Cityscapes and identities: What advertisements, images tell us about commodities and consumers

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Consumerism is not just about consuming the commodity. It also entails consumption of an image and an experience. These images allure through their look and feel and they inject aspirations of a certain kind of lifestyle. They offer a personality to the commodity. Images of commodities have the magical power to trans­form the mundane into exotic desirables. It is through an imagery that any commodity becomes more than what it is, and gets transformed into something more intimate, and identifiable. Image-mediation in the current consumerist landscape has a wide range. Ranging from the representation of a “hyper mobile urban-scape” to concerns with “identity and anonymity”; or from “multiple identities” to addressing the “niche consumer”.

The hyper-mobile urban-scape

Extreme heights of urbanity. With permission from Oxford University Press

Clothing as a commodity-form takes us to dramatic heights – higher than the New York skyline, in the Levis-ad. Half-bare bodies and tight “cling fits” denims “remain stuck” in a challenging urban condition. The mise-en-scène establishes passion and adventure. Behind, we see the building blocks of a metropolis – metal and concrete. The characters in the frame are one the edge, but comfortably clinging-on, with no fear of falling off.

Such an elevation is needed to communicate the perfections of tight-fit denim. The idea of “Extreme heights of urbanity” and “pleasures of a well-fit denim” converges. The pleasure of intimacy and clothing overcomes vertigo. As one body clings to another, commodity is seen clinging on to both the bodies. Both have the flexibility to meet the extreme demands of the city. The commodity compliments both the “body” and the “city”.

Here, denim is no longer merely a youthful sign of defiance. Denim as a commodity transcends sheer “fit” and “feel”. It gets elevated to a height, where life is lived through commodities. Commodities acquire the shape of the body and the body finds expression through commodities. This commodity (culture) and body (nature) merger is well complimented by the dense high-rises and the empty sky behind. Elevation offers the power of unrestricted vision. Considering the fact that the ad was not meant for the viewers and buyers of New York, it also displays how the idea (l) of the global city is transported through commodity-images across geographies.

Hyper flexibility. With permission from Oxford University Press

Hyper-flexibility of the denim encourages an impossible stunt in the Provogue-ad. With a chopper in the horizon this could easily qualify as a still from superhero movie. Instead of the regular and mundane, the focus is on the dangerous, audacious, and the accentric. The protagonist is self-absorbed in his individual quest for action. With less sky and more of concrete, the city is realistic, and the action equally impossible. Commodity-imagination captures this impossibility without even caring to tell us what it is advertising. The minimalism of the text is possible in an evolved consumer landscape, where the viewers and the consumers have developed a familiarity with the brand name and its image.

The stretchable-quotient. With permission from Oxford University Press

The commodity promises 360-degree movement to sell wrinkle-free shirts in Allen-Solly-ad. The image of the commodity emphasizes the much-required stretchable-quotient that city-life demands. Again, there is a flood of action in the frame. The train is moving. Money is flying out of hand, while the man is busy talking on the phone. The commodity facilitates an extreme backstretch to catch the cash, if he can.

Identity and anonymity

Discovering lineage. With permission from Oxford University Press

What are the preconditions of an advancement of a consumerist landscape besides a wider basket of “choice” and an enhanced “purchasing power”? Definitely, the weakening of primordial ties. What happens when identity and solidarity that were once ascribed are on decline? It creates possibilities for commodities to fill in that void. Conditions of modernity and urbanity ensures that hierarchies are not ascribed but achieved. Only now, ranks could be endlessly flexible, ambiguous, and provisional.

When a commodity coins a message – Discover Your Lineage in the Turtle-ad – it is an attempt to fill in that blank. The “lineage” that been lost due to the dense web of urban anonymity has to be traced. Commodity promises its revival through consumption. Identities are floating freely as the traditional forms of fixity do not apply any longer. In such a scenario, commodity becomes a guarantor of “who-you-are” or who “you would want-to-be”. Choices are countless in number as the turtle-man leans against pillars, presumably medieval. Against the faded and blistered pillars of yesteryears, his current lineage-discovery-project is commodity-mediated.

Commodity and romantic negotiations. With permission from Oxford University Press

Equating “love” with diamond is a consumerist cliché. Diamonds as a gesture of love and conjugal bonding is a well-established semiotic connection. Traditionally, society had vested the task of making the payment on men. In the Shopper Stop-ad, it is not only his task to make the payment, but also to go shopping for the diamond. Only when this “demand” is met and the material “proof” of love is offered – can a romantic deal be secured or sealed. Such a negotiation of “love” is utterly commodity-mediated. Love is put to test. The test is that of an ability to purchase in order to prove love. Quantification of love (“how much”) is proof-worthy. Proof is in the price of the commodity (“how much”). The double meaning of “how much” has a dual purpose of representing price and emotion, or equating emotion with price, or buying emotion at a fixed-price.

Multiple identities

With permission from Oxford University Press

In the absence of ascription, one has to be an achiever. Due to lack of fixity of status, possibilities of social mobility are endless. Not only are there vast possibilities of flexible ranks, also there are rooms for multiple roles and fluid selves. The Peter-England-ad represents how the multiple roles of multiple selves are played out. Various products of the same brand, through split screen, offer stylized options for role-playing to meet the requirements of different social roles. The consumer is inspired to be different on different occasions through exercise of different commodity-choice. The instruction is to “steal the show” “at work and after”. Stealing the show is indeed a fulltime job, and there is no respite from this obsessive assignment of dressing the self suitably, or changing the dress to suit the self. Whether ‘at work’ or not, this in itself is at work through constant consumption of images.

Niche consumer

Something for everyone. With permission from Oxford University Press

Consumers of the post-liberalisation era look for personalised and flexible options. S/he is a conscious choice maker, who is exercising agency as a desiring subject. Persuasion is less relevant, when society has successfully converted a section of the population into able consumers. All that market needs to do now is to remind us about new variations and exciting offerings. We witness a greater diversity of commodities targeting the niche consumers. The Nike sports underwear is designed specifically for big-butted women. It celebrates the condemned – the excess flesh. Normalizing bigger size and fuller shape, it claims – “My butt is big…and that’s just fine.”

With permission from Oxford University Press

In the Lee-ad, one is formally dressed in a unicolored shirt, buttoned and tucked. Another has her tattooed back exposed. Two very different kinds of people, as their attires suggest, with overtly different dressing sensibilities, have found something common at last – their choice of denim: “At least the jeans are a perfect fit”. Yet another kind of niche is addressed in another Lee-ad. The straightness of the “straight jeans” does not presume a “straight” sexual orientation, as lesbian couples embrace each other.

Not everything is as straight. With permission from Oxford University Press

Excerpted with permission from Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images, Sreedeep Bhattacharya, Oxford University Press.