Image-Making By Speech and Dress
“Of course!” is not the right answer to a customer’s “Thank you”. Neither is “No problem!”, or “Thank YOU!” But this is how the staff at my local coffee shop talk. It seems the conventional response – “You’re welcome” – wouldn’t adequately prove how “totally” committed the employees at this shop (or better, their corporate employers) are to meet our every whim. I’ve been watching how corporations influence their sales employees’ speech for years.
The company wants us all to have a ‘transformative experience’, and spread the word to our acquaintances, with appropriate “thumbs up” signs checked on social media. On the other hand, if I try to discover the nutritional content of any drink or food item sold in this shop (which is nowhere on the packages or on display), I have to look up each one on the corporate website. Without doing that, deciding what to drink or eat in the shop is a crap shoot.
This seems like a small inconvenience, that only a ‘dietarily challenged’ person would discover. But in fact, non-existent, false or misleading nutrition labeling is a growing problem in all parts of the food industry, since consumer protection regulation is being defunded, together with efforts to publicize the dangers of poor diet and lifestyle, seen in epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. This leaves corporate agencies free to sell their wares any way possible. The ancient Roman dictum, Caviat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”) applies across the board – especially in poor neighborhoods.
The lack of helpful labeling in my favorite coffee shop illustrates a larger point about today’s business models, which is Keep customers happy, but ignorant. Both these ends are advanced by the belief that “Image is Everything”. That’s a very old idea in sales. But as a direct and open pitch, it dates to 1989, when Andre Agassi used it naively to promote Canon cameras, early in his career. The fall-out still haunts him because his self-promoting behavior didn’t sit well with the tennis loving public; yet that motto is even truer today than ever before.
I think good photographers are still be relatively rare, but picture taking has exploded since 2003, when front-facing cameras on cell phones made ‘Selfies‘ possible.
I imagine video will soon be the norm for ordinary selfie-takers on the street too. Savvy marketers are already moving to video content. One marketing source said “by 2017, video will represent 74% of all internet traffic”.
Think about what ‘selfie’ means; it’s a self-promotion, with no regard to honesty, modesty, or self-knowledge. It’s there for image making. It’s the spirit of an insecure, self-interested person wanting to be accepted by others who are equally self-involved. Remarkably, the selfie phenomenon is now so wide-spread and normal, its link to the spirit of self-concern that gives rise to it is no longer even seen.
I realize that ever since cameras were invented, adventure seekers have wanted to take pictures of themselves in places they found exciting or curious or beautiful. Today, a little stick (the magic selfie wand) and the reversible photo lens make that easier than planting the camera on a wall, and setting a timer, or asking someone else to take the photo. If someone else wants my picture, or our picture, that has a different character. It’s OK. Regardless of that, the ‘selfie spirit’ remains ‘Look at me!’
Much more importantly, the spirit of selfie gives companies a powerful tool to grow their market share, and increase the debt load of their insecure, unknowing customers. Ordinary customers don’t realize this. Nor do they see that all the wealth created by their insecure search for happiness in the form of image-making, is controlled by those at the top of the debt pyramid – the so-called One Percent – who benefit more and more from the ‘financialization of everything’. You can download a free PDFof economist Dean Baker’s well-supported 2017 book on this topic: Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make The Rich Richer.
The anti-progressive reaction was well underway during the Reagan administration, with the resulting loss of jobs, stagnant wages, increasing debt load for ordinary people, and diminishing funds for social support programs, justified in the name of austerity. 1985 was 20 years before Internet Technology multiplied exponentially the influence of the FIRE sector (Financials, Insurance and Real Estate) on the upward redistribution of wealth, but the effects of this trend were well illustrated in a hit song of that year, “Money’s Too Tight To Handle”, by Simply Red. I’m happy that YouTube can provide these reminders.
I respect and appreciate the managers and barristas in the coffee shop, which has been my office away from home for some years now – long enough to watch many staff come and go. The ones I know are good-willed and hard-working folk, who receive training for their jobs, and learn to wear the corporate persona out of necessity. They aren’t free to be themselves except when we chat personally – which happens often. Their positions depend on conformity. It saddens me, but I don’t fault them for the choice.
This case is a nice illustration of contemporary business models. Instead of the old style mass marketing approach, today’s savvy corporation tries to have something for everyone. To that end, it wants to make people believe they are special, and deserve personalized free choices. It offers ‘money-back guarantees’ to any buyer who isn’t ‘completely satisfied’, but that won’t include real information about what choices are the best. While claiming transparency, and inviting critical feedback, the practical policy is to keep everyone ‘happy and ignorant’.
From McDonalds food to Wells Fargo finance, happy and ignorant clients will pay more than critical, knowledgeable clients. This runs through all sectors of the economy, including food, drink, clothing, housing, credit, loans, insurance, utilities, transportation, communication, personal services, public infrastructure, health care, education, and entertainment. Make yourself seem to be out to please the public. Make them Like you. “Image Is Everything!”
Hyperbole (‘exaggerated claims made in rhetoric’) is an old idea. The English word “hyperbole” has roots in Greek and Latin; it was discussed by Aristotle. Used as a verb – i.e., to ‘hype’ something (which derives from hyperbole) – it appeared in 1937, when Britain and the US were going through political turmoil. As a noun, meaning excessive sales pitches, ‘hype’ was first used in 1967 – about the same time as digitized signals made advertising available to every broadcast medium around the world, and all their audiences. What a ‘blessing’ image-makers and creditors were given by that particular technological development. It’s ‘Yuge!’
Is there any limit to the promise of being Liked? In the absence of rational, critical thought, No. Obviously, modern marketing aims at unlimited wealth, just as people’s natural desire for gratification is unlimited. Rationality does enter into marketing – but only as sophisticated research on human nature, and how to take advantage of it, using big data, computer algorithms and cost-benefit analyses . The hype must be efficient as well as effective.
Not surprisingly then, advertisers state or imply that their products and services offer limitless pleasure to customers. Extremes are the norm. Notice the increasing use of the word “Extreme” and all its text variations in ad copy. I go to an XSport Fitness Center. On every screen, XSport promises I can “X-IT!”, and “Bring back the day!” (meaningless statements without the accompanying hoop-la), if I just take advantage of the personal training and promising products the corporation sells. “Liking” can have no limit in this environment; the only question is how to maximize it. Presumably, we can ‘X-IT!’ all the way to a state of ExStasy (or if we push hard enough, maybe to the ultimate Exit).
In my favorite coffee shop, I noticed a copy of USA TODAY for Nov 4, 2017. The MONEY section had a banner photo of a waiting line on 5th Ave, NY, for the new I-phone X (There’s that X again), which sells for about $1000. Here’s the first page of the story that went with it. The bracketed paragraph quotes an LA woman who was trading in her ‘old’ model, bought a few weeks earlier, saying “I like to travel a lot, and apparently this is a better camera for selfies”. I think Steely Dan (see below) could have made another sardonic hit song about this theme.
Perhaps much of today’s image-seeking public is too smart to appreciate the older, cruder ‘fast-food’ forms of pleasure. They want something more serious, deeper, even life-changing. They seek the ‘transformative experiences’ implied by all types of products and services on the market. Thinking of themselves as independent, they want to be active, not passive, in the transformation process. In this time of “identity politics” and its emphasis on self-identity, transformation comes out as self-transformation. Naturally, corporate advertisers are ready with that image of transformation too.
Transformation is now boldly advertised as the outcome of all kinds of products and services, no matter their relative unimportance, objectively speaking. ‘If it’s important to you, it’s important to us.’ Customers can prove their transformative approach to life, in endless ways – even by means of the logo and text on a T-shirt they buy! How transformative are these particular ads? That depends on the financial means of those who produce and advertise on them. “Slogan tees” can be designed and made (and sold) by individuals, or by sophisticated firms using expensive ad agencies. It every case, the wearer wants to ‘make a statement’, and hopes the passing public will notice her or him, and be impressed by who she is (or appears to be).
The famous text on this T-shirt is from “Invictus” – by British Victorian poet W. E. Henley, who died in 1903 at age 54, after a life of chronic illnesses that finally killed him. The poem “Invictus” expresses Henley’s romantic attitude about struggling with real adversity – a conflict of body with spirit, between fate and freedom. Everyone has heard the last line of that poem. Do they know what it means?
By contrast, the company “Invictus” has 3 gyms in San Diego, and sells a wide variety of fitness paraphernalia, apparel and publications. The men and women who buy these products (and so advertise them for the company) are affluent Californians, apparently obsessed with their image and their “shapely bodies”, as Steely Dan’s 1973 song “Show Biz Kids” wryly observed. Their adoption of this slogan is a ludicrous attempt to prove their independence and individuality. Do they see the irony? I doubt it.
This example, from another well-funded corporation, actually states that its products are ‘transformative’ for the purchaser. I’m seeking ‘transformation’ too. But I’m skeptical. Is the promotional quotation valid? Who is Iris Apfel who made the claim? Does she even exist? Is she an authority on transformation? Is she objective? Does she perhaps work for Sonia Boyajian, the trendy designer in L.A., catering to the well off?
Scrolling through hundreds of T-shirt pictures, I’ve seen all sorts of images for ‘personal transformations’. Some suggest a feeling of superiority; others emphasize uniqueness. It’s hard to know how you could symbolize both – i.e. both the ‘greatest’ and the ‘only’. It seems like we’re getting into the metaphysics of T-shirts!
Most of us are familiar with people’s enthusiastic, if awkward, nongrammatical efforts to ‘modify absolutes’. “She’s absolutely the world’s greatest singer I’ve ever seen in my whole life!” A bit more complex, but no less puzzling example of dealing with extremes is Goldwater’s 1964 claim: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice… and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This is a political kind of hype, which also doesn’t bear careful scrutiny.
Some self-identity T-shirts suggest, ‘I’m very unique’ or ‘I’m just more uniqe than others‘. Some are ludicrously conformist in their claims of superiority. I’ll leave it to you to categorize a few examples:
Others show sophistication or humor – altering or ridiculing the ‘mainstream’ slogans. They are nonetheless variations on the same contradictory effort – i.e. to present the image of a person who is not an image-seeker. ‘I’m real; I’m different; I don’t conform; I’m above all that phony popular competition.’
All the slogan marked clothing we see around us serves the commercial interest of those who mass produce it more than those who wear it. But I can respect those who make a (literal) image, logo or slogan for their personal cause, or business, or to celebrate a family reunion or special occasion. They aren’t trying to prove their unique and free spirits by convincing others to show their approval. If I were to make a T-shirt to wear, it would be closer to the wry spirit of Steely Dan songs, than to the ‘me too’ type, or the clueless ‘look at me’ type that Fagen and Becker spoofed. On the front, it will say “Like Me!” and show a ‘Thumbs Up” sign. And on the back it will say “Image Is Everything!” Should I somehow work in an icon of a selfie stick?
Over the past six decades of adult life, I’ve been observing carefully, with increasing concern, the ‘financialization of everything’. But one aspect of it has consistently provided some comic relief – i.e., the ridiculous misuse of language. Unfortunately, it’s hard to share this viewpoint about language abuse with people who don’t ‘get it’.
Critical and objective thinkers recognize that rhetoric is important to speech. It’s not enough to be honest and forthcoming; a good speaker or writer should know her audience, and be aware of what is appropriate for her listeners or readers, and for the purposes she has in mind.
Today’s wide abuse of language includes fake news, deceit, emotional extremes, and general lack of basic education, even in upper class neighborhoods. Public schooling, especially in poor neighborhoods, is abysmal in most large cities, and has been getting steadily worse since the Reagan era. Real learning (not memorization) is hard and needs thoughtful support by teachers, administrators and communities. However, it is thought to be boring and irrelevant by the childish standards of today’s general public, whose thirst for entertainment and a pleasant life makes them eager for what the media offer, and disinterested in what classrooms should (but no longer) offer. Laziness in speech and writing result from a pretext of giving a “voice” to every individual. This disservice works to the advantage of people at the top of a wealth and power pyramid, who increasingly control all aspects of modern society, to the disadvantage of those at the bottom.
The general decline of language results from a decline in respect for truth, or even a belief that there is such a thing as truth. And that in turn accompanies an increasing orientation at all levels of society to value everything in money terms – shown clearly in Christopher Hedges’ 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class.