The predominance of brand names isn’t new. It is a constant feature of marketing. What has been going on in the past decade is a shift in the accent of marketing. It’s a new stage of commodification that Jeremy Rifkin has designated “cultural capitalism.” We buy a product—say, an organic apple—because it represents a particular lifestyle. An ecological protest against the exploitation of natural resources is already caught in the commodification of experience. Although ecology is perceived as a protest against the virtualization of daily life and an argument for a return to the direct experience of material reality, ecology is simply branded as a new lifestyle. When we purchase organic food we are buying a cultural experience, one of a “healthy ecological lifestyle.” The same goes for every return to “reality”: In an ad widely broadcast on U.S. television a decade or so ago, a group of ordinary people was shown engaged in a barbecue, with country music and dancing, and the accompanying message: “Beef. Real food for real people.” But the beef offered as a symbol of a certain lifestyle (that of “real” Americans) is much more chemically and genetically manipulated than the “organic” food consumed by “artificial” yuppies.
This is what design is truly about: Designers articulate the meaning above and beyond a product’s function. When they try to design a purely functional product, the product displays functionality as its meaning, often at the expense of its real functionality. Prehistoric handaxes, for example, were made by males as sexual displays of power. The excessive and costly perfection of their form served no direct use.
Our experiences have become commodified. What we buy on the market is less a product we want to own and more a life experience—an experience of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption or participating in a lifestyle. Material objects serve as props for these experiences and are offered for free to seduce us into buying the true “experiential commodity,” such as the free cell phones we get when we sign a one-year contract. To quote the succinct formula of Mark Slouka, “As more of the hours of our days are spent in synthetic environments, life itself is turned into a commodity. Someone makes it for us; we buy it from them. We become the consumers of our own lives.” We ultimately buy (the time of) our own life. Michel Foucault’s notion of turning one’s self into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my physical fitness by joining a gym. I buy my spiritual enlightenment by enrolling in courses on Transcendental Meditation. I buy my public persona by going to restaurants patronized by people with whom I want to be associated.
Let’s return to the example of ecology. There’s something deceptively reassuring in our readiness to assume guilt for threats to the environment. We like to be guilty. If we’re guilty, then it all depends on us. We can save ourselves by changing our lives. What is difficult to accept (at least for us in the West) is that we are reduced to a purely passive role. We are just impotent observers who can only sit and watch what our fate will be. To avoid such a situation, we engage in frantic and obsessive activity. We recycle paper and buy organic food so we can believe we’re doing something. We are like a sports fan who supports his team by shouting and jumping from his seat in front of the TV screen in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome of the game.
The typical form of fetishist disavowal apropos ecology is “I know very well (that we are all threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I’m not ready to do anything important like change my way of life).” But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well I can’t really influence processes that can lead to my ruin, but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept. I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if I know it is ultimately meaningless.” Isn’t this why we buy organic food? Who really believes that half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are healthier? The point is that, by buying them, we do not just buy and consume a product; we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our care and global awareness and participate in a large collective project.
Today we buy commodities neither for their utility nor as status symbols. We buy them to get the experience they provide; we consume them to make our lives meaningful. Consumption should sustain quality of life. Its time should be “quality time”—not a time of alienation, of imitating models imposed on us by society, of the fear of not keeping up with the Joneses. We seek authentic fulfillment of our true selves, of the sensuous play of experience, of caring for others.
An exemplary case of “cultural capitalism” can be found in the Starbucks ad campaign that says, “It’s not just what you’re buying. It’s what you’re buying into.” After celebrating the quality of the coffee, the ad continues: “But when you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet program, we purchase more fair-trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their work. We invest in and improve coffee-growing practices and communities around the globe. It’s good coffee karma. Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days. When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it tastes so good.”
The “cultural” surplus is here spelled out. The price is higher because you are really buying the “coffee ethic,” which includes care for the environment, social responsibility toward producers and a place where you can participate in a communal life (from the beginning Starbucks presented its shops as ersatz community spaces). If this isn’t enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied, if you continue to worry about Third World misery, there are other products you can buy. Consider the description Starbucks offers for its Ethos Water program: “Ethos Water is a brand with a social mission—helping children around the world get clean water and raising awareness of the world water crisis. Every time you purchase a bottle of Ethos Water, Ethos Water will contribute five cents toward our goal of raising at least $10 million by 2010. Through the Starbucks Foundation, Ethos Water supports humanitarian water programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date, Ethos Water grant commitments exceed $6.2 million. These programs will help an estimated 420,000 people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.”
Authentic experience matters. This is how capitalism, at the level of consumption, integrates the legacy of 1968. This is how it addresses the critique of alienated consumption. A recent Hilton ad consists of a simple claim: “Travel doesn’t only get us from place A to place B. It should also make us a better person.” Can we imagine such an ad a decade ago? The latest scientific expression of this new spirit is the rise of happiness studies. But how is it that, in this era of spiritualized hedonism, when the goal of life is defined as happiness, anxiety and depression are exploding? It is the enigma of this self-sabotage of happiness and pleasure that makes Freud’s message more actual than ever.
Authenticity and brand names are not mutually exclusive—authenticity echoes beneath every brand name.