In 1982, while receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriel García Márquez criticised “venerable Europe” on its lack of sensitivity and self-evaluation when describing the struggles of Latin America: “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary”.
Although García Márquez was referring to an ethnic identity, I’d like to borrow his words to discuss our quest for authenticity. The consumption habits we adopt when influenced by consumer culture can transform us into a character, a persona, or a made-up version of the Self, which consequently takes us further away from who we truly are and who we are able to engage with.
Our cultural obsession with authenticity is, evidently, a collective practice. Are we perhaps seeking to nurture a sense of belonging (membership in a moral community) through adopting practices that separate us? On a quest for answers, I stumbled upon Peter York’s Hipster Handbook documentary, in which he visits local businesses in London and New York in an attempt to understand the hipster movement and its fixation with distancing itself from “the crowd”. York interviews The Time’s Deputy Fashion Editor, Harriet Walker, who affirms that the whole concept of being a hipster “revolves around removing yourself from the banal”. That is, people who adopt these “alternative” lifestyles want to be perceived as unique or special, and that will influence what they do and do not consume.
But why is the ‘banal’ undesirable? Hipster subculture is often associated with vintage clothing and thrift shopping, which could represent an effort to deny or defy our reality of mass production. York suggests that this group perceives items that were produced in another time to carry more meaning, more history and are, therefore, more real than the ones available in your local Primark. I will not get into the interminable debate between the ethics and affordability of fast fashion.
The more I studied the homogenising effects of mass consumption, the more I realised our obsession with being perceived authentic is as much about disassociating ourselves from the collective as it is about positioning ourselves as morally or intellectually superior - not because of what the organic or the high-end mean to us, but because of what they mean to others. So, we make sure to capture all of it and post it everywhere - photographic evidence must serve as a testament to our singularity.
Our perception of what is valuable and ‘necessary’ is liable to change with culture. We know that before the Industrial Revolution, consumption was directly linked to basic human needs. After an increase in production supported by new technology, there was a massive rise in consumption of non-essential goods and companies were now not only concerned about providing customers with what they “needed” but were also seeking to offer products that would satisfy their desires.
Today, we have created a new type of necessity, one that is not based on physical needs, but that represents a necessity of the soul to define and manifest our true, authentic identities in every aspect of our social lives (how we dress, what and where we eat, etc). Consequently, in a consumer culture, we become ever more inclined to purchase goods which we believe can satisfy this positional desire.
This is a tale as old as time. Although it might seem like this is an era awash with modern frenzies as a result of social media, vanity is ancestral. Except, nowadays false calves and codpieces are not so popular. It has become a little harder to keep up with what is cool.
One clear example of the use of marketing as a tool to feed our obsession with authenticity can be found in the luxury fashion industry. While hipsters are willing to spend a fair amount of money on everyday items such as organic coffee and craft beer for the sake of representing a more ecological, conscious persona; other (higher affluent) consumers seek the same genuineness through glamour.
By recognising that, luxury brands have been adopting marketing efforts to connect with their customers on a more personal and emotional level. In September 2020, high-end jewellery brand Cartier hired several artists to take part in a video advertisement promoting the relaunch of the brand’s “Pasha” watch, priced at approximately $120,000.
Actors like Rami Malek and Maisie Williams flash the product on their wrists while talking about “staying true to yourself”, “breaking boundaries” and “making your own history”. This is a play on the power of glamour to ‘intensify emotional desires’. Cartier’s core objective with this advertisement is to, subtly, create a connection between the watch and the consumer’s pursuit of self-discovery.
It is also because of marketers’ ability to reinforce these positional and imaginative values that the personal luxury goods market worldwide today is worth 281 billion euros. This, however, raises a problematic question: why are individuals willing to go this far and pay so much to find something that should come from within?
An answer to that possibly lies in the idea that we fail to see the Self as something we possess and the world around us shapes. Instead, we behave as if our self-concept is dependent on our buying power and the Self is actually an identity the industry can manufacture for us; which poses a threat to the integrity of our social beings but generates a very interesting economic opportunity for businesses (one that they often exploit).
Branding has a lot to do with that. ‘Authentic’ brands promise to deliver something through their products that can simply not be acquired materialistically. A moral conundrum I am often faced with while working in marketing. A product, however fascinating, will not transform you into an original character. This is simply symbolic interactionism being used to capture and manufacture what consumers want to communicate. Even when you’re willing to spend £8 on a latte, you’re still you. Complex, human, inevitably flawed you.