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Our Products, Ourselves

Chris Hoofnagle, professor of law in residence | April 21, 2010

If you’ve ever wrestled with Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, there is good news for you: MTV and VH1’s market research group has produced a cheat sheet. It describes “Gen Mix,” a group of young people who have confused products with personality and exist to buy stuff from celebrities. Debord’s academicalism is no longer needed! Why struggle through talk of “an evident degradation of being into having” when you have this:

Identity is a Necessity: Purchases are a way to express personal identity, and Gen Mix doesn’t skimp on the products and brands that help them show the world who they are.
␣ Brandentify Me: Gen Mix uses brands to reflect who they are, where they’re going, and how they want others to see them.

On a more serious note, there is risk in describing consumers in this way, especially when the speaker is MTV, once champion of youth autonomy. Such rhetoric gives weight to other potentially compelling arguments in favor of substantive regulation of marketing. Let me explain–

Professor Pris Regan argued in Legislating Privacy, that “privacy” is a powerful enough frame to spark a debate over collection of information, but that other interests at play slow and eventually stop privacy-actuated political initiatives. Regan offers several reasons for this, and suggests different framing to express objection to information collection and marketing.

Autonomy could be a powerful alternative frame. Julie Cohen, in Examined Lives: Informational Privacy and the Subject as Object, ties autonomy to personal development and First Amendment values:

…Autonomy in a contingent world requires a zone of relative insulation from outside scrutiny and interference – a field of operation within which to engage in the conscious construction of self…

Marketers should temper the ways in which they talk about individuals, because the type of crass categorization breathlessly advocated by MTV here could find a powerful opposing interest in individuals’ desires not to be described as (or made into) celebrity-obsessed fools.

Hat Tip: Gawker/Defamer