Monday, August 6, 2007

Context Matters

It was probably a bad idea to go straight from ten days high in Vermont’s Green Mountains without any media exposure (except public radio) straight to the AAAA’s planning conference in San Diego, if only because the contrast was bound to feel a bit abrasive.

I wasn’t up in VT for 5 hours—picking blueberries with my kids--before I started to feel disgusted by how much crap I was carting around. Really and truly: TOO MUCH SHIT.

With three kids, stuff just kind of accumulates. Sometimes it feels like it’s reproducing itself. The shoes alone: TEVA’s, Croc’s, Those slip-on mesh shoes with rubber soles. Are my kids amphibians? Yeah, I know, it’s my own fault.

I’m no romantic; there were no delusions about a permanent retreat to the countryside. I can’t do anything except talk anyway

But I felt the same way when I was in Milan about a month ago for a friend’s wedding. The life I’d been living North of Boston just disappeared; the car-pooling, the gutter-cleaning, the endless conference calls with bad acoustics and everyone leaning in like our grandparents heads tilted into an old wireless. Suddenly, it was espresso and Vino Nobile and Italian politics--a self or version of my self I hadn’t experienced in at least a decade was suddenly back, completely.

Maybe I’m just a sociopath, with a totally flexible personality or I’m particularly eager to escape my day-to-day life, but I’m inclined to think that our contemporary romantic idea of a “self”--a deep a permanent fixture which defines our experience no matter what--this popular notion of “self” obscures how susceptible our feelings and desires are to a different contexts.

Proust, for one, was totally hip to this, and for anyone who has the steely will to power through 3,000 pages of lyrically described landscapes and dinner parties and lots of dirty sex, you’ll be rewarded with (among other things) a very powerful account of the self—very different from the one that most of us carry around with us. He is constantly describing his past as a collection of totally different “selves” which are gone until he reencounters them with shock: sometimes delight, sometimes horror.

My point is psychological, not confessional. We tend to think of consumers as possessing relatively fixed identities with a set of desires and fears. But it seems like we should think of them as far more fungible than we do and strive to thrust them into a context which will “activate” a self that will make them susceptible to our messaging. Don’t think soccer mom. Think mom in soccer context.

So here I am, in San Diego. And professional life does feel a little caustic and overlit: the San Diego Grand Hyatt already buzzing with shoptalk, prowling recruiters, drinks and good-hearted bullshit flowing.

But because I know the power of context, I suspect it won’t be one or two drinks with the usual suspects before the blueberries and green shade will feel as remote as life without a cellphone.

1 comment:

Paul Soldera said...

I think that's a great thought - contextual 'selfs' that activate situationally. Behave differently. Buy differently.

Our notions of consumers are averaged into uselessness half the time.