Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Goods Into Stories (1 Dec 2010)

As the holiday season settles in, I need to segue into Scrooge mode. In this Design Observer post, Chappell Ellison notes the sentimental exploitation of the idea of storytelling in some current ad campaigns, including Starbucks'.

“Stories are gifts — share,” snakes across the cardboard coffee cozies. “Share a cup, share a story,” proclaim the banners hanging in the store windows. While the act of storytelling and coffee is a logical connection, it hardly seems fair for Starbucks to co-opt such an intimate bond.

This offense might have gone unnoticed if several other large corporations weren’t abusing the art of storytelling. I recently spotted a Whole Foods bag, printed with images of snowflakes, red ribbons and the phrase, “Every meal has a story.” And here I was thinking that writers were purveyors of stories, not coffee chains or organic grocery stores.

Contra Ellison, I think that advertisers have always been the purveyors of stories, and fiction writers and marketing professionals have long traded tropes and structures meant to appeal to our desire for more suitable scaffolding for our daydreams. Advertisers tend to be more efficient in their evocations. In Ellison's examples, "storytelling" has become a shorthand idea in the story the companies want to tell, a metonym for family closeness, for holiday memories passed down generationally. "Fair" or not, Starbucks and Whole Foods want to glom onto those memories and draw some of their affective energy to their products, which can then serve as the prompt for evoking those feelings much more efficiently and cleanly, without the ambivalence that colors any genuine recollection (even if the ambivalence is an awareness of time passing, of mortality).

What may be new is the "sharing" aspect of these pitches -- that the products will prompt users to tell their own stories, just like using social media is supposed to do. Sharing and intimacy are conflated in the ads, even as the automation and commercial exploitation of sharing drives them further apart than ever. "Sharing" has taken on talismanic ideological significance in our culture as the great gift that has been bestowed upon us by technology and its miracles of connectivity. But the importance of sharing to business is in the value that "sharers" create without compensation: for example, by spreading advertising messages virally or innovating new meanings for products and enriching the storytelling base on which they draw.

So I think that the "creating/sharing stories" angle in these ads reflect not only the sentimental significance of storytelling for commercially exploiting notions of the idealized family, but also the increasing interest companies have in our brand-enriching immaterial labor, which, drawing on Lazzarato and Virno, I defined this way in an earlier Generation Bubble post:

the everyday acts of identity-building consumption and friendship that the increasing mediatization of society now make available for capture... This sort of labor has precipitated a value crisis of its own, in the form of work that can’t be valued in wages, as capitalism has always required. What is that work really worth? Why are we even bothering? What price tag can we put on the effort it takes to make life livable, to make ourselves known to ourselves, to secure social recognition?

If capital has run out of productive investments for making goods and services, and the cycle of expanding fictitious capital has played itself out for the time being, it may retrench by financing a manufacturing project that never ends — the production of the self, as carried out in the “social factory.”... Rather than imagining ourselves valuable for the traditional role we assume in our community, we instead try to discover and enlarge our subjectivity through publicized acts of consumption — be they conspicuous luxuries or altruistic acts or clever, innovative re-uses of goods, or what have you. We consume to create cool, which in turn reflects the glories of its creator. But from the point of view of capital, our acts of everyday self-realization are perceived as knowledge production for the information economy, elaborating the intricately woven code (as Jean Baudrillard calls it) that constitutes the symbolic value of brands and goods.

In this sense, Ellison is right. We tell stories about the things in our life that companies are more and more able to co-opt and transform into marketing. This in turn makes our own storytelling always already seem like marketing. The product placements are already implicit.

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