Where are We Now? Balancing Homogeneity and Distinction

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Consumer spaces often  balance awkwardly between homogeneity and distinctiveness.  There’s a kind of overwhelming sameness to American consumerism–similar chains, products, experiences, aesthetics– (even if sometimes this sameness can be reassuring in its predictability–part of what made hotel chains so successful in the first place).  Even places that promise distinction are often different in similar ways. Think about a road trip–you get off the highway and you encounter the usual suspects–hotel chains, grocery chains, gas station chains, fast food and higher-end fast food depending on the place you’ve stopped. The higher-end places are grouped together. You can read the consumer landscape based on what chains you see. But some of these interchangeable locales make some nod to place–acknowledging that though they might look like any other Hampton Inn, McDonald’s, etc., they are actually located in a specific town, state, or highway interchange. The difference might be in a color scheme, a mural, brochures, a welcome sign. So customers can feel at once reassured by the promise of reliability but also be reminded they are somewhere specific with its own history, identity, and local culture.

I’ve seen these local adaptations at eateries and grocery stores from McDonald’s to Panera to, as you see here, Trader Joe’s. This Trader Joe’s is in Athens, Georgia, making customers feel at home with its murals of UGA and other Athens landmarks and its support for the Bulldogs. Other TJ’s appeal to the their own local histories.

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Somewhat paradoxically,  these homogenous consumer spaces contribute to shaping a sense of place. They also tap into the deep American desire for community. Local events advertised on a bulletin board at Starbucks make people feel even more like they’re in a “third place,” connected to other people, to a place, to a sense of identity. The same chain shopping experiences that can undermine this sense of connection endeavor to reproduce it.

The High-End Pet

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I took this photo on Newbury Street in Boston back in June. I loved this store window, which made made me wonder what makes a pet “modern” and what constitutes “essentials.” The shop is Fish & Bone. I liked the quirky humor.IMG_2187

Unfortunately, I did not take time to browse that particular “pet boutique,” so I can’t take this visual analysis to the next level. I did learn that this shop was ranked 1 of 15 for Boston’s “Best Pet Boutique” on Boston’s A-List.

The notion of a “pet boutique,” has, of course, become commonplace. Indeed, it seems every town—not to mention major cities and chi-chi shopping districts—must have one. On many American “Main Streets,” a pet boutique is a must, not unlike an ice cream parlor or a donut shop.
Even in DeLand, Florida, far from the tony allure of Newbury Street, we have “Grrs-n-Purrs.” In New Smyrna Beach, on Flagler Avenue, Silly Willy’s Pet Boutique. A pet boutique has become part of the vision of an American “Main Street,” not unlike an ice cream parlor or a donut shop.

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Is the urge to consume high-end, boutiquey items for pets similar to the urge to consume high-end goods for babies? Baby-product buyers can feel good buying the products and can fulfill some aesthetic fantasy about baby-hood, child-hood, or pet-hood. Or perhaps with pets (and children?), trendy goods are a way of incorporating pets and children without disrupting the household aesthetic. Or perhaps even actually complementing that aesthetic. Or perhaps it’s just plain fun (though that answer begs the question of why). *

I’ve bought nice toys for my cats on a number of occasions. They play with them. But they also play with boxes that come in the mail, paper towel rolls, and my i-pod headphones. So, are the toys more for me or for them?

And what about the elaborate cat furniture for sale in various web venues—cat-centered Craftsman style furniture,
hand-crafted cat walkways that blend with a household’s decor?
Though I don’t know how many people actually invest in these products, their very existence—and our fascination with them, judging by social media proliferation—is a window into the intersection of our emotions, our pets, and consumerism. What kind of fantasy do we fulfill by looking at this furniture, imagining it in our house (or, for some, by actually purchasing these goods?). The larger fantasies here must have to do with imagined visions of ideal household spaces.

Certainly, and importantly, the names, shop windows, and very existence of pet boutiques inscribe a quirky humor into the consumer landscape. But that doesn’t make them any less consumerist. We might grin at the shop window and even (in my case) mock our own decision to purchase the $8 catnip toy. But we’re still buying. We’re still converting wants into needs and needs into wants.

* [Perhaps Michael Schaffer’s book, One Nation Under Dog: America’s Love Affair with our Dogs, will shed some light on this—a book I’ve meant to read for a while despite its dog-centeredness!). (This book “inspired” but has a wider scope than the recent HBO film that treats some of the darker aspects of dog ownership—and abandonment— in the U. S. ) ]

The South in a Koozie and Other Thoughts on Selling Regional Identity

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This spring, I visited Greenville, South Carolina, a great little town in the north west corner of the state. I went for a conference, but Greenville turned out to be a perfect case study for everything I’ve been thinking about— connections between place and history, between history and consumerism, and how consumerism shapes—and is shaped by—regional identity. My trip to Greenville came in the middle of a semester teaching my course on Southern History & Culture(s), in which we talk a lot about different ways of thinking about the U. S. South. We focus on issues of place and historical memory—we read essays from W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s great edited collection Where These Memories Grow —and we also talk some about how tourism, marketing, and consumerism have helped define the South (this semester we read selections from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie, Anthony Stanonis’ edited collection Dixie Emporium , along with K. Stephen Prince’s Stories of the South , all books that have influenced how I think about these things).

So I had lots of ideas about Southern identity running through my head as I walked the streets of Greenville in the hours I was allowed out of the windowless conference chambers.

Greenville is an interesting mix—a revitalized, thriving small city that’s making the most of its history to attract residents and tourists, benefitting from the presence of nearby universities, a growing corporate presence, an arts scene, and a downtown that’s twice won the Great American Main Street Award.

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The downtown looks modern and nostalgic at once with brick-lined streets, nicely re-vamped historic buildings, artsy streetlights and foliage, statues and plaques commemorating people and events important to the city.

Lots to think about there in terms of marketing place.

But to move on to the koozies: I also found this intriguing store in Greenville: Southern Fried Cotton, http://southernfriedcotton.com (has another location in Clemson).

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The name is evocative, as no doubt intended—a seemingly incongruous blend of a classic Southern cooking style with a major symbol of the historical South.* Who would fry cotton and eat it? No one, probably, but that’s the point— a distinctive name that also thus implies the distinction of the products and perhaps of Southernness itself (more on this later).

The Southern Fried Cotton website promises “all things southern in all your favorite colors.” (The website is worth a visit—the imagery on the front page is striking, melding romance—a hallmark of any standard representation of the Old South, enticing flora and fauna, symbols of American pride—for Independence day—and old-style script that conjures bygone times.)

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So how can you buy the South in this shop? These photos help tell the story: Southern Fried Cotton is “inspired by southern style” and here, that “style” is wrapped up in images of the outdoors, objects that reference individualism and self-reliance (re-purposed bullets made into earrings), images of sweet and presumably loyal dogs.

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What I found most interesting (though not surprising) was the way gender norms inflected these products and this version of Southern “style.” These t-shirts and hats and decorative plaques offer more than a set of ideas about the South; they supply prescriptions for gender roles that tap into some very old ideas about (white) southern identity. So a “Southern Lady” is “someone who … has a pitcher of sweet tea at the ready-always writes a thank you note-knows pearls match everything—grows her own tomatoes and bakes pies for her neighbors….” and a “southern gentleman” can follow these “rules:” “always open doors for ladies. . . be kind. . . stay humble. . . cherish southern food. . . respect your elders. . . wear bow-ties, khakis. . .” And he can buy a “man-candle.” IMG_2017

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So these products reiterate boundaries for appropriate gendered behavior, boundaries around which conceptions of southern identity were built in the pre-Civil War era.  These lines are softer now; the consumerized (and popular culture-zed version of southern womanhood celebrates the active, steel magnolia southern woman); the gentleman memorialized on the t-shirt lacks the rigid, violent component of southern “honor.”

These sentiments echo in similar shops, on similar websites, and on myriad such products in the world of the consumerized South.

They are souvenirs, not of any particular South or part of the South but of a consumerized concept of the South. This consumer South lacks historical specificity and lacks, even, the specificity of a particular historical place.

Thus in Greenville, you can buy a piece of “Southern Fried cotton” that proclaims (or asserts, or borrows) a southern identity, but there’s nothing there to remind you that you got it in Greenville, South Carolina, a South that is different from Greenville, NC or Greenville, FL or Greenville, LA or Greenville, GA. And so, in the end, there’s really nothing distinctive inside the distinction of the fried cotton. Once the cotton is fried, the product is generic.

*and not surprisingly, the images of cotton are fluffy and nostalgic, devoid of the circumstances of production under first the plantation slavery system and then in the rigors of the post-Civil War textile industry. I don’t expect a t-shirt or drink koozie http://southernfriedcotton.com/collections/koozies/products/sofrico-navy-koozie to offer a history lesson, but it’s worth noting that such imagery is one small piece of the processes—in consumerism, in tourism—in popular culture that disassociate the nostalgic images of the Southern past from the gritty realities of that history (and its connection to equally grittier realities in the larger American history). (Tara McPherson makes great points about this type of nostalgia in Reconstructing Dixie.)

And yeah, I bought a couple of koozies.