I like to think that when I choose a beer to drink, I’m picking based on which one I think tastes best among the available options. In this I’m probably wrong. I’m exercising my taste, but not my taste buds; rather I’m probably picking based on my taste for who I want to pretend to be. That’s what I learned, anyway, from an article about Miller Brewing’s recent market-share renaissance in the latest BusinessWeek. This in’t really news, but the brewer’s various brands are all designed to target certain male lifestyles, or certain moments in the drinking man’s life. “The imported Peroni targets trendsetters. Milwaukee’s Best Light is for the hard-working man. Icehouse is positioned as the beer for young guys to drink before going out.” What a touching image: “Miller wants Icehouse to be the beer for those times when you’re hanging out with the guys, playing Xbox. or gearing up to go out.” That’s funny, I thought this might be the beer they were secretly interested in. No mention is made of which beer to have when you are having more than one, or which one to have when you’re looking for a little of the hair of the dog in the morning, or which one to have before you go careening off the road drunk driving. A beer I drink sometimes, Pilsner Urquell (it’s plan B after Spaten at the Bohemian beer garden near where I live), is designed for “discerning drinkers,” so it figures I would foolishly think I was buying it for the taste rather than to send out the signal that I’m discerning.
Anyway, this illustrates the insidious way brands are supposed to operate. Through sheer advertising and promotional clout, a brand is associated with a lifestyle, a concept of masculinity or modernity or insightfulness or free-spiritedness or whatever, and one might gravitate to that brand in an attempt to reinforce one’s own sense of oneself. But inevitably—maybe this already has happened—it begins to seem that you must buy the appropriate brands to be masculine or fun or discriminating, that you can’t demonstrate those qualities without being on the playing field of brands, without speaking the language of brands to get the message out. It’s no loner enough to simply act in the way you want to be perceived. If you aren’t accompanying that with the sanctioned products, you are insufficiently invested in your chosen identity, you are not putting your money where your mouth is, you are inauthentic.
And then we’re where anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, among others, insist we are, where consumerism, brands, etc. are deemed necessary to be able to express oneself in any meaningful way at all. Ultimately, brands and advertising have this corrosive effect on behavior itself, refuting its ability to stand on its own, to be understood plainly. But perhaps the idea that it ever was so straightforward and legible is itself a mystification. A hypothesis: Perhaps the relance on consumerism for behavior authentication comes with a loosening of the class hierarchy. Once, the context within which behavior becomes comprehensible was determined by class-based identities that were fixed; there weren’t opportunities for dilettantism. With social mobility a need opens up for something new to supply context—hence lifestyle consumerism, backing up certain behavior with the effort and resources required to acquire the accoutrements of such behavior. This thereby proves your committment to the lifestlye and makes people feel comfortable in really seeing you that way. So authenticity is turned inside out—you establish it by investing energy in maintaining the illusion of it by discovering and acquiring the appropriate products, not by simply responding spontaneously to whatever situation you are confronted with. So next time you are pounding a few 12-packs of Miller MGD, rest assured you’ve proved you are a “mainstream sophisticate” far more convincingly than you would by actually acting like an adult.