. We don’t see how people can put a price on texting your friends, but they have to. This, unfortunately, makes these kinds of brands seem untrustworthy in the eyes of the consumer. They’d rather listen to a cat giving them a pep talk about getting out there and enjoying life than they would some crusty CEO with pound signs in his eyes.

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Similarly Aleksandr is so loveable that people actually buy cuddly toy versions of the comparethemarket.com meerkat. He’s made buying insurance feel less boring and less like you aren’t actually buying anything tangible. So much so that Aleksandr’s ­autobiography A Simples Life: The Life And Times of Aleksadr Orlov had more orders before publication than the life stories of Tony Blair, Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand or Dannii Minogue. The Go Compare man, Gio Compario, by contrast, is fucking annoying. Simples.

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The Go Compare man even received death threats. I think we all would have liked him to have been mauled by a pack of wolves in the advert below, but I can see why they thought that Sue Barker would be more ‘on brand’ and resonate better with their target audience.

Andrex: Because it’s embarrassing to talk about wiping your arse.

I used to feel a bit peeved when the Andrex Puppy would bound onto my screen in one of the 130 ads the little fucker has featured in. I used to think, “Jesus, do they really think we are going to choose Andrex over a cheaper brand just because they use a cutesy iccle puppy in their advertising?” Turns out yes. Yes we will. 

When JWT invented Andrex’ mascot in 1972 they were crafting an elaborate metaphor to give bog roll meaning beyond ‘the stuff we wipe our arses with’. Soft, loyal, a little bit mischievous but ultimately endearing is the perfect brand image to craft for bog roll. 1 in 3 people who buy Andrex will not buy any other brand of toilet paper. In the UK alone they sell 1.5million rolls of the stuff each day. That’s enough to circle the earth one and a half times in shit tickets. When I see a labrador retriever I think of Andrex. Andrex is the puppy. Andrex without the puppy would be unthinkable. Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 17.07.53

But, for some reason when the Andrex puppy bounds onto the screen I don’t think about the loo. In fact, when consumers were reminded of the fact that Andrex sold bog roll (you know, the stuff you wipe your arse with) in their ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign there was a bit of an outcry.

Vice’s Alex Miller hailed it as ‘The Worst Advertising Campaign in History.’ Personally I can think of much worse adverts (or not think of them – arguably the worst adverts are the ones that don’t even make an impression), but Mr Miller had a perfectly valid point. He objected to the inclusion of real people in adverts about shit tickets. 

Remember: “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” When we find it hard to talk about something, like wiping our arses, we might get an animal to mediate the discussion, to sugarcoat what that object is actually used for.

About the farmer-type 13 seconds in: “This paternal nod from an earthy farmer type? A nod that advertisers normally use to reassure their customers that the sausages are organic is now being used to assure us that yes, those thick, working hands sometimes put down the shovel to fiddle with perforated paper so thin he can barely feel it between his calloused fingers.”

About the seductive woman 14 seconds in: “She’s a character straight from hell, a woman so depraved and overly sexualised that she even tries to turn wiping her arse into an erotic escapade. Imagine her beckoning you into the bathroom: “Oops, I left the door open and now my fake nail has burst through the seductively folded Andrex, I’m getting all dirty…” Jesus, this character is definitely the worst in this advert. No competition. I think she just made my dick grimace.”

5202024113_206397647cThe Andrex puppy has come to mediate our relationship with what is, quite frankly, a bit of a gross but necessary product. Its a strategy that Cushelle also adopted with their sickeningly cute koala bear and by Saatchi & Saatchi (Stolkholm) to flog Lambi. 

To conclude, animals can help flog boring products that are otherwise difficult to sell. It’s hard to get interested about PG Tips’ teabags, but a bunch of monkeys drinking tea is much more exciting. A cute puppy accidentally unravelling all the toilet roll and sprawling it across the house is much better than asking people to describe how they use the product. We can refer to the product’s benefits by using an animal as a metaphor that is informative, tugs at our ‘awww’ muscle and makes things a bit more interesting.  More importantly, an animal can do all these things much better than a human can simply because an animal will immediately appear to have fewer motives than a human. I’m fed up of skinny models telling me that ‘I’m worth it’ and celebrities telling me that if I drink Pepsi I’ll be like them. So bring on the cat videos. Bring on the talking dogs. Somebody get me a stuffed compare the meerkat for my birthday.

“The object is in fact the finest of domestic animals…In a word, it is a dog of which nothing remains but faithfulness. What is more, you can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” – Baudrillard

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

First Principles

“… For what you really collect is always yourself” – Baudrillard

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(Stare Pensively into Camera + Surround self with hundreds of books = Generic Philosopher Pose 3)

A few months ago I watched a BBC2 programme hosted by Mel Giedroyc and Mark Hill entitled ‘Collectaholics.’ It was a tragi-comic portrayal of a special kind of nutcase: ‘The Collector.’ As Mel and Mark interviewed avid collectors of the likes of beer cans, salt and pepper shakers and taxidermy (and their long-suffering partners and family), Baudrillard chapters on ‘A Marginal System: Collecting’ intruded my mind. During the programme Mel and Mark tried to hone these collectors’ habits, and, as Baudrillard writes, to find the point at which their “sheer accumulation may give way to a measure of discrimination.”

If you still haven’t read why Baudrillard could be called the first Planner, then you’ve fucked up royally. I’m kidding, but its people like you that have made me feel obliged to repeat myself. If you have read it, I also told you to go and buy ‘The System of Objects’ and to read it backwards. You probably didn’t bother. No worries – I’ll be attempting to translate sections of it here in as plain and un-pretentious way as possible. I’ll be illustrating his thoughts with adverts and slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘reaction GIFs’ as a nod towards shallow populist accessibility belying my evil plan to get some deep shit into advertising. If you have read my first post and want to cut to the good stuff, then please sigh deeply for those who haven’t and click the links below/skip the next two paragraphs:

Part I – Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

Part II – Accumulation and Completion

Sigh

Baudrillard is a Freudo-Marxist philosopher who also wrote about advertising. Baudrillard made me want to be an account planner. Marxist philosophers often focus on the exploitation of those who manufactured products that their bosses would then sell on at profit. Baudrillard was one of the first Marxist philosophers to realise the importance of consumer behaviour in our Capitalist system. Baudrillard’s work can be interpreted, as I have done, as a defence of consumer-orientated, and therefore planning-orientated marketing. He wrote ‘The System of Objects’ in 1968, which just so happens to be the same year in which the first account planner roamed the earth.

For Baudrillard, objects carry symbolic meaning (that is often fabricated by advertising and branding) in order to transform our world of impersonal, cold, hard, shiny stuff and the metal, plastic and whatnot of an object’s material actuality into something with a metaphorical ‘human voice’. Objects carry symbolic meaning and ‘talk’ to us. Baudrillard writes, “you can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” We invest our world and its objects with human qualities to make it more meaningful. We also help to define ourselves through objects and we do this by choosing ones that we feel we can ‘relate’ to or that ‘speak’ to us. As Stephen King puts it in ‘What is a Brand?’ we “value brands for who they are as much as for what they do.” Right, now you are pretty much up to speed.

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Collections, like brands, are about meaning, not function.

Baudrillard wrote that “Every object has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed… These two functions stand in inverse ratio to each other.” Baudrillard adds that when objects are put into a collection they are taken out of use. This is why a toy car collector doesn’t dare take his treasures out of their original boxes. A collected toy car’s value is not in its use as a plaything, but rather in what it means to the collector, subjectively, as part of his collection. “An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject,” Baudrillard writes.

Brands have absolutely no practical function. Although the products they are associated with may be useful, this often isn’t why consumers will choose, say, Colgate over Aquafresh. Brands are purely there to add meaning to something we use so that we desire to possess it. I rarely look at what brand of milk I use in the morning. When its on the supermarket shelf, however, its brand suddenly seems a bit (and only a bit) more important.

When the milk sits on the supermarket shelf, it isn’t in use. That milk isn’t milk until you drink it. In the supermarket we aren’t really thinking about what it might taste like. We are thinking in a very abstract way when we consider whether to buy it. We might try and be practical and think about how much milk is there compared to its sell-by-date. We most definitely consider it’s price. Just before you grab it you might be thinking, “Is this milk organic, is this milk British, is this milk’s brand ethical?” or “I should probably buy red top milk because I am on a diet” or “I liked this last time.” This sentiment is summed up by Michael McIntyre below:

This is amplified when we buy cars, clothes or things that are evidently displayed to others: “How do people perceive this item? Is that perception something I want to associate with myself through associating myself with this brand?” Practical aspects tend to take a bit of a backseat when we buy things, simply because we aren’t using them when we buy them.

The stuff you can touch and use resides in the objective realm. Branding belongs in an abstract realm of woolly things like ‘meaning’, ‘values’ and ‘concepts’. This abstract realm is where subjectivity resides, and this is what collecting and branding is all about: making concrete objects abstractly and subjectively meaningful.

Part I – Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“Artistic masterpieces may be collected with the same regressive fanaticism as cheese labels.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

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(Stand hands in pockets + Intense stare + Odd background content to contrast ‘normal person’ look = ‘I am just a normal guy on the face of things, but with a weird little secret’ pose for ‘real people’ TV documentary press shot)

Baudrillard, like the BBC2 programme ‘Collectaholics’ I mentioned in my introduction to collector mentality, paints a rather bleak picture of collectors in his ‘System of Objects.’ He writes “So if non-collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.” If Baudrillard could have got away with writing ‘collectors are losers,’ he probably would have done so.

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“Because he [the collector] feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.” – Baudrillard

These so-called losers have been marginalised by the world and thus refashion their own world of collected objects as some sort of therapeutic passive aggressive protest. They regain control of a world from which they have been outcast by deciding what is included and excluded in their ‘own little collectors world.’ Collectors re-articulate the meaning of objects they collect according to their own rules (ie. the rules of their collecting system, a crude example is beer cans, not cider ones) and ordering system that helps them control their meaning.

Sorry Baudrillard, I love you deeply in a platonic kind of way, but I am not sure I can fully agree with you on this one. I believe that we are all collectors. I don’t believe that we all feel, “Alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape [us].” Yes, a collection of Star Wars memorabilia or beer cans is a bit niche, or, (retch retch) quirky, but our more conventional way of defining what a collector and collection is has taken over. Baudrillard and BBC2 had only looked at the extreme manifestation/stereotypical view of a trait we are all liable to having.

‘A Measure of Discrimination’ : Choice

Most of us drink coffee, slightly less of us drink Nescafe, even fewer of us believe that persistently choosing Nescafe over Doewe Egberts means we are collectors. I can assure you, it does. Our fridges and store cupboards are collections, our bookshelves and magazine racks are collections, our internet search histories or iphone apps are collections, our itunes library or CD or DVD rack is a collection. 

The word ‘collect’ comes from the Latin, colligere, which means ‘to choose and gather together.’ Choice and collecting go hand in hand. Choice is often preceded by two words: ‘freedom of.’ Choice is central to our feeling of freedom in Capitalist society. Choice is the main reason why advertising exists. 

We all know that choice is both our best friend and arch nemesis. On the one hand, it is the dilemma of choice that paralyses shoppers in supermarkets confronted with hundreds of varieties of the same bog roll. 

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On the other hand, it is the luxury of choice that helps consumers to feel free. Free to ditch brands they have been unimpressed with, free to align themselves with others.

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Planners are particularly astute as to the pros and cons of choice. Choice is why we construct ‘brand matrices’ (*shudder* – what a pretentious term) drawn up from competitor audits. Choice is behind spidery flow charts that inevitably descend into chaos as we plot a ‘typical’ consumer’s journey from which to derive a comms plan.

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Collecting is linked to choice, but specifically to cutting down choice. Collecting is about discernment. Having the ‘freedom of choice’ in our modern world, stuffed full of shit to buy and things to do, is fucking intimidating. Collecting is merely imposing a defined rationale behind the choices we make. That rationale is very much intertwined with our personal values and interests: “I always buy Andrex Eco as part of my weekly shop. I like to do my part for the environment, this is why I also buy Ecover washing up liquid.”

Brands are also collectors. They collect consumers and the rationale behind their choice of consumers is what circumscribes a ‘target market.’ Planners guide clients when they choose which consumers to collect. Some consumers will make your brand look cool. Some consumers are short-term cash cows. Some consumers are more loyal. Some brands (particularly luxury brands) are very discerning in their choice of consumer. Some brands aren’t and might suffer from an ‘identity crisis’ when they realise that their collection of consumers isn’t very coherent. This is why Disney have subdivided their collection (and is why that horrible term ‘Brand Architecture’ exists): Marvel and Star Wars fans are clearly at odds with wannabe princesses and pirates.

Mainstream collecting is perhaps more about driving associations between brands. For example, Nandos might precede a trip to Cineworld. Jack Daniels + Coca Cola = Jack and Coke. You might order a Dominoes before curling up with Netflix. Planners might help consumers to curate their brand collection through carefully considered partnerships. GoPro and RedBull – for the adrenaline junkie’s collection. Pampers and Unicef – for the caring new mother’s collection. Google Glass and Ray-Ban – for the stylish and tech savvy individual’s collection.

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Sometimes brand partnerships work the other way around. Brands loudly proclaim what values they hold by who they decide to partner with. Above we see Ben and Jerry’s calling any self-respecting collector of gay-friendly brands to add Ben and Jerry’s to their collection. Was their partnership with Freedom to Marry opportunist? Not in the slightest. Ben and Jerry’s has forged a deeper relationship with certain consumers and may have even acquired this ‘loyalty’ at the expense of cutting loose anybody who disagrees with their values. They start a debate, then divide and conquer people accordingly.

Geeks and their Pronounced Collector Mentality: a.k.a ‘Consumer Loyalty’

My long-suffering boyfriend often says “I don’t care about brands.” He never wears designer clothes, he shops at charity shops, he thinks big brands are exploitative faceless corporations. In shunning brands, my boyfriend actually has a clear rationale behind his purchase decisions which reflect his personal values. It probably won’t surprise you that my boyfriend considers himself to be outside of the system – he works as a night duty worker in a homeless shelter. My boyfriend also avidly collects and builds speakers.

People who collect strange things don’t feel that they can represent themselves through more conventional means, whether these be sports teams allegiances, political parties or, as concerns us, brands. This is because they feel that brands don’t represent them, that brands don’t ‘speak’ or ‘relate’ to them. If somebody doesn’t collect ‘normal’ things like designer clothes or movies or music, and chooses beer cans or speakers, then we are inclined to call that person odd. We label a beer can collector ‘weird’ merely because we don’t understand his perspective on the world, or understand why beer cans in particular ‘speak’ to him. We don’t understand the rationale behind his choice.

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Baudrillard was partially right in thinking that people who collect ‘odd’ things may feel “alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him.” These types of collectors, who we might call geeks, however, are only alienated from one social discourse, the ‘mainstream’ or (shudder) the ‘normal’, and choose to follow another that is in line with their values. Geeks are more fanatical – but that’s hardly surprising when proportionally less of the world that surrounds them ‘speaks’ to them. They will ‘collect’ what they can relate to with a pronounced fervour. Many geeky brands, such as KidRobot or StarWars, will leverage their audience’s collector mentality and are happy to consider themselves as geeky brands. Sometimes this turns into geek chic.

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I recently did some work on a free video on demand service that hosted particularly bizarre, ‘challenging’ content such as Anime or fetishistic soft-core porn. At first there were calls to position the product to the ‘hipster’ market. I felt that this was lazy marketing which would alienate our real audience. Our real audience aren’t ‘cool’ or ‘hipster’: they’re loveable oddballs who were (wrongly) bullied at school for reading Manga. Arguably this slightly introverted, possibly even freakish, less conventionally artsy audience are more genuine in their interests than the fickle hipster market, who move with the ebb and flow of what’s deemed ‘cool.’ Hipsters, in a way, are pseudo-artsy clones who involve themselves in a bizarre parade of oddness-one-up-manship around Shoreditch on the weekend. Give me genuine odd and pseudo odd and I know which one I’d choose.

I knew that my client would probably have preferred to have attracted the hipster market. Like a nerdy kid’s desire to be acknowledged by the cool crew at school, those cool kids would have dropped the nerd as soon as they wanted. There would never have been a real relationship there.

I don’t know why clients will circumscribe their market as social category ABC1, age 16-35, ‘tech-savvy’ ‘early adopter’ males and females. Not everyone is young, tech-savvy and middle to upper middle class.  We’re emerging from a recession in which young people, having racked up 9K+ debt per year as a student, will now have to undergo a dearth of gruelling unpaid internships living on less than £100 a week. Brands, ‘the youth’ are not your always your audience, you just want them to be. We live in an ageing population and these are the ones who are most likely to be ABC1. Will Butterworth has a great ‘thinkism’ on ‘Early Adopters’, he writes: “Guess what, every dick and his dog thinks he is an early adopter based on the understanding that he adopts every new thing he hears about. Trouble is most of these people aren’t looking for anything.”

Brands need to learn that not everyone aspires to be a hipster.  Not everyone is a ‘wholesome’ mum, and not every person with a child wants to be.  Not everyone aspires to be a ‘time poor, money rich’ jet setter who loves designer labels. Mainstream aspirations are dwindling, fast. Do brands hold up these sorts aspirations in order to appeal to some sort of mythical mass consciousness? No, I think brands hold them up for themselves, because they want to say they are liked by all the cool kids, the best moms or the top professionals.

But what about the rest? What about ‘old’ people or all those women whose children aren’t the be-all and end-all of their existence? What about nerds, or people who see their jobs as a way of earning money to do their hobbies and not for climbing to the top of the career ladder? These people are arguably swelling in numbers, swelling in dissent and disregard for brands and advertising, and they deserve to be heard. They are indifferent to brands. This is why the ‘voice of the consumer’ needs to pipe up and sell the consumer to the client as much as the client to the consumer.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part II: Accumulation and Completion

Part II – Accumulation and Completion

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates

You’re browsing the high street nonchalantly on a Saturday or in your lunch hour, or procrastinating on Asos or Ebay on a slow Friday afternoon at work praying that your boss doesn’t catch you. Then it catches your eye. It seems to beckon you in. You must have it. It appears to glow. It is your holy grail. It will complete you.

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Obviously this isn’t the kind of feeling that accompanies buying bog roll, bin liners, kitchen foil, milk and the like. It’s those shoes that you imagine strutting through the office wearing. It’s that car you imagine parking in your driveway that makes passersby do a double take. This feeling is reserved for a specific kind of purchase – a purchase that you consciously feels defines you, a purchase you feel will trump all others. It’s that ‘ultimate buy’ where you gasp at the price tag but somehow find a way of justifying not eating for a few weeks so you can have it.

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“I won’t need to buy anything else for a long time,” or “it ties all my wardrobe/living room décor/record collection together,” or “if I didn’t buy it I will regret it, somebody else might get it and it will be gone forever,” are things you tell yourself as you whip out your heavily over-drawn debit card and push it promptly into the chip and pin.

For me, this feeling occurs maybe once a month. That’s right, I find my holy grail once a freaking month. Other than many of our monthly expenditures and earnings, something doesn’t match up here. What’s more, the frenzy with which we buy these objects abates so quickly that we find ourselves relegating them to the back of the wardrobe/bookshelf/attic, stuffing them into bin-liners to drop off at the local charity shop, or even forgetting that they exist entirely within a few months.

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Useful vs Frivolous, Work vs Play and Oniomania

For Baudrillard, as I mentioned in my introduction, these such items are not bought with their use value in mind. Rather, we buy their intangible, non-functional meaning. Two sweaters perform essentially the same function, although one may be thicker and more useful for winter, you could not say that a red jumper is categorically more useful or functional than a blue one. A ‘dry clean only’ label has never put me off buying an item of clothing, which is irrational, because dry cleaning anything is expensive and time-consuming. Stephen King writes in ‘What is a Brand?’ “the non-functional pleasures that we ourselves get are more intense and meaningful than the functional.” This is why, on the whole, we get so het up about what colour a jumper is more than whether it can be tumble dried.

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We like ‘splashing out’, or ‘splurging.’ Bataille, a Surrealist art theorist, wrote (in a less-kinky-than-the-title-suggests book, ‘Eroticism’) “Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose.” Bataille draws a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘jouissance‘ (his poncy term for ‘play’ I suppose). Work is what differentiates us from our animalistic nature and makes us ‘civilised’. Work is man saying no to nature, saying he wants to be in control of his destiny and his surrounding world and not let nature get the better of him. Work, at it’s extreme, is a high flying banker who watches his figure, goes to the gym and only drinks bottled water. Jouissance, however, is going against what is ‘productive’. It’s being a bit rebellious. It’s putting two fingers up at your ‘civilised’ self and embracing an animalistic instinctual desire for pleasure. Jouissance, at it’s extreme, is a couple going dogging.

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Making music, getting drunk, nutting one out at a rave, splashing out at a restaurant, procrastinating, youtube-ing at endless cat videos and buying a shit-ton of things we don’t need are all part of our quest for ‘jouissance’. These aren’t ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’, in fact, quite a lot of the time these kinds of activities are downright unhelpful. This is why for many ‘irresponsible’/’freespirited’ people a new pair of trainers is more important than having enough money to buy bog roll or decent food. This is why some people find spending money more fun than saving it.

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A Series of ‘Upgrades’ 

“The unique object is in fact simply the final term, the one which sums up all the others, that it is the supreme component of an entire paradigm (albeit a virtual, invisible or implicit one) – that it is, in short, the emblem of the series” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

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(Stereotypical Caricature of a Philosopher)

Collecting is all about ‘series.’ One thing after another. Things that follow other things. The last thing in a series, Baudrillard argues, somehow manages to sum up all the other things that preceded it. If you think of your wardrobe as a ‘series of purchases’ rather than as a collective entity, ‘my clothes’, I think this may shed some light on Baudrillard’s lofty claims.

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My ‘wow’ buys are always shoes. Sneakers to be precise. Today I bought some silver brogues (I am a bit of a magpie at the moment) for an interview. The interview was the ‘rational’ justification that I used to try to alleviate some of the guilt that can precede/follow ‘jouissance’ or splurge buying. I already have some perfectly smart black shoes. What was really going though my mind was, “These shoes will make you feel like an adult, it’s time you got out of trainers, trainers are for teenagers. You will feel like an adult worthy of a salary in these shoes.” My big shoe purchase before this was a pair of Nike Janoski’s, all black. What went through my mind was “you have a job now, you need to stop wearing glow in the dark Nike limited edition Dunks.” I bought these glow in the dark monstrosities before the all black Janoski’s because I thought they would suit being a nightclub promoter at Uni. Each of these purchases trumped the ones before in my quest to have my feet taken seriously in the working world.

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“This term is the unique object, defined by its final position and hence creating the illusion that it embodies a particular goal or end [making me an adult]. This is all well and good, but it shows us how it is quantity that impels towards quality, and how the value thus concentrated on this simple signifier [my silver brogues] is in fact indistinguishable from the value that infuses [making me an adult] the whole chain of intermediate signifiers of the paradigm [my shoes as a whole].” – Baudrillard

The thing is, I could have bought all of the shoes in the shop. I could have then decided that I didn’t have a ‘grown up’ handbag and needed one. I could have gone on a spending rampage worthy of my bank blocking my credit card for ‘exhibiting unusual spending patterns.’ It wouldn’t have mattered how many items, or indeed, what items I bought, a very similar feeling would have pervaded my shopping spree. All these purchases would be trying to fulfil the same symbolic function. One after the other I would have felt that one item ‘trumped’ the last one in making me the person I want the world to see me as.

“Any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector”  – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

Baudrillard’s statement might help us understand why fashion fads come and go so quickly. I remember when wearing ‘Geek’ across your chest was some sort of ironic/witty fashion statement. Like Von Dutch caps, this fashion trend burnt out, and burnt out fast. I have a feeling that this is because the more people you see wearing a variant of your jumper, or even your exact same jumper, the less you feel that this item expresses you. You are now just one of the crowd. You ditch it from your collection pretty pronto. We want people to know from a once-over that we are autonomous individuals with our own personalities. This could be why it is considered a bit of a faux pas to turn up to a party wearing the same dress as somebody else.

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Yet, at the same time, we might aspire to be like Cara Delevingne or Pharrell. These fashion icons show us how to ‘stand out from the crowd’. They inspire us with new and ‘out there’ shit and they give us the courage to depart from the flock and be ‘out there.’ This courage might see us wearing acid yellow this summer or an over-sized hat. We know we aren’t ‘out there’ alone. We are torn between belonging and not belonging to a crowd. When does a crowd become a crowd? I suppose the answer to this question, is, in a way, an expression of how ‘mainstream’ you are.

Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh arrive at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles

I have enough clothes, trust me, but quite often I will feel that nothing in my wardrobe ‘expresses’ me anymore. Quite often this isn’t because the Spring collection has arrived at Topshop or because everyone suddenly seems to be wearing acid yellow. Instead, it is when I’ve had a bit of a personality shake-up. Something important has happened that has affected how I see myself and how I want the world to see me. This could be a break up, a new job or a even a change of address. This is when I go out with my little plastic friend. I hope to find something that will help me to express who I am to the world in this new context. I want to express how I have evolved as a person as my clothes no longer fit me symbolically (rather than physically).

Collections ‘evolve’ because we ‘evolve.’

Tattoo collectors might talk about various stages of their lives when they talk about different tattoos or regret and cover up ones they have outgrown. Record collectors might relegate their trance records to the attic to make way for their current techno phase. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this kind of behaviour is when artists destroy all their past works. These past works reflect their former selves in perhaps the most intense and direct way possible. These physical objects represent their previous naivety or warped perceptions of the world and confronting them can make them cringe. It’s that feeling when you look at a photograph of you three years ago, or flick backwards through your Facebook photos. Its that strange uncomfortable feeling when you read your high school diary. You’ve moved on psychologically, but the objects you have left in your wake haven’t. Then comes Baudrillard’s eureka/the-painfully-obvious-that’s-been-left-unsaid-gets-said moment.

“One cannot but wonder whether collections are in fact meant to be completed… The presence of the final object of the collection would basically signify the death of the subject, whereas its absence would be what enables him merely to rehearse his death (and so exorcize it) by having an object represent it.” – Baudrillard

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Annoyingly he over-complicates what is actually quite simple. Those ‘wow’ buys are objects we choose to express our personal evolution. If I only replaced those glow in the dark Nike dunks like-for-like and ended my shoe collection with them, then I would probably never feel like I had ‘grown up’. I would feel that I had reached the pinnacle of ‘me-ness’, that I had somehow reached an abrupt end. Would this not be a little deathly?

What Baudrillard is articulating very poorly is that existential crisis when you finish a box set. Or when, as a kid, you collected that last pokemon card. Or when you finish an Xbox game. We don’t like ending things that we have been so caught up in, that we spent hours involving ourselves in. What we are most caught up in everyday is our own evolution, our own lives and this includes the objects we choose to surround and express ourselves with.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part I: Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands