Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mirror Marketing

Eugène Atget, the French photographer who lived from 1857-1927, is probably most famous for his series of photographs examining the Le Bon Marche department store of Paris. Atget’s photo-set features an array of consumer goods all seen through the looking glass of the store windows. These pictures, taken just as department stores emerged as centers of both consumerism and entertainment, focus on the onlooker’s point of view. The window pane functions in two ways as it both displays the goods located inside the store, and, also, duplicates the reflection of the shoppers standing outside. These shoppers see the reflection of their own faces on the store mannequins, as the mirror effect of the glass portrays the consumer as already possessing the goods on display. The impression of already owning a particular possession may appear to be just a typical ploy of advertisers, yet the effect is significant. Instead of a consumer imagining why he would need this particular good, he must justify to himself why this possession he already owns—at least, in his own mind—is superfluous.

Here's a good example of one such photograph.

One of the nice things about the subject of these photographs, i.e., the marketing of goods through slightly reflective mirrors, is the subtlety of the project. It seems, to the casual onlooker, that these department store goods aren't even being advertised: they're on display, sure, but nothing more. The really serious instigation of product-desire all takes places in the brain of the potential consumer.

It's this subtlety which, I'm sad to say, is lacking in Best Buy's newest ad campaign. Their latest tag-line, which I just noticed today even though it apparently has been around for a while, is simply this: "You, Happier."

This dude named Sam Van Eman, who, judging from the name of his blog has something to do with advertising, doesn't seem all too thrilled with the implications of You, Happier coming from purveyors of stuff.

I am happier when I get a new laptop or scanner. Shoot, I'm happier when I get a fresh ink cartridge. Not happiest and maybe/maybe not happy, but I'm definitely happier.

Happier is good. So is buying stuff that we need and even an occasional item we don't need. Most of these make us happier, but happier must not control us. Here's a serious reason why.

In Waiting for God, Simone Weil wrote, "The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry."

The ways we hunger and satisfy our hunger for happier are deeply spiritual matters, which is why Weil's comment is a theological one. When Jesus said to deny ourselves he wasn't calling us to be ascetics, but to be people who recognize the spiritual danger in satisfying our hunger.

Best Buy? Fine, but we could all do a little better at going hungry once in a while.
I'm equally annoyed by the tag-line, but for different reasons. Advertising has always been about selling happiness through products. That was true in Atget's time and it's true now. The interesting part, though, is how marketing manages to accomplish that without being overly imposing. It's a creative process. Best Buy just removed all creativity from the equation.

1 comment:

Toke-Dawg said...

The concept of windows and mirrors reminds me of a verse in Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner":

When I'm feeling
Someone watching me
And so
I raise my head

There's a woman
On the outside
Looking inside
Does she see me?

No she does not
Really see me
Cause she sees
Her own reflection

And I'm trying
Not to notice
That she's hitching
Up her skirt

And while she's
Straightening her stockings
Her hair
Has gotten wet.