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. ) ]

Your Childhood Teddy Bear Grows Up

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Apparently, the Vermont Teddy Bear company has produced a “Fifty Shades of Grey” bear for Valentine’s Day, complete with handcuffs. I thought this was a joke when I heard about it on a news show. ( I’m still not convinced it isn’t, though evidence suggests otherwise, in form of the company’s website. And if it is a joke, then multiple news outlets include The Today Show were also taken in. It would be a great hoax, for sure.)

The copy on the company’s website reads: “If you want to dominate Valentine’s Day, skip the roses and send the limited-edition Fifty Shades of Grey Bear. Inspired by the best-selling book, the adult gift is specially designed for fans obsessed with Grey, biting their lips with anticipation over the movie. He features smoldering gray eyes, a suit and satin tie, mask – even mini handcuffs.”

Only 89.99.This particular bear comes with a safety warning: “Contains small parts. Not suitable for children.” Indeed.

The 50 Shades Bear is only one of a panoply of special Valentine’s Bears. They include: “The hoodie-footie bear,” “The I-Love-You-More-Than-Bacon Bear,” and the “Zombie Bear.” These specialty bears all average around $80.

I want to write about how the Fifty Shades bear shows an interesting trajectory for the classic teddy bear–from kids’ toy/love token/ to BDSM signifier (or at least, the book’s version of that). There’s really something rather brilliant and hilarious about turning a cuddly teddy bear into a symbol of sexual domination. As irony, it works. But here, I get caught in the conundrum of questioning intent–is the bear supposed to be funny? a pricey gag gift (surely no pun intended) as Today wondered, in a typical product placement bonanza on its website listing listed multiple Fifty Shades products? Or is it just seizing an opportunity? Who will buy the bear?

This column from The Daily Beast by Melanie Berliét makes very interesting points about how BDSM has been used as an advertising tool in recent years, along with critiquing the film and book’s portrayal of the practice.  Seen in this light, the Fifty Shades Teddy Bear is certainly nothing new. But the trend that Berliet describes raises another perpetual question in popular and consumer culture–once a subversive or alternative viewpoint or lifestyle becomes commercialized, what happens to it and its perception? Does the commercialization increase knowledge and change attitudes or just dilute the meaning of the original? Though Berliét’s article–and the teddy bear–reference a specific set of sexual practices, this question exists for lots of trends in popular culture.

Thus, the universe of “Fifty Shades” themed products merits discussion, though such cross-marketing is no surprise. We’d be more surprised if a potential movie block-buster did NOT arrive with products in tow. (And of course, this movie, given its subject matter and arrival on Valentine’s Day Eve, just begs for marketing tie-ins. The marketing of the film itself–with its emphasis on romance and its promise that love is sometimes neither black or white–is also intriguing, perhaps casting the book in a softer and more romantic light for film audiences?

Also, of course, this bear is just one artifact in a universe of Valentine’s Day goods, itself worthy of another post I promise to make soon.

And now I see my own Vermont Teddy Bear (very plain, devoid of props, received as a gift to celebrate some long-ago accomplishment) in a totally different light.