Thursday, April 21, 2011
Modern Tales of Capitalism - or, A Child's Garden of Marketing
There's this skeezy and dangerously deceptive side to marketing and advertising which Americans have perfected and which we really, really do not want to think about. It's because we are accomplices to the eternal pitches and the endless fakery, we sort of love our objectified identities, we like being admired for being a trendsetter (the new term for such folks is now 'early adopter') and a trend follower, and this maze of emotionally-tied evidence is not just some example weird low self esteem, it's also an admission that we are embracing the hype despite the fact it is hype. Our attitudes towards ourselves and our world gets mixed into this murky world and things get confused.
Hollywood is a master of this deception, mingling hype and hokum and we all sort of accept it.
A 2009 movie called "The Joneses", starring David Duchovny and Demi Moore, dives deep into this brave new world and both Hollywood and audiences just were not sure what to do with the movie. it mostly tanked at the box office and critics were stymied to explain the mechanics at work here.
The story seems simple - a group of sales people are hired by a giant corporation to pretend to be a family in high-end suburbia, but they are really together for one reason: to casually influence the neighborhood to buy products the fake family shows off as the trappings of success. Shoes, jeans, TVs, cars, sunglasses, purses, golf clubs, frozen food, bottled drinks, make-up, jewelry, games, cell phones ... an endless list of things. The company which has placed them in this world requires monthly status reports charting whether the fake family is hitting the mark on sales and demands for the things they are hyping. Failure is not accepted.
The companies use the fake family to sell products, the fake family earns high incomes by pushing items as new must-haves, the neighbors eagerly seek to follow the lead of the fakers, the fakers pretend it's just a job and push the idea that happiness is found in objects, in envy, in competition.
Not a pretty, idealistic America here - it's a greedy place, though one decked out in style. First-time writer/director Derrick Borte is a former ad man and he expertly lays out all the conflicted ideas with an easy satiric flair, but he's almost too good at his work. By the time the movie hits the three-quarters mark he has fallen in love with his fake family and their fake friends and he seeks out some kind of happy ending. But it falls flat, seems as fake as everything else. And that turned off audiences and critics - the monster is too real, too familiar and it just made everyone uncomfortable.
That's one reason I liked it - it captures an ugly world so well that attempting to find a 'happy ending' for it is just more fakery. We've all been taking part in a giant game of self-delusion and it just doesn't sit well at all.
It's very uncomfortable to realize how much we all participate in being reduced to a marketing demographic, but we still eagerly participate in it just the same. And not just in America.
As proof that it happens, take a look at this very real and very global new infotainment theme park, more rightly termed "advertainment", which has been growing in many nations and is about to land for the first time in America.
It's called KidZania - a fascinating article in Slate on this new kind of adult-directed child's play is a must read:
"Right now, in eight malls spread across three continents, thousands of children are dressed as pilots and flying digital planes from mock cockpits, anchoring news broadcasts in fully functional TV studios, or wearing helmets and extinguishing faux flames with real water cannons.
This is KidZania, a multinational chain of family entertainment centers, where kids try out professions that have been downsized, simplified, and made fun. At these soccer field-size franchises in malls from Tokyo to Lisbon, children play at being adults.
Children can play surgeon, detective, journalist, courier, radio host, and dozens more jobs. They can buy and sell goods at the KidZania supermarket, take KidZania currency that they earn to an operational bank staffed with adult tellers, and be security guards escorting KidZania currency around the park. They can assemble burgers and pizzas, which they can then eat, or give makeovers to other paying children. At the planned KidZania Santiago, Chile, minors will be able to play at being miners. One-size-fits-all costumes supersize the cute factor. The result of all this is mass-produced adorability.
But at the heart of the concept and the business of KidZania is corporate consumerism, re-staged for children whose parents pay for them to act the role of the mature consumer and employee. The rights to brand and help create activities at each franchise are sold off to real corporations, while KidZania’s own marketing emphasizes the arguable educational benefits of the park.
"And kids aren’t just migrant laborers in KidZania. They are KidZanians, citizens of the nation of KidZania. There is a national anthem and a red and yellow flag, the colors split by the letter K. The KidZania logo itself is that same fluttering flag. Each child receives a bank account, an ATM card, a wallet, and a check for 50 KidZos (the park’s currency). At the park’s bank, which is staffed by adult tellers, kids can withdraw or deposit money they’ve earned through completing activities—and the account remains even when they go home at the end of the day. A lot of effort goes into making the children repeat visitors of this Lilliputian city-state. Also, KidZania itself isn’t cheap. Both parents and children are required to buy tickets to enter—a family of four pays $150 to visit KidZania Tokyo during peak hours—and franchises around the world continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Like any good nation, KidZania has its elites, too. Each park has a congress of 14 children. Really, it’s a focus group that meets once a month. The kids talk about what they’re doing at school and, more importantly, what’s going on at KidZania. They go on trips to visit the workplaces of KidZania’s sponsors and visit other parks around the world. KidZania can then ensure that the experience is suited to children’s ever-changing needs and whims. Even the adult management uses governmental titles; the most senior manager of each franchise is referred to as the “Governor.”
In addition to using the lingo of an aspiring nation-state with its own proxy legislature, KidZania has a bill of rights. KidZania grants each child “The Right To Know, The Right To Be, The Right To Care, and The Right To Play.”
ProMexico, a Mexican government initiative to promote Mexican commerce, says in its literature that, “KidZania emulates the positive aspects of capitalism.” Linn, though, said, “I don’t see what’s positive about [KidZania]. The more kids are immersed in commercialization, prepackaged fun, the less experience they have of making their own fun, of using their own imaginations, and the more they are dependent on corporations to supply their fun for them.”