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by Rob Horning

23 Dec 2008

Rob Walker linked to this item from Science Digest about research into our susceptibility to “brand personalities.” I’ve tried but failed to understand the upshot of this highlighted finding:

“This research points out an interesting but counterintuitive finding: brand personality can be most useful for forging consumer-brand connections with consumers who tend to enjoy such deep connections in the interpersonal context,” the authors conclude.

The study hinges on “attachment styles,” which seem to have something to do with self-esteem: “Because of a low view of self, anxious individuals”—those with “anxious” attachment styles—“use brands to signal their ideal self-concept to future relationship partners and therefore focus more on the personality of the brand.” But brands don’t objectively have personalities. Consumers are actively involved in conjuring them up and pretending that they exist. One can’t simply select a brand that already has a given personality, because that whole personality, if it exists, is a delicate social construction heavily contingent upon the consumer’s own place in society. The meaning of Abercrombie to me is not “excitement” as the study’s authors suggest; it’s “shallowness.” So when I choose to reject that brand accordingly, that choice derives from my interpretation of the brand, which comes from my social milieu, intermixed with my strictly personal hang-ups and predilections, all of which reconstitutes the brands’ own marketing messages (themselves always being modified) into something peculiar to me. I’m using or not using certain brands to signal certain things that I hope will be understood by a target audience that I am hoping to define and attract with the help of those brands.

Maybe that is what the researchers are saying, and I am one of those “anxious” types. I just can’t see who would be exempt from such considerations, if they have chosen to participate in consumer society at all. Brands are by definition the appeal of a product over and above its practical usefulness—it is always the “personality” of the product as opposed to how well it works or what it is capable of doing. But though brands seem to signal some quality, that doesn’t mean it rises to the level of actually having a personality. It functions more like a word in a language than a living, breathing person. Calling its signifying quality a “personality” is itself a marketing move, seeking to glamorize products and give them a rich complexity.

Is the point that needy people want their brands to seem to love them back? Do such people mistake the fact that they can detect personality in a brand for the brand’s actually making the loving gesture of one person sharing their personality with another person? When I sense that I’m supposed to think American Apparel is “sexy,” do I at the same time, at some level, believe the brand is in fact coming on to me?

When people disclose their personalities to one another, it’s a gift, a gesture of trust and intimacy. When brands persuade us that they have a personality, it’s an affront, an invasion, a corruption of that intimate, human exchange. But if, through anomie and generalized social isolation, we are starved from more of that intimate feeling, we may prefer to accept the brands’ personalities on their own terms and assist in establishing them and their social credibility.

The “anxious” types in the study may be more likely to ascribe personalities to brands, to regard everything as a quasi-personal relationship that needs to be governed by the same rules and expectations, because actually personal relationships have been demonized as “inconvenient.” These seem to be the twin macro-level goals of advertising: (1) to discourage from having too much inconvenient, reciprocal human contact and (2) as a replacement for real companionship, to encourage us to mistake products for friends, to whom we owe such things as loyalty and forgiveness. 

N.B.: I wanted to call this post “Are Friends Electric?” but thought it was too much of a stretch. But you should still watch this.

by Lara Killian

22 Dec 2008

During my holiday travels this year I’ve made a concerted effort not to tote around superfluous reading materials; instead I’m relying on friends and family to provide recommendations and the short-term loan of their favorite fiction.

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Last week while visiting a friend in southern California, Aimee Bender’s debut volume of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1999) came highly recommended. Short stories normally leave me cold, as I prefer text I can sink my teeth into and characters that need more than a few pages to be fully revealed. Bender’s stunning prose however deftly sketches out her central characters in satisfying depth and generally shakes up common perception of the limitations of the short story genre – by denying them completely.

From a librarian who seeks to feel an emotion other than grief by entertaining her male patrons in the back room, one after the other, to a mermaid and an imp who masquerade as teenagers but yearn for someone to really understand their identities, Bender presents one surreal world after another. The emotions of the characters and their frequent dissatisfaction with life’s hardships emerge in unusual ways, often with a heady dose of poignant eroticism. Bender’s prose is lyrical and smart, and the 16 stories in her first collection a joy to read, even when discovered a decade late. They’re still fresh and intelligent, and it’s a delight to come across a short story author who can paint tales with such cogent brevity.

by Rob Horning

22 Dec 2008

When I cast about for a possible silver lining to the recession, I continually return to the idea that it could at least destroy ephemeral trendy fashion outlets as consumers retrench, hold on to things longer, and focus on spending for necessary goods. The NYT article suggests I can’t even hope for that.

In one of the darkest holiday shopping seasons in decades, perhaps it is fitting that a retailer has been given new life by vampires.
While sales at most stores plummeted last month, the teenage retailer Hot Topic enjoyed a 6.5 percent gain, thanks mostly to brisk sales of gear inspired by “Twilight,” the teenage vampire movie.
As the nation’s retailing landscape has deteriorated, Hot Topic is one of a handful of chains that seem to be coming out ahead. The most obvious winners are discounters like Wal-Mart Stores and BJ’s Wholesale Club, which are helping American families trade down to cheaper merchandise. But another, more surprising group of beneficiaries has emerged: niche chains that cater to teenagers and young adults.

Because the crisis has mainly impoverished those with tangible assets and the former ability to rack up debt, it has left teenagers largely unaffected for the time being. With the deflation currently coursing through the economy, they may even felt relatively enriched.

Youth-lifestyle marketer extraordinaire American Apparel, for example has continued to thrive:

Marsha Brady, creative director for American Apparel — which in November had a 6 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year — said the key to its continued success in this economy is its demographic: young, single, urban creative-types accustomed to living on a shoestring.
“They hear about the stock market but stocks are something their parents worry about,” Ms. Brady said. “They don’t own anything. They rent. They’re not really facing foreclosure or falling property values. If anything they’ll just get another roommate or move into a cheaper rental. It’s not utter devastation to their cores.”

In other words, teenagers and “kidults” are too stupid to see how the economic trouble affects them and are most likely to continue wasting their money as they always have. It’s only when the kids’ allowances or trust funds are affected that American Apparel might see some red ink.

But it’s not as though it’s irrational for youth-culture consumers to behave this way.The largest worry in the lives of these “creative types” is not retirement savings or anything so banal; it’s being cool in the eyes of one another. Often. coolness is actually their only asset, which is sad, since that is one of the few things that remains more volatile than the current stock market. For companies like Hot Topic, which trade on that volatility and thrive on it, that paucity of assets is the essence of their business model. They can harness the inevitability of aging, or the uncertainty of nascent friendships in a dog-eat-dog social environment, to forge an engine of profitable insecurity that leads consumers to overvalue the significance of coolness. Such companies have every incentive to undermine the possibilities of consumers escaping from the youth ghetto and developing other kinds of value, more productive forms of human capital.

 

by Jason Gross

22 Dec 2008

As I’m seeing other writers and music fans pile up on top 10 lists for favorite albums, something occurs to me about these lists.  If you name ten albums, what about everything else that come out this year?  Did you only like ten albums?  Probably not, especially if you’re a music nut.  But a list of ten limits you and makes it easier to tally for the publication involved.  For my own list of ten, albums that didn’t make the cut included Paul Westerberg, Girl Talk, Lil Wayne, Martha Wainwright, Lucinda Williams, TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, Okkervil River and Mavis Staples and I loved those records as well.  I just didn’t happen to love them as 10 other albums.  And even after that, there are about 40 more albums that I liked.  But none of that gets heard- you’ll just yoked to 10 records and that’s it.

This is a shame because not only does it make you the writer look short-sighted about many great releases that came out but you also don’t get to tell other people about this and maybe turn them on to some releases that they hadn’t heard about.  The 10 album list sometimes lets you include reissues but even then, you’d have to squeeze out some new albums to make room for them on your list.  I counted almost 50 reissues/compilations and archive albums that I’d recommend but there’s no way I could squeeze that on a list of 10.

The only way out of this is to find someone else online (i.e. your own blog or a zine) to post your full list of goodies.  That gives you a chance to really say “here’s what I liked,” instead of “here’s a cropped, abridged version of some of the stuff I liked.”

To some people, this might look like your ego’s going crazy but I say that we should have more talk about music and not less.  Even if we can’t learn about great music we didn’t hear about otherwise, we can at least find kindred spirits who also liked the music that we liked.  For anyone who dug albums by Harry Taussig, Byetone, Popguns, Truckee Brothers, Hybrid Kids, Derby, Raglani, Capstan Shafts, Goldmund, Pat Todd, Fannypack, the Knux, Absentee, Clark and the Heavy, I’m with you.  And if you didn’t hear about any of ‘em, please go and find out about ‘em, OK?

In the spirit of putting my moola where my tonsils are, I posted my full list of fave ‘08 music at the Ye Wei blog.

by Mike Schiller

22 Dec 2008

Know what I’ve been doing this weekend?  Well, while I really wanted to be playing all the latest games and delivering some top-notch journalism action to you, the readers, I was actually shoveling and snowblowing all damn weekend.  As with any major snow event, the coverage on CNN starts with Buffalo, so go ahead, follow the link, and feel sorry for me.

How is this relevant?  Well, as it turns out, shoveling your driveway would be more productive than paying much attention to this week’s release list.  The Wii’s putting out a couple of games on WiiWare, but I’ll be honest, they’re both dwarfed by the release of Phantasy Star IV on the virtual console, one of the better Sega Genesis RPGs out there, but still dwarfed by Phantasy Star II.  Those who picked up Phantasy Star II back when it got “Virtual Consoled” are probably still working on it anyway, so it’s hard to recommend another huge classic RPG download.

I suppose if you’re a new-release junkie and you just have to pick up something new, Mystery P.I. is a decent way to kill some time.  It’s an expansion of an online release which is basically a big Where’s Waldo experience, and the take-home versions for the DS and PC look to be more of the same.  Want to give it a go?  There’s a one-hour demo download of the New York edition of the game, which may well be all of it you need to play.  I had fun for my hour, and I’ll also be OK if I never see it again.

Moving Pixels is going to be quiet for a while after this, so enjoy your holidays, all.  The full release list is…well, it’s right here:

Nintendo DS:

Dreamer: Horse Trainer (23 December)
Dreamer: Puppy Trainer (23 December)
Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


PC:

Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


Wii:

Fun! Fun! Minigolf (22 December, WiiWare)
Phantasy Star IV (22 December, Virtual Console)
Tiki Towers (22 December, WiiWare)

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