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My Body the Billboard
Ian Johnston

[This document is in the public domain, released June 1998]

Okay, here's a scenario. You get a letter from a multimillion dollar multinational retail company selling beer and clothes. They want to use your home and your car to advertise their products by displaying their name, logo, and slogan prominently where people passing by can see them clearly. What would you do? My guess is that you would first ask them how much they were willing to pay. Suppose they replied as follows: "We don't pay for this service. In fact you pay us for the cost of producing the advertising material and a whole lot more." I suspect that you would tell them to get lost and stay away until they were ready to talk about some serious money coming your way.

This behaviour seems entirely appropriate, given the circumstances. Why should you serve the multinational's commercial interests without receiving payment, let alone having to pay handsomely for the service you provide them? Well, if this is the case, then it's all the more curious that so many people are perfectly willing to shell out lots of money to purchase clothes that are little more than large public advertisements for a particular company. Any stroll through a mall or a college campus reveals just how much people think it is cool and stylish to turn themselves into, in effect, posters advertising clothing lines, beer, shoes, resorts, cars, stereos, sports teams, or whatever. And in many cases, there is no particular financial saving to be had for such promotion. In fact, the authentic display clothes are often much more expensive than non-brand-name goods of the same quality. The custom is so common that when I shop at the local Thrift store for my spring wardrobe, I have real trouble finding any tee shirts or sweat shirts that don't carry some commercial label prominently on display.

I know I'm old fashioned, but I find this trend distinctly odd. It's true that people have always liked in their clothing or accessories to declare their connection to something outside themselves. Things like kilts, old school ties, blazers with crests, pullovers with special designs, special pins, rings, hats with badges, and so on have been around for ever. Somewhere in a cupboard I have stowed an old baseball jacket indicating the name of the school team and my participation in the semi-finals of a softball tournament in 1964. And we are all familiar with religious icons, like crucifixes or Stars of David, on a necklace or a lapel. These things announced our connection to something outside ourselves, our sense of a shared community of interest, experience, or belief. We wore them for all sorts of reasons--they declared something we had achieved or something we believed or some institution to which we had given and perhaps still gave a certain allegiance. What did not seem particularly common was to carry such a sign if one was not entitled to it. So the presence of the sign told us something of the person wearing it.

That traditional body signage seems largely to have disappeared. Well, many of the old symbols and names are still around, of course, but they are part of the commercial range of options. Seeing someone in a Harvard or Oxford sweatshirt or a kilt or a military tie now communicates nothing at all significant about that person's life other than the personal choice of a particular consumer. Religious signs are still evocative, to be sure, but are far less common than they used to be. Why should this be? I suspect one reason may be that we have lost a sense of significant connection to the various things indicated by such signs. Proclaiming our high school or university or our athletic team or our community has a much lower priority nowadays, in part because we live such rapidly changing lives in a society marked by constant motion that the stability essential to confer significance on such signs has largely gone.

But we still must attach ourselves to something. Lacking the conviction that the traditional things matter, we turn to the last resort of the modern world: the market. Here there is a vast array of options, all equally meaningless in terms of traditional values, all equally important in identifying the one thing left to us for declaring our identity publicly, our fashion sense and disposable income. The market naturally manipulates the labels, making sure we keep purchasing what will most quickly declare us excellent consumers. If this year a Chicago Bulls jacket or Air Jordan shoes are so popular that we are prepared to spend our way into a trendy identity, then next year there will be something else. People will, of course, want them, because they will be massaged by constant advertising (which accounts for the exorbitant pricing, according to which, for example, Michael Jordan earns more from endorsing Nike than the entire payroll of the factory which makes the shoes which bear his name). Don't resist the urge, now; just do it.

It's a sign of the times, I guess. Lacking a sufficiently vigorous sense of a traditional commitment to faith, community, family, and country, we define ourselves in terms of our allegiance to market labels. Maybe it's a good thing. After all, people used to fight each other over flags and religious symbols. And there are still pitched battles in some places in Europe over soccer colours. Except for exceptionally aggressive school children ready to kill for a new pair of shoes, however, who is going to fight a fellow citizen over a BUM shirt, a tee shirt with a Calvin Klein logo, or a New York Yankees hat? Since the signs indicate nothing personal or passionate, they generate no passionate response.

All that may be true, but there's still something rather sad about it. The choices may be colourful and varied, but the sense that in our public presentation of ourselves to the world our major concern has become the appropriate commercial flavour of the week, that all we can imagine as a communal image of ourselves is what the market makes available at a stiff price, this strikes me as a significant loss. I'd feel a whole lot better if people would opt for original art designs on their clothes or even something funny or marginally interesting. That clearly is too much to hope for.

Maybe the scenario I started with is wrong. Perhaps it is the case that we are being prepared slowly for the day when we will willingly pay to have these labels which now decorate our bodies also cover our homes, cars, baby carriages, and what not. It is a great mistake to underestimate the power of the market. Given that people have already handed so much over to the service of that company which will soon be knocking at the door, it is perhaps rash to predict that people will not be eager to fork over big money to turn their homes and their possessions into what they themselves have already become, commercial billboards.



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