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by Rob Horning

23 Dec 2008

My personal Twitter experiment has failed miserably. I created an account and tried to post for a while; I even set it up so that I could post messages with my phone. But I discovered I had nothing to say in that forum. I didn’t want to share what I was doing with the world, and I didn’t have enough witticisms to keep it thriving. It was tiring trying to think aphoristically—it turns out that most would-be aphorisms require a lot of developmental context to be comprehensible.

But Twitter seems to be slowly penetrating the mainstream, and I’ve been seeing more posts like this one, from AdPulp, about Twitter’s usefulness as an advertising medium, as a perpetual personalized classifieds section. In many ways Twitter suits advertising perfectly—the whole brevity thing, for one. It allows no room to develop a logical presentation of an idea, so it must work as a notification service or in marketing’s preferred mode of illogical association (the paradigm that allows 30-second narratives to be built on the premise that drinking beer yields female attention, for instance). Also there’s the way Twitter posts tend to wash over their audience, claiming very little of our attention and concentration but often providing a disproportionate payoff in entertainment. The terms of that wager—the minimal amount of energy it takes to follow a Twitter feed versus the occasional reward—makes it easy to keep Twitter humming in the background of one’s life. At that point, it becomes an ideal advertising conduit, constantly notifying you of things you might have wanted to know but certainly could have lived without.

The harmony between Twitter and advertising seems so natural; it’s surprising it didn’t begin as an ad medium. Twitter billed itself as a crypto-blogging platform, which bathed it in Web 2.0 hype and made it seem as though it were about social interaction. This allowed it to develop the scale that would make it attractive to corporate advertisers.

Though it didn’t start as an explicit marketing tool, Twitter drew on the ubiquity of advertising discourse, offering us a way to participate in it and seem to master it, harness it for our own ends. It seems to have risen to prominence by allowing its users to craft and broadcast up-to-the-minute advertisements for themselves. The posts bear with them no expectation of literary skill or substance, so no barriers of procrastination prevent us from writing them. By broadcasting your doings in real time, in clipped, urgent language, you can feel like a celebrity and live as though someone is always watching you. This provides the useful illusion of social recognition, an illusion that reciprocal following of other feeds serves to enhance.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum is also failing to Twitter. He points out that Twitter rewards only those users who use it constantly, who integrate it completely into their lives—another reason why it’s so perfect for advertising. The key for adoption is to have it be rewarding enough for users to make that total commitment. In my view, whether one will find it rewarding enough first depends on how much one enjoys pretending to be a celebrity, and then it depends if one embraces the state of permanent distraction. I suspect there is a Zen clarity to it—one becomes totally riveted to the present, which is condensed to a stream of 140-character moments.

by Mike Schiller

23 Dec 2008

L.B. Jeffries’ column is on break until Tuesday, January 6, when PopMatters has resumed its regular publishing schedule.  In the meantime, you can check out more of L.B.‘s work at the Banana Pepper Martinis blog.

Alternately, you can check out the most recent edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, hosted by fellow PopMatters writer Michael Abbott, on which L.B., Michael and I each talk about one of our favorite games of the year (here’s a teaser: three of the four picks on the segment where L.B. and I appear can currently be bought for 15 dollars or less…and the other one’s an expansion).  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, scope out the rest of Mr. Abbott’s blog while you’re over there—it’s worth a regular visit and then some.

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.


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.


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