Soul outside: identity, the body, and advertising in the consumer age

“Japanese ad agency Absolute Territory PR has begun paying young women to wear advertising on their legs. The women must be at least 18-years-old, and they must be connected to at least 20 people on any social media site, since they are contractually required to post images of themselves, wearing their ad, online. Otherwise, the women simply have to keep the ads on, and allow them to be seen by members of the public for eight hours a day. Surprise, surprise, since the ads are displayed on the upper leg, this means that they have to wear a miniskirt during that time.

According to the International Business Times, the ad agency has signed up 1,300 women, who “are paid somewhere between $13 to as much as $128 just for parading in miniskirts or high socks.”

I advertise, therefore I am

Despite the minor sensation that the ad campaign is causing (it is being reported extensively in the British media), it’s far from the first time that we’ve been encouraged, Pavlovian-style, to associate a product with the attractive, physical body. In one ad for Chanel, the brand’s logo was displayed on the arm of a model, as if tattooed. In an ad campaign for Francesco Biasia Valeria bags and purses, models were painted with words in large Helvetica font. More controversial and memorable, American-African rapper Lil Kim appeared in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign naked except for a logo pattern painted on her skin.

The instantly-recognizable pattern was taken from LV’s luggage. The message can be read in different ways. The one that LV wanted to get out was that its brand was more than luxury, it was sexy, essential “bling,” desired even by America’s most famous, and America’s most desired. But one could read other more controversial messages into it. Nili Goren, Curator of the Tel Aviv Museum has called it the “commodification of the female body.” That’s really nothing new, but the image was more blatant, equating the (desirable) female body with the commodity itself. Kim’s skin was literally painted like an LV bag.

It’s a bold statement that says, “I’m sexier for having this product.” In a certain sense, it means that not only am I better, but I am more authentic, for owning it. That, in other words, I am this product. Viewed in this way, shopping, even window shopping, becomes a kind of shamanic act — in which we discover ourselves through a spiritual ecstasy. “The more intense our response [to shopping],” claims British sociologist Colin Campbell, “the more ‘real’ – or the more truly ourselves – we feel ourselves to be at that moment.”

Although we might question whether this commodification is ethical, LV’s ad does seem to have been intended to emotionally elevate the body. Importantly it appeals to African Americans, who, in the past, may not have found their image included in images of beauty. As such, one of the subtexts is “we’ve arrived, not only as consumers, but as people who are appreciated for our uniqueness.” To put it bluntly, the equating of Kim’s skin with the LV bag is not merely commodification. It also sends — and is intended to send — the opposite message: Black is beautiful. The skin of the African-American woman is as upscale and desirable as LV’s luxury products.

For Goren (Tel Aviv Museum), commodification is a modern, communal ritual, one that, in many respects, resembles traditional ritual. Yet the transformation of the body is not into a deity or representative of a mystical cult — keepers of ancient secrets — but into “advertising space”:

When he photographed rapper Lil Kim for the Louis Vuitton campaign, the company logos were imprinted from head to toe on the dark skin of her naked body as a stamp. In this manner he created a sales-promoting attraction while, at the same time, placing the singer, himself, and the public of viewers and potential buyers as part of the array responsible for commodification of the female body. The “brand-name rush,” the pursuit of fashionable designer items, the obsessive manicuring of the body in an attempt to resemble the figures on the catwalk or in the Oscars ceremony—all these rituals, as means to acquire a social status, make for the body’s transformation into a label, and the conversion of the human figure into advertising space.

A “consumer civilization”?

While the commodification of the body is a relatively new phenomenon, driven by television, movies, advertising, etc., historically, since antiquity, we have had the converse relationship between people and their possessions: the anthropomorphizing of the commodity, or at least of the object.

We know, for example, that in ancient times, warriors often named their weapons. We find this reflected in mythology. In the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna carries a bow (to shoot arrows from) called Gandiva. The name means “Conquers the Earth.” In Norse mythology, the god Thor owned a war hammer called Mjolnir, meaning “The Crusher.” Magnus III of Norway owned a sword that he had named “Leg biter,” while the Emperor Charlemagne owned one called “Joyful.”

The examples of Hindu’s Arjuna and the god Thor of the Old Norse religion are especially interesting. The naming of objects, and the treating them as, in some sense, living beings with their own personalities and powers, is fundamentally a religious act — in the ancient sense of religion. The world of the gods, the otherworldly, the supernatural, burst into the mundane world, and take possession of it. Inanimate objects become living beings. In all ancient cultures objects — sometimes marked with special symbols or blessed by a priest or shaman — were used to ward off evil, increase good luck, heal, and so on. Even well into the 20th century, in Europe, horseshoes were hung over doors to ward off evil.

In our conception of reality today, the mystical has largely disappeared from the material world. But, objects remain of supreme importance when it comes to our identity. Shopping has become a kind of religion in itself. “Retail therapy” enables us to know who we are in a world in which, through advertising, we have come to associate authentic being with buying, and self-identity with consumer goods.

Colin Campbell has argued that, “the activity of consuming can be considered as a vital and necessary path to self-discovery.” And that “path” has defined not only ourselves as individuals, but also Western society as a whole. “It is justifiable,” Campbell says, “to claim not simply that we live in a consumer society, or are socialised into a consumer culture, but that ours is in a very fundamental sense, a consumer civilisation.”

Masculinity and the therapy of cars

Some products stand out as especially identified with people. During the 20th century, the automobile came to be regarded as a figurative extension of the (male) owner’s anatomy, and an expression of his identity. Evan Suntres has argued relatively recently that, “liberal movements,” which campaign for, and lead to, rights and equality for women, gay people, etc., “create a crisis of masculinity for the conservative man and he sort of loses these ways of expressing this conservative masculinity… Muscle cars, for some of them, fill this void.”

Suntres argues that the design of cars, aesthetically, has changed to reflect the changing psyche of men in America, especially those men who have struggled to adapt to the changes, and who, consequently, have looked to automobiles as an expression of those emotions and values they cannot otherwise express.

Although Suntres doesn’t mention it, we know that cars, like many of the US planes flown by US servicemen in WWII, have sometimes been decorated with images of “pin up girls,” flames, dragons, and similar designs. These lowbrow images are, on inspection, the types that are most commonly used for tattoos. It is as if the car is being presented as a kind of “astral double” for the driver — it is his own body re-imagined as machinery.

Ford’s “human car” ad campaign, sought to anthropomorphize its latest product to the highest degree. Dancers were shown forming themselves into the shape of a car, while consumers listened to a husky male voice telling them: “today you can talk to your car, and it will respond,” and asserting that they were the inspiration behind Ford’s automobiles.

From the “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series (in which the hero’s body was presented as having been remade by US scientists) to the machine creatures of the Transformer movies (who are presented as emotionally and ethically human), this dream of the fusion of man and machine is now standard, at least in popular entertainment. And like Lil Kim in the Louis Vuitton ad campaign, they represent a total fusion of man and commodity, the natural and the manufactured, the imperfect and the perfect. Advertising and shopping are not merely things that inform and give us pleasure, but, for many people, they are the therapy that enables them to know themselves and the religion that enables them to transcend themselves, if only always into the free market world. In consumerism there is redemption.

Consumerism is religious. Frederick W. Robertson, a 19th century Christian preacher, once said, “We are too much haunted by ourselves, projecting the central shadow of self on everything around us. And then comes the Gospel to rescue us from this selfishness. Redemption,” he said, “is… to forget self in God.” Robertson was correct in his observation that we project ourselves onto “everything around us.” But, since the middle of the 20th century, for many people, redemption has been to simultaneously forget and discover their selves through shopping.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


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