May 19, 1999 Americans, and increasingly the rest of the world, are using brand names to create their identities, a University of Florida professor writes in a new book.
Writer: Steve Orlando
Source: James Twitchell -- (352) 392-6650, ext. 277; firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Throw out the family coat of arms, forget about which pew to sit in at church and don't even think about the family tree anymore.
In late 20th century America, such social place markers once used to determine our identity and aspirations are being replaced by brand names, a University of Florida professor writes in his new book.
The label of our shirt, the make of our car and our favorite laundry detergent are filling the vacuum once occupied by anchors such as religion, education and family name, James Twitchell writes in "Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism" (Columbia University Press), scheduled for release June 3.
"We have made the material world the map of value. What religion used to do, what occupations used to do, what bloodlines used to do ... now objects do it," said Twitchell, a pop culture scholar whose previous books include "Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture" and "For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture."
For those who may wonder why the label has moved from the inside of our clothes to the outside, Twitchell says it's simple: We want the world to know this is a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt we're wearing because our identity lies in the image that goes with it.
"We don't know each other from bloodlines, by what pew they sit in," Twitchell said, "so we make materials things the signs that let other people know who we are. You are not what you make, you are what you consume."
Furthermore, he said, while conventional wisdom says advertisers rule our lives, it's actually we consumers who run the show -- and we're good at it.
"Consumers are willing conspirators in this interaction between buying and selling," he said. "If advertising is so powerful, then how come the failure rate [of new products] is so high? If these guys were really smart, we'd all be driving Edsels and listening to 8-track tapes."
If his assessment seems overly cynical, Twitchell argues, it shouldn't be taken that way. The fact is, we want it this way -- demand it -- and the life-altering significance we attach to our possessions makes us far more than simply materialistic. We don't want just a sport-utility vehicle, we want an Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition and -- perhaps most important -- the new image and identity that come with it.
"It's not that we're too materialistic," he said. "It's that we're not materialistic enough. If we were materialistic, objects would just be objects."
Still, voluntary or not, the shift to consuming labels has a down side: It robs us of our roots and leaves us adrift and anxious. As easy as it is to create our own identity with consumer goods, he says, it's just as easy to create a new one, by switching brands of blue jeans, for instance, which creates an unstable situation.
"Relative to the world our parents knew, this is a world characterized by great anxiety and uncertainty," Twitchell said. "We don't have the anchoring system we once had."
The shift from traditional guideposts to secular ones has been a modern phenomenon, for the most part, driven by advertising, he said. It gained considerable speed with the advent of electronic media and shows no signs of slowing. On the contrary, he said, it continues to grow as even Third World nations are brought under the influence of the Age of American Markets.
"In a culture in which family name, pew placement, educational affiliation, accent and club membership count for little, brand accumulation becomes the marker of status by default," Twitchell writes. "It is really all we have left."
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