Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hybrid culture week II: the ideology of irritation

So the whole hybrid experience has me thinking about brand ideology again. In an earlier post, I expressed skepticism about the use of the term in marketing, suggesting it was either redundant (all advertising is ideological in the classic sense of supporting the socio-economic structures of the ruling class) and/or hyperbolic (in the sense that it thrived on competitive viewpoints rather than needing to crush them to function).

But I’m wondering now if some of these non-traditional purchases might constitute something like—following Barthes reality effect—an ideology effect. Not ideological in the classic sense, but ideological in the sense of disrupting people’s unconscious or semi-conscious assumptions about their consumer purchases.

In a country where 70% of the GNP is made up of consumer spending, I don’t think many people would disagree with the fact that our standard of living depends on getting people to keep spending. Our culture is a consumer culture in a deep (base and superstructure) way now. So, when we refuse to spend (see Freegans) or divert spending into consumption limiting purchases (like hybrids) we are doing something that comes close to an ideological effect.

After a few weeks of hybrid driving and hybrid comments and people sending me articles about hybrids, I’m starting to think that one very visible and perhaps measurable marker of an ideological act or purchase or brand is that it makes other people all defensive and shit. The brand stakes out a territory that “raises to consciousness” the unconscious or semi-conscious motivations behind other purchases. "You eat animals?"

Now Doug Holt and the rest of the crew at Amalgamated have expanded this definition to include any brand that expresses a “provocative cultural ideal, a view of how society should be.” Holt's definition of cultural branding, elucidated in his post-Marxist cultural analysis How Brands Become Icons, avoids being Althusserian but only barely so. The shadow of the "Ideological State Apparatus" hovers throughout the book. One of the many great charms of reading Holt's book is watching him use one of the last centuries most astringent critiques of consumer capitalism as the foundation for a theory of brand building.

Holt claims that the source of a truly “iconic" brands power (Budweiser, Harley Davidson, Coke) is the brand’s ability to reconcile cultural contradictions, the contradiction between the life we want to be leading and the socio-economic reality we are trapped in. In other words, powerful ideological marketing creates a compelling cultural fantasy that reconciles us to our lives of quiet desperation sitting in cubicles, standing in assembly lines and enduring airport security humiliations. Through the ritual act of consumption, the brand allows us to experience, however briefly, the life of a motorcycle riding rebels, or a Xtreme sport hipster, or a cool guy hanging out with our guy friends, running cover for one another as we are pursued by needy girlfriends. True, indeed.

Holt would say that my Prius purchase serves my contradictory desires to maximize my earnings (and participating in a commuter culture to do it) while still feeling like I’m doing my part to preserve the environment. I can have my cake and eat it too. Feel all smug--giving a synergy-hybrid-drive-silent-finger to all the Hummers on the road while still earning enough to take my family to Vail. True!

I can't disagree. But I might also argue now after two weeks of ideological car ownership that the clearest sign that a brand can claim ideological status is when it pisses someone off by suggesting their purchasing habits (and the values that underpin them) aren’t just wrong, but bad.

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