Culture

Interestingly enough

Unique. Interesting. Experience.

I’m a bit challenged in my efforts to disentangle whether these terms chime with such familiarity because they are in round circulation in my own policies of seeking – if they are simply a somewhat fatigued personal axis for my own life’s manifesto in need of a little reinvigoration…

Or, if it is begrudgingly symptomatic of some internalization of normative Gen-Y values for performing relevance…

Or, if it’s because my radar has been picking up on these themes more and more in the advertising that I’m encountering in the day-to-day.

For the sake of giving the question a fair meander, let’s just say all three.

As is relatively typical for the people of my tribe (residents of a certain set of square miles in Brooklyn), I don’t own a television, so my contact with TV commercials is perhaps a bit haphazardly filtered by Hulu sponsorships and those times where I happen to fly on an airline that (mercifully) furnishes its patrons with tiny televisions that I flip through, ravenous and indiscriminate. With that said, I do live in New York, after all, so someone is trying to sell me – or at least tell me – something just about any moment that I’ve set foot out the door, even when I cannot discern or be bothered with what it might be. Subway advertising is particularly well qualified to find its way through, my eyes grasping for something to hold whilst trapped inexplicably between stops (again) and my thoughts seeking respite from the ‘are we there yet?’ loop. Let the record show that I’m in good company, if this New York Times report on subway behaviors noting a “transit landscape of convenience, game theory, and occasional altruism” may be submitted as official evidence.

From this somewhat randomized mosaic of brush-ups, branded plays on the value of being interesting are currently saturating my feed. On the subway, a new influx of Cole Haan posters reminds passengers of their civic responsibility to keep the plotlines of their lives riveting. Some are more blatant than others – one sign simply reading “Only the boring get bored”, which hardly seems a fair accusation given the vulnerabilities of the subterranean context – resolves any confusion that there might be about how life in the social age might have the effect of pressuring individuals to continually find ways to not only appear, but also feel unique, differentiated, and intriguing. Another nominally less indicting part of the series says: “Be more interesting tomorrow than you are today”, almost as if it’s trying to throw readers a conciliatory bone.

For such straightforward statements, there’s plenty to unpack here. On one hand, it draws attention to the benefits of being fashionable – the idea that you can self-curate and be externally validated by the impression that the outer world will have of you, that it can reinforce your sense that you have something more than average, something special, to offer. On another, it taps (hammers, really) into the growing social capital that is accumulating around the idea of being interesting, and the shift away from defining yourself by what you have and towards defining yourself by what you do, how you see things, and how you project your perspective to the world – but in a way that seeks to flip that ideological capital back around full circle by translating what you have (branded product) into an exemplification of the fascinating things that you do and the captivating person that you are.

This is hardly an unusual brand strategy unto itself, but I find something striking about the brazen approach and the ideas it aims to claim in taking it. The presentation is noteworthy as well, considering that the signs in question do not actually exhibit the product, only text, appropriating the motivational poster format that has become so popular for sharing and making personal identity statements in the webspace, lending well to the myriad mediums (Pinterest, Tumblr) for creating  inspiration boards that  come together as so many aspirational ‘collages of self’.

I can’t help but speculate that these communications are indicative of some digestion of and distancing from a critique that research might have identified as compromising the brand’s reach – especially with consumers of a more ‘millennial’ mindset. A significant target segment finds that a brand isn’t particularly compelling, maybe to the point where they aren’t really acknowledging its presence much at all, to which the brand responds “It’s not me, it’s you…if only the boring get bored, and if you find our brand boring, than it’s YOU that must be boring”.

It brings French philosopher Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation to mind, wherein an advertisement (or other form of communication) hails its subject in a way that triggers a certain reactive instinct akin to how you’d respond to hearing your name called in the street – you turn your head, recognizing that you personally are being called to attention, confirming your identity as such. In the case of these advertisements, should you find yourself hailed, you then bear the burden of responsibility for your newly re-confirmed identity.

Incidentally, I was given pause when I noticed that a complementary set of subway posters for Cole Haan show models walking down the street, bodies facing away from the camera and their heads turned toward it, as if they’d just heard their names coming from its direction. Coincidence, or a small pack of social theory nerds in their research department’s corner?

If consumers weren’t so capable of emotionally dissociating from much of the provocation that’s embedded in modern messaging, imagine the existential tailspin that might ensue – “I didn’t think that I was boring, but I’m bored…so what/who am I?” And perhaps that’s precisely the point.  Breaking through the fortress of adaptively filtered consumer attention to forge a substantial connection is a puzzle that presents itself to us in different ways everyday. The call-out, abrasively tinged though it may be, can at least be counted on to ensure that targeted consumers know that the brand has their eye on them.

The magic, of course, is in making sure that such moments of recognition are met with glad-to-see-you smiles.