Which One of These Sneakers Is Me?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in London Times on 30 March 2000

I was in one of those sports “superstores” the other day, hoping to find a pair of trainers for myself. As I faced the giant wall of shoes, each model categorized by either sports affiliation, basketball star, economic class, racial heritage or consumer niche, I noticed a young boy standing next to me, maybe 13 years old, in even greater awe of the towering selection of footwear.

His jaw was dropped and his eyes were glazed over - a psycho-physical response to the overwhelming sensory data in a self-contained consumer environment. It’s a phenomenon known to retail architects as “Gruen Transfer,” named for the gentleman who invented the shopping mall, where this mental paralysis is most commonly observed.

Having finished several years of research on this exact mind state, I knew to proceed with caution. I slowly made my way to the boy’s side and gently asked him, “what is going through your mind right now?”

He responded without hesitation, “I don’t know which of these trainers is \me\.” The boy proceeded to explain his dilemma. He thought of Nike as the most utilitarian and scientifically advanced shoe, but had heard something about third world laborers and was afraid that wearing this brand might label him as too anti-Green. He then considered a skateboard shoe, Airwalk, by an “indie” manufacturer (the trainer equivalent of a micro-brewery) but had recently learned that this company was almost as big as Nike. The truly hip brands of skate shoe were too esoteric for his current profile at school - he’d look like he was “trying.” This left the “retro” brands, like Puma, Converse and Adidas, none of which he felt any real affinity, since he wasn’t even alive in the 70’s when they were truly and non-ironically popular.

With no clear choice and, more importantly, no other way to conceive of his own identity, the boy stood their, paralyzed in the modern youth equivalent of an existential crisis. Which brand am I, anyway?

Believe it or not, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of youth culture marketers who have already begun clipping out this article. They work for hip, new advertising agencies and cultural research firms who trade in the psychology of our children and the anthropology of their culture. The object of their labors is to create precisely the state of confusion and vulnerability experienced by the young shopper at the shoe wall - and then turn this state to their advantage. It is a science, though not a pretty one.

Yes, our children are the prey and their consumer loyalty is the prize in an escalating arms race. Marketers spend millions developing strategies to identify children’s predilections and then capitalize on their vulnerabilities. Young people are fooled for a while, but then develop defense mechanisms, such as media-savvy attitudes or ironic dispositions. Then marketers research these defenses, develop new countermeasures, and on it goes. The revolutionary impact of a new musical genre is co-opted and packaged by a major label before it reaches the airwaves. The ability of young people to deconstruct and neutralize the effects of one advertising technique are thwarted when they are confounded by yet another. The liberation children experience when they discover the Internet is quickly counteracted by the lure of e-commerce web sites, which are customized to each individual user’s psychological profile in order to maximize their effectiveness.

The battle in which our children are engaged seems to pass beneath our radar screens, in a language we don’t understand. But we see the confusion and despair that results - not to mention the ever-increasing desperation with which even three-year-olds yearn for the next Pokemon trading card. How did we get in this predicament, and is there a way out? Is it your imagination, you wonder, or have things really gotten worse?

Alas, things seem to have gotten worse. Ironically, this is because things had gotten so much better.

In olden times - back when those of us who read the newspaper grew up - media was a one-way affair. Advertisers enjoyed a captive audience, and could quite authoritatively provoke our angst and stoke our aspirations. Interactivity changed all this. The remote control gave viewers the ability to break the captive spell of television programming whenever they wished, without having to get up and go all the way up to the set. Young people proved particularly adept at “channel surfing,” both because they grew up using the new tool, and because they felt little compunction to endure the tension-provoking narratives of storytellers who did not have their best interests at heart. It was as if young people knew that the stuff on television was called “programming” for a reason, and developed shortened attention spans for the purpose of keeping themselves from falling into the spell of advertisers. The remote control allowed young people to deconstruct TV.

The next weapon in the child’s arsenal was the video game joystick. For the first time, viewers had control over the very pixels on their monitors. A terrain that was formerly the exclusive province of the BBC presenter was now available to anyone. The television image was demystified.

Lastly, the computer mouse and keyboard transformed the TV receiver into a portal. Today’s young people grew up in a world where a screen could as easily be used for expressing oneself as consuming the media of others. Now the media was up-for-grabs, and the ethic, from hackers to camcorder owners, was “do it yourself.”

Of course, this revolution had to be undone. Television and internet programmers, responding to the unpredictable viewing habits of the newly liberated, began to call our mediaspace an “attention economy.” No matter how many channels they had for their programming, the number of “eyeball hours” that human beings were willing to dedicate to that programming was fixed. Not coincidentally, the channel surfing habits of our children became known as “attention deficit dissorder” - a real disease now used as an umbrella term for anyone who clicks away from programming before the marketer wants him to. We quite literally drug our children into compliance.

Likewise, as computer interfaces were made more complex and opaque - think Windows 98 - the do-it-yourself ethic of the Internet was undone. The original Internet was a place to share ideas and converse with others. Children actually had to use the keyboard! Now, the World Wide Web encourages them to click numbly through packaged content. Web sites are designed to keep young people from using the keyboard, except to enter in their parents’ credit card information.

But young people had been changed by their exposure to new media. They constituted a new “psychographic,” as advertisers like to call it, so new kinds of messaging had to be developed that appealed to their new sensibility.

Anthropologists - the same breed of scientists that used to scope out enemy populations before military conquests - engaged in focus groups, conducted “trend-watching” on the streets, in order to study the emotional needs and subtle behaviors of young people. They came to understand, for example, how children had abandoned narrative structures for fear of the way stories were used to coerce them. Children tended to construct narratives for themselves by collecting things instead, like cards, bottlecaps called “pogs,” or keychains and plush toys. They also came to understand how young people despised advertising - especially when it did not acknowledge their media-savvy intelligence.

Thus, Pokemon was born - a TV show, video game, and product line where the object is to collect as many trading cards as possible. The innovation here, among many, is the marketer’s conflation of TV show and advertisement into one piece of media. The show is an advertisement. The story, such as it is, concerns a boy who must collect little monsters in order to develop his own character. Likewise, the Pokemon video game engages the player in a quest for those monsters. Finally, the card game itself (for the few children who actually play it) involves collecting better monsters - not by playing, but by buying more cards. The more cards you buy, the better you can play.

Kids feel the tug, but in a way they can’t quite identify as advertising. Their compulsion to create a story for themselves - in a world where stories are dangerous - makes them vulnerable to this sort of attack. In marketers terms, Pokemon is “leveraged” media, with “cross-promotion” on “complementary platforms.” This is ad-speak for an assault on multiple fronts.

Moreover, the time a child spends in the Pokemon craze amounts to a remedial lesson in how to consume. Pokemon teaches them how to want things that they can’t or won’t actually play with. In fact, it teaches them how to buy things they don’t even want. While a child might want one particular card, he needs to purchase them in packages whose contents are not revealed. He must buy blind and repeatedly until he gets the object of his desire.

Worse yet, the card itself has no value - certainly not as a play-thing. It is a functionless purchase, slipped into a display case, whose value lies purely in its possession. It is analogous to those children who buy action figures from their favorite TV shows and movies, with \no intention of ever removing them from their packaging!\ They are purchased for their collectible value alone. Thus, the imagination game is reduced to some fictional moment in the future where the will, presumably, be resold to another collector. Children are no longer playing. They are investing.

Meanwhile, older kids have attempted to opt out of aspiration, altogether. The “15-24” demographic, considered by marketers the most difficult to wrangle into submission, have adopted a series of postures they hoped would make them impervious to marketing techniques. They take pride in their ability to recognize when they are being pandered to, and watch TV for the sole purpose of calling out when they are being manipulated. They are armchair media theorists, who take pleasure in deconstructing and defusing the messages of their enemies.

But now advertisers are making commercials just for them. Soft drink advertisements satirize one another before rewarding the cynical viewer: “image is nothing,” they say. The technique might best be called “wink” advertising, for its ability to engender a young person’s loyalty by pretending to disarm itself. “Get it?” the ad means to ask. If you’re cool, you do.

New magazine advertisements for jeans, such as those created by Diesel, take this even one step further. The ads juxtapose imagery that actually makes no sense - ice cream billboards in North Korea, for example. The strategy is brilliant. For a media-savvy young person to feel good about himself, he needs to feel he “gets” the joke. But what does he do with an ad where there’s obviously something to get that he can’t figure out? He has no choice but to admit that the brand is even cooler than he is. An ad’s ability to confound its audience is the new credential for a brand’s authenticity.

Like the boy at the wall of shoes, kids today analyze each purchase they make, painstakingly aware of how much effort has gone into seducing them. As a result, they see their choices of what to watch and what to buy as exerting some influence over the world around them. After all, their buying patterns have become the center of so much attention!

But however media-savvy kids get, they will always lose this particular game. For they have accepted the language of brands as their cultural currency, and the stakes in their purchasing decisions as something real. For no matter how much control kids get over the media they watch, they are still utterly powerless when it comes to the manufacturing of brands. Even a consumer revolt merely reinforces one’s role as a consumer, not an autonomous or creative being.

The more they interact with brands, the more they brand themselves.