You Are What You Consume: The Social And Political Pitfalls Of ‘Hyperreality’
"Ideologies, narratives and politicians are sold as brands through taglines and hashtags. It doesn’t matter how bizarre and unreal some of their proclamations and promises" - Nadeem Farooq Paracha explains why.
In the early 2000s, a T-Shirt became popular among the then young ‘millennials.’ The message on the T-Shirt said, “I’m Not A Target Market.” Another version of the T-Shirt states “You’re A Target Market.” These were statements pitched against consumerism. And yet, one of the main promoters of the T-Shirts, a magazine called Adbusters, had a dedicated website through which they sold ‘cool’ anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism products just as any consumerist and capitalist company would their brand of whatever.
The irony was not entirely lost, though. The so-called millennials were growing up in an age where capitalism had triumphed and socialism had been vanquished. It was also a time when so-called ‘postmodernism’ was peaking. Irony was a big thing in postmodernism. It wasn’t deployed to point out contradictions as such, but rather, to celebrate them. Postmodernists saw contradictions as something which challenged the ‘dogmas’ of modernity. For example, it was okay to have a modern lifestyle and a good education, and to love sci-fi, but refuse to believe in the theory of evolution, or for that matter, in the fact that man had reached the moon. Evolution and moon landings were facts ‘imposed’ by scientists who were treating science as if it were a religion. Apparently.
So, when the millennials wore the aforementioned T-Shirt, they were conscious of the reality that the makers of the T-Shirt were using capitalist tools to sell anti-consumerism. The wearers were aware of the inherent irony. Through the T-Shirt, they weren’t expressing anti-consumerism. They were demonstrating their love of irony. Their message, thus, was, ‘look, I’m so ironic.’ Being ironic meant not being dogmatic, you know.
Postmodernism had emerged in the early 1980s as an irreverent critique of modernity. It became an anti-doctrine doctrine against meta-narratives, grand ideas, scientific truths, conventional 20th century politics, and models of economic modernity. Postmodernism was reactionary, but not in the religious sense. It just detested whatever that had passed for being ‘modern,’ accusing it of causing everything from wars to economic exploitation to dictatorships to poverty to the demystification and erosion of ‘spirituality,’ etc.
Modernity had treated the human being as a ‘knowing subject’ existing in a rationally understood/ordered universe. Postmodernism described the human being as a ‘communicative subject’ existing in a world full of symbols (A.Venkatesh in Advances in Consumer Research, 1992). Postmodernism was also a way to reconstruct reality as defined through reason. It stated that the beliefs of what reality is that could not be substantiated through reason or the scientific method, didn’t mean theses beliefs were irrational or not real.
If some Hindus believe that cow urine can cure cancer, or some Muslims think that energy can be derived from djinns, or some Catholics are certain that climbing the stairs of a Church on their knees would please God more, then their beliefs are as valid as scientific truths. Postmodernism suggested that reason and science alone don’t have a monopoly over truth or reality.
Modernity had treated the human being as a ‘knowing subject’ existing in a rationally understood/ordered universe. Postmodernism described the human being as a ‘communicative subject’ existing in a world full of symbols
This kind of flexible logic, or an anti-logic logic, is incredibly conducive for consumerism to thrive. It creates what is often referred to as ‘Hyperreality.’ For example, fictional characters that appear in films, advertisements, or in TV serials, are often emulated by those who consume them and their traits. Therefore, in a way, or according to postmodernist logic, these characters that were once fictional, become part of the reality of their adopters and consumers. This is ‘Hyperreality.’ It is a reality beyond what reality was understood to be during the rationalist/modernist era, and it is composed of what originally was and is hype (A. Fuat Firat in Advances in Consumer Research, 1991). So, in a postmodernist society, one becomes, what one consumes.
But wasn’t this always the case when advertising exploded in the 1920s and products began to be turned into brands? Indeed. Most products in themselves were necessities. Food items, tools, medicine, etc. They become brands when transformed into symbols of desire. This then led to the emergence of products that were not necessities. Soft drinks, chewing gum, chocolate bars, tea, coffee, cigarettes, ice cream, etc. Due to technological advancements and rising incomes, many products that were once deemed luxuries — such as cars, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, refrigerators, TV sets, et al — became necessities.
Modernity had begun to radically transform how people lived. For example, the invention of the air conditioner (AC) made summer heat a lot more bearable. ACs increasingly became a necessity in societies enjoying rising incomes. This product then segregated into brands. Technically, every AC brand was about providing cool air. But they differed in what emotion they were triggering in the consumers. One AC brand might have marketed itself as the best gift a husband could give to his hardworking housewife, while another would claim that its presence in a house would be the envy of the neighbours.
Technological differences were highlighted as well, but these were secondary considerations. The brand needed to evoke an emotion — of well-being, status, nostalgia, modernity, happiness, youthfulness, romance, etc. Brands began to ‘stand’ for something other than the boring stuff they were made of. Coca-Cola stands for ‘happiness.’ Pepsi for youthfulness. Marlboro cigarettes for rugged individuality. Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ for a ‘freewheeling’ folk. Porsche was for playboys. So on and so forth. This is called ‘branding.’ It gives products a personality that turns them into brands. Their ‘personalities’ are designed to evoke emotions in the consumer to attain their loyalty towards the brand (‘brand loyalty’).
In the late 1970s, a Pakistani company that manufactured geysers marketed their product on TV. It was like any other standard geyser available in the market. But it began to fly off the shelves when the company began to advertise it on TV as a brand. In its TV commercial, a good-looking model is seen coming out of a bathroom, draped only in a towel. As she opens the door, steam can be seen floating out of the bathroom.
In the postmodernist era, when identities formed by ‘grand’ religious doctrines or political ideologies had begun to erode, the notion that ‘the consumer is king’ seemed good enough for a lot of people to be just that: consumers
She then turns to the camera and says, ‘garam paani se shower lene ka toh maza hi aur hai’ (the pleasure of taking a hot shower is something entirely different). Suddenly, taking a shower warmed by the geyser brand became about sexiness. The now defunct Karachi tabloid Star reported that newly married couples were insisting on buying that particular geyser brand only. Interestingly, the same report also stated that the geyser was not durable and did not last for more than six months. But those buying it were not spending money on the product, but on the brand and what it was evoking: sexiness.
In 1979, the French intellectual Jean-François Lyotard announced that the world has entered the postmodern age (JF Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition, 1979). He wrote, that political, economic, social and cultural ideas that had evolved from the ‘Age of Reason’ and had given birth to 20th Century modernity, had been exhausted and become impediments for new ideas to emerge. He believed modernity had stopped being innovative, and that it had created dogmatic hegemonies in all fields. To Lyotard, these hegemonies had started to be challenged by those who were bypassed by modernity or had found its doctrines too constricting.
The flexible logic proliferated by postmodernists greatly attracted marketeers, advertising firms and makers of consumer brands. Hyperreality was able to shift into top gear when the consumer was now no long only the consumer but also the consumed, produced as a product of the consumption patterns (Firat, ibid). The consumer became what he/she consumed. And what he consumed adjusted and readjusted its identity accordingly. The consumer became part of the production and consumption cycle. One wasn’t sure who was forming identities in this respect. Was it the brand informing the identity of the consumer or was the consumer informing the identity of the brand?
Politics and religion treated and interacted with as consumer goods increased. Ideologies, narratives and politicians are sold as brands through taglines and hashtags. It doesn’t matter how bizarre and unreal some of their proclamations and promises. As long as they evoke an emotion that aids a supporter-consumer to formulate an identity, it’s good enough
Largely, it was the brands doing most of the identity-making, even though marketeers still claim that brands are created based on emotional and psychological insights gained from potential consumers. But being a consumer in itself became an identity. So, by describing a group of people as potential consumers, marketeers have already provided them with an identity. In the postmodernist era, when identities formed by ‘grand’ religious doctrines or political ideologies had begun to erode, the notion that ‘the consumer is king’ seemed good enough for a lot of people to be just that: consumers.
Eventually, even political and religious identities began to be influenced by brands. In the mid-1980s, when I was studying at a state-owned college in Karachi and was posing as a ‘Marxist,’ I would make sure never to be seen smoking an expensive cigarette brand. I used to smoke the ‘prestigious’ Gold Leaf brand, but at college I made sure to be seen smoking only either Gold Flake or K2. Both these brands at the time used to be positioned as cigarettes for working-class smokers. So, when a middle-class guy was seen smoking a working-class cigarette brand, it was assumed by most that he was a ‘leftist.’
Middle-class leftist characters in the time’s Indian ‘art films’ did the same. We saw these fictional characters, and internalised their traits and habits, and then exhibited them externally, thus creating a Hyperreality. A cigarette brand, more than a thorough knowledge of a political ideology, formed a political identity. In the same way, the more religiously-inclined characters in PTV dramas of the 1980s, began appearing in skull caps and holding prayer beads. Such characters then began to appear in print and TV ads of soft-drink and sweet-meat brands during Ramazan.
Many Pakistani men began to emulate these traits of fictional characters to exhibit their religiosity. In 2004, a gentleman at the newspaper that I worked for at the time, arrived at the office on the first of Ramazan in a white shalwar-kameez, a skull cap and prayer beads. I’d always seen him in trousers and shirt. He wasn’t particularly religious. Then he completed the scene (or act) by ordering a box of sweet-meat brand at Iftar time. That brand had been adverting itself on TV. The guy reminded me entirely of the male character in that sweet-meat brand’s ad.
I asked him what he had been reciting while running his fingers over the beads. He just shrugged his shoulders. He had simply externalised a character he had internalised/consumed from a TV ad but one who couldn’t be heard what he was reciting while playing with the beads. Holding the beads and then ordering the sweet-meat brand was more than enough to exhibit a form of religiosity. Postmodernism would celebrate this as one’s own show of faith, to hell with authenticity or for that matter, either hypocrisy or downright stupidity.
Politics and religion treated and interacted with as consumer goods increased. Ideologies, narratives and politicians are sold as brands through taglines and hashtags. It doesn’t matter how bizarre and unreal some of their proclamations and promises. As long as they evoke an emotion that aids a supporter-consumer to formulate an identity, it’s good enough. Couple this with the pop culture paraphernalia that emerges around certain populist political leaders — T-Shirts, songs, the leader’s style of dressing, etc. — and it then becomes a fine piece of marketing.
Recently, some online stores began to sell T-Shirts with “Absolutely Not!” written on them. These words were apparently said by the ousted Pakistani PM Imran Khan to the Americans when they asked him to give them military bases in the country. Fact is, they never asked him nor did he ever said this to them. He said this as an answer to a hypothetical question thrown at him by an interviewer. He said if the US government asked for bases, he would say, “absolutely not!” But truth is relative in both postmodernism and advertising.
When Coca-Cola claims that by opening a Coke bottle, one “opens happiness,” it really doesn’t mean anything. At best a cola can give one a temporary sugar high, but in Coke’s advertisements, this high mushrooms into becoming something utopian and perfect which brings families together in a reality when families are not so tightly knit, nor exceptionally happy. Coke may claim that it is trying to ‘resolve’ this dilemma or ‘tension,’ but in reality, it is simply providing an escapist fantasy. This is just as Shan masala ads provide an ‘emotional’ release in a society where tears need to be seen for one to believe in another’s sadness. Shan makes sure of that!
Pepsi, on the other hand, wants to keep jumping on generational bandwagons. It has played a major role in neatly segmenting generations and becoming their drink. Pepsi was the drink of ‘boomers’ in the 1960s and 1970s, before it became the drink of ‘Generation X,’ then ‘millennials’ and now ‘Gen Z.’ One can say: Pepsi is not very loyal. The purveyors of ‘identity politics’ often use these generational terms. Yet, these segments are a creation of marketeers to segment markets. The way they are described is the work of marketeers more than sociologists. But those competing so passionately in identity politics, too, are consuming politics – as they would consumer brands.