“From the fact that fashion as such can never be generally in vogue, the individual derives the satisfaction of knowing that as adopted by him it still represents something special and striking, while at the same time he feels inwardly supported by a set of persons who are striving for the same thing, not as in the case of other social satisfactions, by a set actually doing the same thing.” – Georg Simmel, Fashion, 1904
Have you ever seen a sponsored post on Facebook misusing a meme so badly that it made your eyes roll so far back into your head that you could see your brain cells dying? Or have you ever basked in the musty irony of walking by a Hot Topic in the mall and seeing a re-print of a vintage Bad Brains t-shirt selling for thirty dollars? The ham-fisted execution of counter or sub cultural artifacts by big wig corporate marketing experts may seem hilariously misguided to some of us, but despite how #woke we think we may be, hip advertising is much more prolific than we give it credit for.
All of you #hip #teens should tweet us your #onfleek #emojis
Decoding the consumer habits of young people is a timeless question that is again rearing its ugly head as marketing strategists try to wrap their head around “the millenials.” The Millenials, or Gen Y, is officially defined as the number of people born between 1983 and 1992, and currently stands at about 77 million strong. Though concrete numbers are hard to come by, this generation is perceived to have a buying power that surmounts even that of the baby boomers, so getting ahead of the curve in regard to finding out how millennials spend their money and where is becoming a lucrative endeavor.
Appealing to “the young folk” is certainly not a new concept by any means. Usually marked by the 1960’s and the rise of strong, counter cultural social movements, advertising towards the latter half of the 20th century have focused their attention on marketing products as new and mold-breaking, rather than sterile or conservative. Though some historical accounts of the decade imply that advertisers were leeching off of the hedonistic vagabond mentality to push products, an implied directionality that author Abe Peck calls the move “from counterculture to over-the-counter culture,” others argue that a desire for more youthful, relatable advertising had been festering since the 1950’s . In his 1997 publication The Conquest of Cool, author Thomas Frank says that most Americans, even before the 1960’s, felt frustratingly unrepresented by advertisements encouraging the white picket fences and white collar life that companies were selling them. “Never has advertising been so unwilling to acknowledge the myriad petty frustrations, the anger, the fear that make up so much of daily existence , consuming and otherwise,” says Frank. “Never has it insisted so dogmatically on such an abstractly glowing vision of American life. And never has it been so vulnerable to mockery”.
Nowadays it may be hard not to think of CBS or Columbia Records as “The Man”, but circa 1967, they weren’t your dads old record company (or so they wanted you to think).
Even during the latter half of the 19th century, almost 100 years before the percieved congregation of what is hip and what is marketable, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Fredrich Nietszche were postulating the role of “the aesthetic” and fashion as a tool of social unification. Aesthetic philosopher Georg Simmel, drawing from the works of Kant, understood the utility of the fashionable and trendy, not only as a method of personal expression, but as a method of unity. For Simmel, there was a duality to fashion in that it allows us to express something deviant and personal while at the same time allowing us to feel a sense of community or belonging with those that share our fashion sense. That is, as we differentiate ourselves, we have a more obvious, visual way to identify others like us. In this context, a Simmelian explanation of fashion as something that is satisfying for how unique it is means advertising that emphasizes how individual and unique you’ll be for consuming a mass produced product not only makes sense to producers, but is something that is desired by consumers. You’re still awarded a sense of individuality and edginess, but without running the risk of negative backlash. In a Simmelian context, mass media, advertising, and the presence of branding on social media gives us instantaneous access to a breadth of new, fashionable concepts to draw inspiration from; even better, it imposes on us a bevy of objects and services to buy through which we can broadcast our new found individuality with others that are individuals just like us.
Whereas before advertisements appealed to consumers’ individuality by encouraging them to join the pepsi generation or fight the corporate machine by buying a Subaru Impreza, marketing teams can forego all of the grunt work of finding the next big thing to capitalize because millennials have found it for them; memes. Instigated without much reason or notice, memes are usually thrust forth from the dregs of the internet like 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter and into the public sphere. What was once perceived as something unique to a small group becomes poked, prodded, and rationalized until it eventually gets formulaically explained on KnowYourMeme, or even better, gets its own write up on Business Insider. Much like Simmel’s notion of fashion, memes are dragged forth from the isolated few that are meant to enjoy it and splayed so widely across the internet that you can’t help but know what a lolcat is or wonder who was lying to this guy.
20 Minutes into The Commodification of Youth Culture for the Purpose of Generating Surplus Capital and Chill and they give you this look
The idea of brands staking their profits and the livelihood of their employees on transient, viral social media phenomenon may sound crazy, but it’s not nearly as crazy as the fact that it’s working. According to a group of 1300 millennials surveyed by Elite Daily, best known as the premiere slimy click bait watering hole for millennials, 62% of those surveyed said they were more likely to purchase a product from a brand with a strong social media presence. 33% said they rely on social media sources for information about products compared to 3% who trusted TV or Print media advertisements. Perhaps more interestingly, 43% said they valued authenticity when consuming news or company information. Could the perception be that a “hip”, social media-centric advertisement gambit is being perceived as authentic?
Memes encapsulate the duality of Simmelian fashion and aesthetic; they’re the congregation of the nuance and insularity of an inside joke and the exponential proliferation of that which is in vogue to create a beast that is both personal and communal. They are an inside joke that can only be
They’ve become self-aware.
understood if you know the formula — and everyone knows the formula.
And just as Simmel posited in Fashion, the popularization of what is fashionable is ultimately its undoing. As Simmel states in Fashion, “the very character of fashion demands that it should be exercised only by a portion of the given group… as fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom.” Just as fashion trends emerge, rise, and then nosedive into obscurity like the candle that burns twice as bright, so too memes have a dismal shelf life, as evidenced by this research investigating the temporal dynamics of 150 different memes. But fret not, because for every meme that gains a bit of traction, there is sure to be a marketing intern somewhere out there ready to run it into the ground.
Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 164-165.
Thomas Frank. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 48