Malaysia is a car culture.
Not a ‘driving’ culture, one where the act of movement itself is a sacred rite, but one where the motor industry and cars themselves have shaped the landscape and the place that in turn has shaped the society and the people.
Driving is more akin to breathing.
This is no more a driving culture than humanity is an ‘oxygen culture’
We are heading up country in a borrowed Honda, my partner and I, departing from her hometown of Rawang, a large, sprawling settlement in the state of Selangor, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Once a tin-pot tin mining town, whose output, like much of Selangor’s, was dwarfed by the larger lodes of ore excavated in neighbouring Perak, Rawang became more populous with successive waves of migration – first for the mines, then the plantations; first rubber, then palm oi.. More recently, as Malaysia has moved up the value chain (along the way, ceding it’s position as the world’s biggest rubber producer in return for birthing the world’s most fecund condom manufacturer) Rawang has diversified, with a large cement plant and several auto part makers, as well as a healthy trade in commuters, who brave the sluggish, stolid, slog of 23 kilometres, south to Kuala Lumpur. For those who know London, it’s a place is faintly reminiscent of a chaotic, post-colonial Croydon.
The Honda was one of those nondescript mid-sized saloons that are almost impossible to date now. Neither old nor new, it was built some time in the late noughties, destined to be driven some time soon into quiet obsolescence with little to mark it’s passing. For now though, it was comfortable in it’s late-middle age – stately, unhurried and reliable. We had stopped in the centre of town to find a cable to connect the car’s ‘Aux’ input – a headphone-jack-sized hole – to the C-type output on my phone which dated the car’s design to a time when people had already begun to carry their music with them, but before the expectation that they could beam it at will to any willing object nearby, a last bastion of the wired in this second age of wireless. The first arbitrary phone shop we found was able to oblige, and we were underway; the cable acting as a tether across time and space, documenting the quiet progress consumer electronics had made in the first decade of my fully-adult life.
That this cable would be so easy to find on the nearest street corner begins to illustrate the car’s pervasive presence in Malaysia. The peninsula itself is as well endowed as it’s prophylactics makers, ringed with scruffy-beautiful sand beaches and spined by a range of jungle-covered mountains, their highlands littered with the kind of idiosnycratic mock-tudor bungalows that a certain type of adventurous Briton wistfully littered across the world during the early 20th Century during occasionally-indulged moments of homesic whimsy, peppering half the globe with a connect-the-dots simulacrum of Surrey, stretching from Sri Lanka to Sarawak. Century-old shophouses, skyscrapers, and one of the worlds most eclectic cuisines are just some of the other rewards you get here. Just don’t expect to get here without driving.
The first car factory in the Straits was in fact not in what was to become Malaysia, but on the island of Singapore; a confident Art-Deco building in Bukit Timah built in 1941 that was shortly to become the site of the British surrender of Singapore in 1942 to the Japanese. Car production in Malaysia itself was really established post-independence in 1967 when the government approved construction of 6 factories – 3 in Shah Alam, some 40kms south of Rawang, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang. Initially assembling foreign cars, by the 1980s, the expertise and skills that these had acquired for the country helped launch the ‘National Car Project’, leading to the founding of Proton in 1983 and the launch of the bestselling Proton Saga by 1985. Annual sales of less than 100,000 units in 1985 had almost tripled by 1995 and were close to 700,000 by 2015.
But sales figures only tell half the story.
The intimate relationship was not just the car as a marker of progress, as is the case in many rapidly growing countries, but with the car industry as a symbol of national pride. By 2002, Malaysia had become only the 11th country in the world to be able to design, engineer and build a car from a blank page and the only one in the region. By 1999, Malaysia was hosting a Grand Prix and Petronas, Perdua and Proton were all part of a heady, high-octane cocktail fuelling modern Malaysian identity.
Since that early noughties high water mark for both Malaysia and the automotive industry worldwide – even US car sales peaked in 2000 – the wheel has turned. By the end of those intervening decades, the effect of having tied national pride so closely to the automotive has left the country lacking. This combination car-centric policy-making and the endemic underinvestment in other forms of locomotion that it precludes, spiced with a particularly piquant variety of local corruption has left Malaysia lacking. Few if any rail lines were opened between the 1930s and 1995’s opening of the first commuter line serving Kuala Lumpur – incidentally beginning as our journey did, in Rawang. In those intervening years, coinciding with Malaysia’s Asian Tiger’s leap, speculative property building followed road construction, slashing six-lane asphalt through the jungle, arteries bulbous with tumours of exurban growth that were heavy on driveways but light on pavements.
This fundamentally affects the Malaysian way of being and doing. When you ‘go’ somewhere, there is really only one way to ‘go’. Even in central KL, the public transport system is too sporadic, too syncopated to be truly helpful, and in truth, with so many organs of state and offices of commerce, transplanted to new as well as heavily redeveloped and car-centric townships ringing the city proper; Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya; it’s utility is moot. In this respect, KL feels like the cousin of LA, caught in a specific glorious moment, sometime in the late 20th century, when car was raja.
I recently read ‘The Lies that Bind’ by Anthony Kwame Appiah. I thought it was fantastic book and left me with many thoughts and responses. I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t reply, so I shall share it here… Hopefully some of them make sense for those that haven’t read the book, and for anyone who has, would be fascinated to hear.
Dear Professor Appiah
Firstly, apologies for this unsolicited note, and the second rate undergrad-level thoughts it contains.
After finishing ‘The Lies that Bind’, I really wanted to put down some thoughts – I hope you don’t thing its too weird that I have then sent them to you….
I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you explore about identity within your book. Identity – and in particular nationality and it’s composite bits – is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and a little bit for a long time, particularly as mixed-race Afro-caribbean Brit living in an British Asian former colony (Singapore) for the last four years. (I could write multiple emails just picking apart my observations on identity here in response to some of your writing – one of my neighbours told me the story of how, as a young boy, he went to bed waving one flag and woke up waving another 53 years ago)
On a personal level I really connected with the elements you wove in of your own story and how your unique viewpoint allows you to describe the absurdity of reductive and singular notions of identity that essentialists and ethnocentrists cling to. Having in my own small way straddled multiple worlds during my own experience; most obviously of race, but also of class and of culture, I have always had a sense that ‘obvious’ category divides and definitions aren’t particularly natural or clear or obvious, but I also feel that is the gift of a privileged viewpoint. I smiled when you referred to yourself as ‘English’ as I remember one particularly revealing late night debate with a very good friend (he still is now) from my college who vehemently denied me use of the title because I “don’t have the blood”.
The thing that really struck me as I read your work was the outsized role that Country or the Nation plays in tying together the contemporary versions of the four other sorts of identity that you explore. It seems that (to borrow one of your most lovely turns of phrase in the book) Nation, or the Nationalism born of the industrial nation state is the ‘Medusa Gaze’ that fixes and reduces the other facets identities. Between the French Revolution, the 19th Century romantic liberal-national movements and the technological and economic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, the overlapping, multilayered versions of identity that still lingered at the time of Ettore’s birth were hammered flat, collapsed and co-opted by modern Nationalism. Ironic that what at the start of the 19th Century was the great ideal of the liberal (I remember studying why ‘Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles’ was a message initially to inspire citizens of a patchwork of grand-duchies and principalities to ‘feel’ German above ‘Protestant’ or ‘Hanseatic’ or ‘Prussian’) became the refuge and strength of the authoritarian. Perhaps natural too, as once the liberal-national dream to ‘create’ has been fulfilled, the logical next step is to ‘conserve’?
Then of course this was exported to the rest of the world, through amongst other things the ‘Census, Map, Museum’ as Benedict Anderson puts it, and as you recognise when you talk about the invention of the Hindu (the same is true of the definition ‘Malay’ in Singapore – there has been some fantastic work done on how this authoritarian island utopia is a post colonial government deploying unreconstituted colonial structures and powers.
By lashing together states-wide tribalism for mass mobilisation – for war and for industry, using the vines and tentacles of creed and colour and culture, Country became Nation and it fixed these ideas, creating a mass cultural product that was compellingly simple and dangerously compelling. The lies we tell ourselves aren’t a problem in themselves – as you highlight in so many of your pre-industrial examples, until they are denied the elasticity and vibrancy to continue to flex and grow. Some of the examples you use from religion and evolving consensus on values highlight this beautifully, and in part I wanted to write to you to see what your response would be to the thought which struck me – namely, that it was this industrial homogenisation of these other elements by the Nation-State (to which I would add language, at least as a historical category to this) which caused so many of the problems we see now in ‘identity politics’; that identity politics as we see it, is a product of this process. Religious fundamentalism, racial essentialism and cultural ossification are all modern industrial products, and like Nationalism, are profoundly unsuited to the reality of the contemporary world – it’s no coincidence that it primarily is supranational bodies like the EU that are suited to – and have at least had some limited success being – a counterpoint to transnational corporations.
When you then went on to argue the opposite when it came to class, that we do not pay enough attention to it’s continuity and the myth of meritocracy (our 20th Century version of Mayer’s ‘Persistence of the Old Regime’) I was even more excited. Perhaps here I push my reading of you work too far into my limited (and rusty) intellectual realm as a historian by training, a democratic socialist by inclination and someone working in the ‘commercial application of social sciences’ (I say grandiosely – I am but a humble market researcher…) but could in some ways this be the counterpoint to Nation? Maybe I have been listening to Paul Robeson sing ‘Joe Hill’ too often recently, but it struck me that if the two work in opposite directions and by making class as you describe it more visible, class could provide a counterpoint to the problems of Nation? Or at least as a lever to prise back apart some richness and layers?
Lastly, as a liberal, the thing that you touch upon which touched me most is in your section on Cultural appropriation. When other ‘liberals’ throw it round cheaply, I shudder. That is truly (to use another of your phrases – and I have been using these a lot talking to people recently, so it’s not just here to flatter you in this email) a source code fallacy. By engaging on those terms, they truly are reinforcing exactly the essentialism that you rail against, and having had this argument with so many people recently, and ‘tarnishing’ my ‘correct’ cosmopolitan/liberal credentials it was relief to read someone far more eloquent and intelligent and me articulate the sentiment. he yardstick of ‘respect’ is a useful heuristic for making the phrase redundant. There are a few copies of the book along with specific pages called out already on their way to some people. You express the idea far better than I have ever managed!
Anyway, I hope you have time to read this, and certainly don’t expect a reply, but I really just wanted to say thank you for writing something so thought provoking and refreshing – definitely one of my books of the year so far,
P.S I do also really wonder if you have read any, and what you think of the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I feel like that must be an irritating question you get asked all the time, and the FT was wise enough to avoid it in their recent interview with you, so I shall do the same. His work does remind me of a bad joke someone told me – Why is race like Santa Claus? They are both not real, but have both caused so much genuine sorrow and suffering…
The current generational model that many pop-sociologists, newspaper columnists and marketers cling to may be a convenient framework, but it is one that is not fit for purpose in an ever shrinking and ever fracturing and more complex world. The most robust academic work in the field, the grandly titled Strauss-Howe generational model is, even to its champions, an Anglo-American-centric tool for historical framing and to its critics, a vast generalization with little empirical evidence to support its core thesis. As appetizing as an academic deep-dive on this may be, I shall limit this to thinking about recent generations and their utility (or otherwise) as a tool for understanding people, cultures from a brand perspective
The idea of these 20-year monocultural blocks in human time was born out of the post war baby-boom, particularly in the united states and were the beneficiaries of the post-war American high, rapid growth of mass culture and mass consumerism as well as a marked increase in living standards and leisure time. They were also the first group to be dissected from the outside by marketers, and in many respects it the reinforcing messages made the idea of a ‘generation’ and its particular spirit and outlook a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That the ‘boomers’ and then after, the Gen-Xer, in the US were the two most convincingly coherent cohorts and that may be no coincidence, not just because they were researched, written about and sold to in a way that molded them into a coherent whole, but also, economically speaking, in the west, they were more ‘whole’. On the ‘soft side’ you have a golden age of mass broadcast media and on the hard side you have, what is in the long history of pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial capitalism an anomaly – a decrease in inequality. Now, not to get all Piketty about it, but with good working class wages and earnings doing better than assets, there was a chance for people of the same age across a broadly similar cultural backdrop to have similar experiences, and similar possibilities open to them, socially, professionally, educationally. Historically, this is a aberration, as the young country squire and the young peasant would have never felt part of a similar generational identity, but with decreasingly inequality, relative prosperity, mass media and a world that still felt big and un-PC enough to forget about those defined as the ‘other’ – non-capitalist, non-white, non-EU/US, we could lull ourselves into thinking that this was a world where neat 20-year blocks of people could be in it together.
Of course if we had of take a global view in the 70s when the idea of the ‘boomer’ the first marketable generation was being popularized we may have seen the fallacy of that, but we didn’t, it stuck and now in an ever shrinking world we can somehow post-rationalize the theory because we all have smartphones. Of course, we cant, and in fact, everyone doesn’t have a smartphone at all. The world is smaller for those who can afford to shrink it, which is a self-selecting and self-confirming sample. The reality is, birth year is a very poor proxy. A 24 year old urban Jakartan vs. a 24 year old in an agricultural area of Sumatra will be very different. The Jakartan may have a lot in common with a 24 year old in downtown Sao Paulo, but likewise he may have with a digitally saavy 53 year old in Berlin. Likewise the our son or daughter of the soil in Sumatra might have more in common with a middle aged Bavarian farmer.
An age based- monocultural theory works in a monoculture, as the post-war US was to a large extent ( god forbid anyone do anything as pluralistic as declare themselves a socialist, or be black and ask for rights, for that matter) but so the what was age acting as a proxy for in that self-selecting blinkered process. What are some of the key axes, the indicators that can allow us to start forming some useful cohorts, that we can map against populations?
Urban vs Rural
A key indicator, which has a huge bearing on your views, outlook and interaction with the world – shapes the kind of influences that you are expose to, the amount of risk and reward available to you and the kind of stimulus you have to shape your view. A rapidly urbanizing world offers us a dangerous confirmation bias to the idea of homogenous aged-based international cohorts…
Which itself acts as a proxy for many things, including affluence and even more strongly, political inclination – the higher your educational attainment, generally the more liberal you lean, at least within the normative framework for your cultures political spectrum
Key Life stage Markers
Another where Age was a useful proxy, but longer, less linear lives and changes in aspiration (when it comes to kids and settling down) and hard headed reality, especially when it comes to urban housing mean that it is not an accurate or useful global proxy any more)
Marriage, parenthood and Home/property ownership are all massive deciding factors shaping someone outlook and view. Where many of the western-centric generalizations about Millennials fall down in Asia is that it fails to remember how much younger people still have children and that, particularly in less equal, more patriarchal skewed set-ups, as 24 year old without a child is more different to a 24 year old with than she is to a 40 year old without
One that,, if Google and many over tech utopians have their way, will eventually disappear as a discerning factor, but the reality is that globally we are not yet at a stage when this can be disregarded. Access is uneven, can be patchy and often for many as a proportion of income (another key factor) too expensive to be ‘always on’
Optimistics vs. pessimistic
How do you see our future? How do you see the world? Naturally this will be influenced by any number of things, but it is important to take into account. There are many with huge advantages in developed nations who are negative in their worldview, and the converse is true in many more difficult to live in cultures and situations. The importance of outlook should not be overlooked
Of course, taking a mapping based on these, you would expect to see age, driving certain clusters in certain countries, but interesting to see is how that matched up against other groups else way. A Vietnamese urban 20-something might really tally with an affluent, upbeat suburban boomer on America’s east coast…!
Of course the danger here is veering in the opposite direction, but the point is we must realize that time and age are a poor proxy and no guarantee of some kind of universal human generational experience
It’s been almost 6 months since my last fresh blog post. My rolling list has 10+ pieces on it that I want to write and I have two, potentially never-to-be-published draft pieces on Singapore, rights and liberalism sitting on my desktop (One with the working title ‘ Just Because Your Paranoid’ and the other ‘The Pragmatism of Principle’- for those I know personally, if you want to have read, drop me an email). This very personal piece was drafted on a fast train London to Bristol to present my final UK debrief for a while to the marketing department of TSB (appropriately branded as ‘Local Banking for Britian’). And the High Contrast remix of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ has come on shuffle… the last song I listened to before I flew home temporarily two months ago. So bearing that in mind, you will excuse my indulgence in writing this piece rather than ‘The HDB Social Contract’ or ‘The Uniformity of Cool’ that are both still unwritten
Two months to close-up shop in London has been both quick and slow- the length of time I needed practically, but a strange, testing stretch. By the end, people in my office were commenting that they thought I had left already. Too short to get back into the rhythms of London; long enough to drink away the decent fitness I developed in 7 months of clean(ish) living in Singapore. Long enough to see the people I love and care about, but not long enough to do more than catch up and reminisce. And then back those relationships go into an odd kind of suspended animation, aging at a fraction of the speed of life.
So I am leaving London. Parting company with a city that is inextricably linked to my sense of who I am, and always will be. There are selfish reasons for this (smaller office, better career trajectory in a more placid talent pool), frivolous reasons (no reason not to gallivant round SE Asia for a few years of cheap sun and easy living) practical reasons (better wages and lower cost of living) but I want to talk about my philosophical reasons for the great love of my life and going ‘on a break’ while I have a fling with the Singaporean City-State’s great social experiment. Perhaps what follows is an intellectual alibi rather than a reasoned decision, but I think it doesn’t make the points any less valid.
I would like to caveat this, with the genuine belief that London still remains the cross the board leading global centre. There is a toughness and a care, a beauty and depravity, a blend of high culture and low morals, international ingredients marinated in local flavor that make it the accomplished all-rounder. New York lacks the self-effacement, San Francisco lacks the past, Paris lacks the Future. Sao Paulo the concentration of ‘Stuff’. Berlin lacks the work, and Singapore in truth, lacks the Play. I will always be a Londoner. And I will always give you a reason why ‘my town is better than your town’, even if I have never been to ‘your town’. But I have been privileged enough with this job to go to a lot of your towns and see the insides of your museums and markets and bars, not just the boardrooms and Business districts. And my town IS better than your town.
The problem is that London’s ‘better’ is no longer ‘good enough’ to justify the Faustian pact that you enter into when you top up your Oyster or sign your next Assured Shorthold Tenancy. The rent’s too damn high, the tube doesn’t work, it rains a lot; at rush hour it feels like a seething, stewing brooding ball of thinly suppressed resentment. You feel tough because you are part of it. As a do-eyed newcomes you suck it in and after 18 months call yourselves a London ( you’re not…just FYI… if your teen years involved being ferried by car to friends houses, then you just aren’t). If you grew up and/or started your professional life, anything else feels like a holiday, a dilettante indulgence. An unreality. Working 60 hour weeks in Singapore, I still felt like I was on holiday. I felt guilty. I rode my bike every morning. I read the weekend paper on the beach. I took a clean, seamless underground rail network to work that cost 35p a single journey. (Singapore is NOT expensive if you have lived in London; the Economist cost of living index is skewed by always including car ownership. Which is ridiculous as there is nowhere to drive and a Taxi all the way across the island is little more than a tenner) Singapore is in particularly stark contrast and I have my own reservations and thoughts, which remain in those unposted articles for the same reasons that they outline within them (consider the ‘message in the (lack of) medium’ in this instance) but my ex is in Glasgow now working as a neurosurgeon and she lives in a beautiful central neighbourhood in a two bed tenement flat for little more than her share of our old London rent. There is an art school, some museums, a vibrant music scene, great restaurants, local produce, Whisky. But every major city has some of this. And by major, this is not about global Alpha cities. There is a beauty amongst the Betas too. Yes, of course its easy to cling to the idea that London is better. Because it is. Better clubs, better galleries, better plays, better parks (that one is debatable) attracting better global people, forging better global links, hosting better businesses. But are any of these good enough to justify the structural issues. The creaking infrastructure and its vast expense? The lack of housing, exacerbated by (irony or ironies) Singaporean dentists and Russina Oligarchs alike buying flats as a new class of Global bond asset.
Unless I become a dotcom millionaire, I can’t see myself ever being secure and settled (and that could mean long term tenancies, not just ownership) in my hometown. Either you work in finance, are part of the global super-rich, or you persuade your parents to give you the deposit you have no chance. Raise your hand if you own in London. Good. Keep it raised if did this WITHOUT family money. Great, anyone left? Okay, and now keep it there if you don’t work in FS. Anyone there? Hmmmm…..
So the tense, (un)holy trinity at play here….’Variety’ (of people, things, everything), ‘possibility’ and (I am loathe to admit) ‘money’ made London, as I knew it, possible. Now money is choking out the other two. It is turning London into ‘London™’, a theme-park city that starts publicizing its own myth as ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ whilst forgetting what made it able to claim that. This is of course where I get accused of being one of those inverse snobs who is anti-nice things. I am not against change, I am against displacement. When Londoners don’t feel that there is a London for them. That everything that the city creates is as (a)overpriced, and (b)designed with a certain audience. These young, upwardly mobile, easily bored 20 and 30-somethings (and their middle-aged imitators), have the economic leverage to suck the air out of anything that isn’t an ‘artisnal’ ‘pop-up’ ‘street food’ ‘warehouse’ ‘craft’ crap-monger. This dystopian village is some way off, but it starts to look like whether by accident or design, that is the position that London will come to occupy in the global firmament. And to me, that isn’t London.
I know this second point is new and probably needs more explanation, but my train is pulling in soon, and any cogency of thought that I may have had is collapsing rapidly. This theme park London thrives on a confidence trick that supports the Cultural Ponzi Scheme that is ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ as well as an actual ponzi scheme that is the housing market (purchase and rental). I worry Theme Park London is far too profitable to be stopped, and will soon be ‘too big to fail’
If I were a braver man, I would work in a planning department of the GLA; I would join a think tank or work in social research. But I am a coward. So I am running away from home for a few years. It will always be home. I just don’t know if I will recognize it.
Rob Walker, New York Times Marketing correspondent, in his book ‘Buying In’ outlines an interesting thesis. His book focuses on the dialogue between individuals and the things they buy. One of his ore ideas is that one of the most important factors for people in deciding what brands they ‘buy into’ is not what these items say to other people about us, but what they say to us about ourselves- think of the middle-manager with the MacBook, assuring himself that he is in some ways creative, more than just an Excel Sheet drone…
Now clearly every product, service or company has a network of associations within culture that effect its brand, and it is the commonality in these that people buy into, which of course means that this isn’t a pure one-to-one dialogue between buyer and brand. (I would actually argue that, a brand ONLY exists in culture- marketers do not position a brand, they shepherd, nudge and cajole a living web of values and equities that inhabit the space between the company & product and the people who buy or use it- as well as those that don’t, but that perhaps is for another time…) However, far too much emphasis is placed on what people are telegraphing to others with their choice of symbols and artifacts that they surround themselves with. Without this reflexive side to the dialogue, how else would we explain designer underwear? (low-slung urban jeans-wearers aside).
Many jaded Brand professionals are particularly quick to criticize the newly rich, and aspirant emerging middle-classes in fast growing emerging economies for their love of branded bling. Often the logos and the Louis, are dismissed simply as a new-world Nouveau Riche display. If we try and see these purchases (legitimate or imitation) through the lens of that reflexive narrative, then it takes on a rather different character. As opposed to a gauche display of new wealth, a keeping up with the Nguyens, da Silvas or Patels, we can read this as a quest for markers and means of finding and understanding ones place in this world.
Newly mass-affluent populations are, in many cases, in uncharted territory. Previous generations may never have had the opportunities to achieve their material comfort that they now possess. Many of these rapidly growing markets were even closed societies that did not afford the opportunity to engage in these consumer interactions. Many of the aspirant individuals we speak to at Flamingo are planning ahead. Saving for homes, marking out milestones, experts at delayed gratification earning and waiting patiently to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Not really the kind of person who is indulging in ostentation for its own sake. What these brands can say to them ( as opposed to telegraph to others) is that, I am doing okay. They can make you feel modern, they provide signposts and markers on this newly trodden path. They can tell the purchaser that they are progressing. Less about ‘I am doing better than you’, much more about ‘I am better than I was before’. This is not to say there isn’t an element of display involved, but there is also internal dialogue. We must understand that in many ways, Luxury is a necessity.
Whoever decided that the job should be called ‘Brand Manager’ has a lot to answer for.
It perpetuates the idea of a direct relationship between a brand and the company that seeks to control it, as if you can calibrate its every nuance, direct its every move. ‘Positioning’ doesn’t help either- conjuring images of pieces being shuffled round on tactical maps in some fusty operations room, as if you can just move a brand out of one territory and into another like a corporation-sized game of risk.
Brand Positionings, as a set of values in a presentation, a manifesto on a page, or layers of an onion are a key part of our trade. These models give us a common language to understand what we want a product or business to mean as well as a way to communicate these aspirations to our partners, both agencies and other brands. But what is important to remember is that they are just that- models; a way of explaining and describing a thing, but not the thing itself.
September 2014 saw Flamingo gather in Istanbul for its inaugural Expo, focused on the theme of ‘intersections’, Cultural, Geographic, Narrative and Commercial. The intention of this piece is to argue why we must see brands themselves as intersections, ones that encompass all four of these areas in their breadth; that is, brands are not ‘owned’, ‘managed’ or ‘positioned’ by the companies that gave birth to them, but exist as a negotiated space, a conversation between the company, product or service and the consumer and their cultural context.
The idea of brands as a psychological and social crossroads, as shared liminal spaces, may fill many Brand Stewards with dread, but in reality, they have always been a joint undertaking by the companies that produce and the people that consume, whether we have been aware of it or not. Simply put, a brand is what people think and feel in about a product, rather than what they are told they ought to think and feel. All of our outputs are simply inputs to this thing that we call a ‘brand’.
The intersections metaphor is apt here. Influences come from multiple directions, like vehicles speeding towards a neural junction. Product experience, others people’s opinions, packaging, cultural associations, socio-historical context and the artifacts that a Brand manager may put into the mix (the brand’s Comms) all combine to affect what a brand is. A newly launched challenger may have lighter traffic on their roads, but it’s never a one-way-street. The relatively recent proliferation of 2-way channels has made this more apparent, but we must remember brands have been ‘social’ since long before ‘Social Media’.
What this means is that a positioning is an evolving set of ideas, a conversation, and that brand ‘values’ or ‘essences’ are at once both true and also questionable; valid hypotheses rather than proved theorems. It means what we capture on a page or in a PowerPoint is a snapshot of something bigger, markers put down at a rough median between marketing aspiration and consumer reality, with the distance between those two poles roughly reflecting the how successfully that brand is doing ‘in the wild’.
If this all sounds a little bit hopeless, its not meant to. Acknowledging this has a profound influence on how we think about brands. Firstly it means brands are far more powerful than ‘positioning’ or ‘management’ gives them credit for. They are forces of nature that have powerful connections with people and exert their influence in culture. Now that has to be more exciting than words on a page. As ‘Brand Influencers,’ we get to play a kind of ‘cultural judo’ (NEW WORD?) with them, deftly using their weight and momentum to shape those negotiated spaces. It also means Brand Influences shouldn’t try and ‘fight’ or deny them. A ‘repositioning’ that denies a brand’s long heritage or scale is destined to fail through dissonance as one vehicle comes hurtling head-on into the juggernaut of history, habit or culture. Acting and thinking like a challenger brand is powerful for a big company, but to deny ones own baggage and nature will almost always fail.
So why is this so important now? Where previously we sent the marketing mix into this negotiated space and waited hopefully to see second-order results through sales and share, the mass proliferation of digital and social has allowed us to close the loop. People have always been involved in this dialectic, but now they can be heard. This increases the appetite for brands that are ‘open’, where they can see their own inputs and influence played back. This means that the ‘positioning’ is a start point and a wish-list rather than the end-goal. Rather than feeling like a tightly defined, reductive thing, we need to aspire to shape brands that have clarity but at the same time have texture and layers within that clarity, elements clustered round an agreed shared space and meaning. Rather than everything needing exactly the same voice, it now just needs to feel that it is in the same register. This is hugely liberating for brand influencers, it gives us freedom to try things, to stretch brands at the margins and play at the periphery, as well as offering alternative viewpoints on their core. This means not only engaging in discussion with consumers, but also between different elements of your media plan. Encourage conversation, in the broadest sense rather than put up a roadblock’; have your brand ask questions rather than answer them.
Or we can continue to try and simply ‘manage’… But ultimately this liminal space will continue to be negotiated and renegotiated whether we are there or not.
Late last year, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition in Manchester curated by Jeremy Deller called All that is Solid Melts into Air. At the Manchester Museum of Art, it drew a line through popular art, the Industrial Revolution and the changing nature of work. Well laid out and self contained, its curation was a work of art in itself, drawing together seemingly obvious juxtapositions and narrative vignettes, jumping between the social and the political, individual and the societal. From setting 19th century punch clocks next to one of Amazon’s productivity monitors, worn by employees in its cavernous warehouses to ensure they hit hourly targets for packages stuffed and which electronically alert their bosses when they don’t, the overarching theme was the more that changes, the more that stays the same. It nudged and cajoles the viewer to reflect on their own work- the value that may or may not ascribe to it, it personal role and the collective identity that you may draw from it. For a city negotiating what will define it in a post-industrial era, it was highly appropriate and for a world trying to grasp the globally division of labour that now defines most business, incredibly timely. Like an engaging, accessible, experiential version of de Botton’s ‘Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’.
Actually, it was nothing like de Botton. This was art created and curated for the broadest possible audience. If you were willing to walk in off the street to get out of the rain (and the weather can get pretty shitty in Manchester) it was thought out so that the mental barrier to engagement was low and the potential depth and reward was high. Whether through the poetry of Blake or 19th century union songs or Glam-rock welsh miners, there were many ways in, and once you were in, it was accessible whilst never being reductive or patronising.
What this exhibition offered was an old fashioned alternative to the two main discourses within (‘mass’ if there is such a thing) visual art. Rather than choosing between ( or rather being assigned a side based on wealth) Art as Veblen Good- a status commodity where people buy names and prices – Rothko, Koons, Hirst to name some of the most obvious- or Art as Spectacle and Social Currency- the conversational commodification of culture- exhibitions that crop up in (brief) pub or dinner party chit-chat that usually start with ‘Did you see the…’ ( Klee, Man-Ray, Hirst, Gormley, A.N. other thing in the Turbine Hall ). I have an instinctive and perhaps irrationally strong, distain for the former, dominated by hedge funders and oligarchs, just as I could never vote Tory, but the latter is no bad thing. It engages people with Art in a way that is immediate, visceral, instinctive; it allows many who would otherwise be put off to feel that Art isn’t something that ‘happens to other people’.
At this point, it is worth taking a line or two to applaud Unilever for their sponsorship of the Turbine Hall commissions which they have just relinquished to Hyundai- reflecting the increasing global role of both Tate in general and that cavernous space at the heart of the old Bankside power station in particular. Free museums and the ‘Tate’ affect have helped enormously since the millennium in engaging the public with art.
However, what is often missing from these Social Spectacles (and out Veblen buyers simply exist in their own transnational realm) is what Deller sees as being central to the role of art- yes get people to spectate but then invite them to do something with that. Tate’s famous ‘The Weather Project’ got us all sunbathing on the polished concrete, but it didn’t make you think, you just ‘did, saw’ but precious little got beyond the end of the optical nerve. Maybe think is too formal a word and engage sounds even worse here than when I use it in meetings, but it is about encouraging (re)appraisal of some aspect of society and self.
At a time when commodification and the market is regulating ever more numerous aspects of life (it seems we do increasingly believe that everything has a price- for instance the $300 offered to crack-addicted women to have their reproductive systems put out of action) despite 2008s market failure ( which incidentally 2:1 Americans blame on the Federal government rather than those who played with the markets in the banks) art should not be about just price for the few and reductive popularism. It’s insulting to out better natures. As we further conflate consumption with participation and citizenship with ever more self-destructive results (“my son has no job, this government has let me down, its about time we did something about it” says looter outside Clapham Dixons, HD widescreen under arm, live on Sky News) it is about time that art stepped up to bring about some kind of public discourse of the kind of society we live in and want to be a part of. The old fashioned notion of art as having a purpose, of being part of a dialogue with society is all the more rare and all the more vital at this juncture.
You might be able to tell that I share Deller’s critical view of how the market has shaped society and work but I am not arguing that a hundred curators commission 100 Dellers to tell one side- I am happy to go and see the show that makes us lefty liberal softies understand that capitalism has been the greatest agent of positive, widespread change mankind has seen ( and there is a strong argument for that too- though of course better isn’t ‘good enough’ and we should continue to strive as citizens as well as consumers)- I am arguing that Art should stop being dominated by Bread & Circuses and understand that it is an instrument to provoke thought, to encourage questions, to be a weapon of mass discussion. Because we sure as hell need it right now.
Marie-Antoinette had an interesting way of unwinding at the Petit Trianon, the small Palace that was her escape from the ‘pressures’ of Queenship up at the ‘big house’ in Versaille. In the grounds of the Petit Trianon, she ordered the construction of a hameau, a mock French farming village, complete with rabbits, pigs, cows and some fields of wheat and barley which she oversaw. A.U Wertmüller, some-time a resident artist at Versaille depicts, in one of his portraits from the French court, one of Marie-Antoinette’s confidants, Adelaide Auguie, dressed in a mock peasant milk maid’s dress in the Queens Laiterie. Apocryphal or not, the story runs that the Queen herself had elaborate shepherdess and farm-girl costumes made by her royal dressmakers, in which she would play at the peasant-girl, tending to her sheep or milking her cows until, bored, she would retire to the Trianon, most likely for cake.
Why I bother to relay this story is because the same disdain I have for this playing at the peasant is how I am beginning to feel about the current trend for single-dish and short menu restaurants in London. What once started as a desire for simplicity, great ingredients and an unfussy return to ‘real’ food has become a caricature of itself, what the hameau was to a working rural village. Just as the immediate post-recessionary automotive craze for matte-black coating Porsches, BMWs and Range Rover Vogues as well as other high end vehicle, ( low profile, low sheen and therefore permissible luxury ran the simplistic hedge-funder logic) these restaurants the Tramsheds, Bubble Dogs and Burger & Lobsters of the world are now seen as a permissible display of status by way of discernment in this post-recessionary realignment, the after-Lehman L’Atelier Joel Robuchon. Except, the problem is that once they become a covert status game, the food suffers. Once the thing is that it is ‘a thing’ then the food is no longer the thing. The shred of dignity provided by their stripped back approach is becoming stretched to the point of absurdity, with a restaurant specialising in only champagne and hotdog or only burgers and lobsters bearing little resemblance to the honest culinary ethos that may have been the one iota of authentic grit in the oyster when this whole charade began. This rule can be almost uiversally applied to anything with ‘streetfood’ in its subhead.
The ersatz nature of the whole stripped back food vibe becomes apparent when you eat at some of these restaurants- catering to a certain comfortable chattering class background that wants to play at the peasant girl. Meat Liquor’s burgers are over-hyped, over-greasy and made from poor cuts. They remind me of the kind of burger that I would get for a pound from a burger van at the funfairs of my childhood. Yet for those who venerate these establishments, these vans were were verboten, so now in urban 20- and 30- something-hood their sustenance, or a repackaged version of it, becomes fetishised, an exciting sense of what is forbidden, an element of transgression to add to dimensionalise this status.
If you want a burger van burger, go to a windy car-park by a builders merchant in Mitcham. If you want to open one of these restaurant, make the narrative about the food rather than pretending its about the food when actually its about the catchiest menu combination or newest streetfood novelty.
Amongst the shining skyscrapers of Dubai, a city that doesn’t do ersatz modesty, culinarily or otherwise, I visited a place in porta-cabin, the Bu Qtair restaurant with no menu and whose clientele consisted of a pretty even split of expatriates, from both East and West, and South Asian migrant workers. Plastic tables and chairs were strewn outside and there was no menu, just large plastic tubs of masala-seasoned fish bought each morning from the boats ( Dubai actiually has a working fishing fleet… ), fried to order and served out of a side window of the cabin. No show, no fuss, no ‘concept’ other than serving incredible spicy fish and chapatis to anyone who wanted to eat. Happiness should be good food, not a culinary mock-hamlet.
Mark Twain claimed that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. Waiting by the gate to board a flight at Dubai international airport, there is a sample of a few hundred of the earth’s residents; a tranche selected by quirks of fate as diverse as late-running meetings in Manila or the impulse to visit a newly-born relative on the other side of the world. Looking around the gate, you can see a hundred pairs of trailing white wires into a hundred different coloured ears. A young boy in a dishdasha languidly swats at a glowing tablet screen, his face a concentrated picture of barely concealed contempt for the whole process. If we are to put any stock in this arbitrary thin-slicing of humanity, then there seems to be little to evidence Twain’s epithet.
Historically, travel has been a disruptive act. To undertake a journey meant to leave home and the relative safety that represented. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the act of travel has been romanticised in literature and imbued with an almost-mystical significance. The risk that it inherently contained meant that it had to be prized to be incentivised. But maybe this is stating the equation the wrong way round. The mystical significance comes from what travel had to offer. The romance was linked to the reward; an expansion of human understanding, the opportunity widen and deepen the intellectual pool. Often this would come from the journey as much as from the destination.
Travel is no longer an individual experience, it is a commodity. The travel industry was worth $1,972.8 billion USD in 2011. ‘Adventure’ is no longer something you have, it is a rack of brochures in Trailfinders, after ‘Action Holidays’ and before ‘Americas (North)’. This has been a long time coming. Even in the days of Earhart, and certainly by the time of Armstrong, while the heroic quasi-mystical version of travel was being valourised, the travel industry was fractionalising and homogonising that same sentiment, repackaging it into 7- 10- and 14-day pieces. Since the advent of the grand tour in the 17th century, travel has been losing its genuine power, replaced instead with fictional significance. Since the glory days of 14th and 15th century explorers, as its real importance has diminished, its ceremonial role has grown in popular consciousness. As early as the 18th Century, some critics were deriding the Grand Tour as “a paltry thing, a tame, uniform, unvaried prospect”. The birth of the itinerary was the beginning of a long and illustrious ending.
With a marked decline in the package holiday since the end of the 20th century, the logical thought would be that travel is once again diversifying, that after the post World War II, mid 20th century standardisation, we are rediscovering our instincts to strike out alone and ‘see what we can see’. But in fact, the lineage can be traced from these first accounts of Byron and his contemporaries in Florence, through the pre-planned, pre-paid excursions and identikit apartments of the Costas to the lonely-planet-guide collecting, tick-boxing that typifies travel now- you may not buy all the pieces in one go and from one place, but it is still ‘Sightseeing’ not actually seeing the sights ( whatever you, as opposed to the guide, might define those sights to be) however you dress it up. One involves taking in the air, the atmosphere, the feeling, the people that make up a place. The other involves checking off ‘must-sees’ from a generic list. Suddenly your mini-break is the same as everyone else’s. The ‘Self guided Tour’ might mean that they are configured in a different order, but ultimately the pieces are all the same. Gradually the publishers who produce these books are dropping the final vestiges of pretence that claim to be opening up a new place for their readers to explore, concentrating instead on sending to print big-hitting top-ten ‘best-of’ books, stripping the guides down to their core checklists. At least its more honest.
What all this amounts to is a transformation of experience itself into a commodity. Where travel was once about a ‘being’ mode of existence, it becomes about ‘having’ acquiring landmarks in a place, rather than experiencing it. One of the side effects of this is that certain cities begin to feel like theme parks to certain eras, playing up to their own guide-book caricatures. As Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega puts it, ‘ like a wax museum with a pulse’. New York as ‘20th Century Land’, a kind of ouroborus cliche that feels like it is only one edict away from having Rhapsody in Blue being piped out of the nearest lamp-post every time you look up to take in a skyscraper. There are no real sights left to see.
Where technology meets with travel, it only serves to catalyse this same process, providing ever more subtle and artful tools for acquisition. If only the tourist wandering round, iPad screen 6 inches from their face, would be the apogee of this- adding an intermediary screen between themselves and the real-world, occasionally tapping on the shutter button to capture a moment as they go. Even the near-commodity point-and-shoot digital camera has much to answer for, lowering the barrier to taking a picture, meaning most see the world perpetually through a viewfinder or screen, visually evidencing their progress through their top ten tick list with angles and shots near-indistinguishable from those in the book to start with. The proliferation of social media means that we do not even have to wait until that friend returns to take us through a slide show of their snaps. Instead we get real-time over sharing of every meal, every landmark, every minutiae of their trip before they have even finished it. And every set-piece shot indistinguishable from the last acquaintance that went to the same place. That same standardised experience is shown when you overhear two ‘intrepid travellers’ who have recently visited the same place. ‘and did you go to X?’ ‘yes we went to X after Y then to the Z that the bar recommended’ ‘ah yes, we went to Z on out last night’. And what both parties thought of it was exactly what the guide thought they ought to.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the international airport terminal, a liminal space cut adrift from time or place, where you are at once everyman and no-one. From check-in to duty free to air-bridge to pressurised cabin, it is a sanitised and efficient process that give no hint of ‘arrival’ or ‘departure’ beyond the lit up signs on the terminal walls, adding to the wholly alienated and alienating experience of modern travel. As we criss-cross the world with increasingly regularity, we continue to shrink it. As states and culture become closer and more porous, the reason to travel, the need to discover becomes less relevant. As destinations become cross-checked and indexed with increasing levels of granularity and every back-street bistro ‘discovered’ by a constant stream of directed patrons, clutching their ‘insider’s guide’, the question remains whether there are even any outsiders left.
But it is not just the increasing efficiency of the physical act of travelling that is reduced the act of discovery to simulacrum. The pervasive technology that connects us, creating an always-on world, that we are told brings us all closer together- highlighting our similarities over our differences diminishes the need to leave home in the first place. Sub-cultures or movements, whether it is Portland Hipsterism or the Darbawia Boys of Saudi Arabia are mainlined into the general consciousness as fast as they can begin to develop. There are no more cultural Galapagos’ left, and soon all the creatures will begin to look the same. Disconnection helps diversity to develop but the danger of this constant connection is the creation of a ‘Grey Mush’ of culture. You can hear it in numerous Top 40 or Hit 100 or any other of the many near-meaningless music rankings around the globe. The same artists crop up across charts, swamping local music trends with magpie-like tracks that steal with pride from any number of genres. When was the last time you heard an RnB track that didn’t include a 90s dance piano riff and a dubstep middle eight? Microsoft are even using dubstep to sell internet browsers. Talk to a current teenager and their music taste will probably encompass anything from Elgar to Gaga, perhaps with some Miles Davis and Frank Zappa in the mix. Even within a given place’s culture, the idea of any sense of tribalism seems dead. Mankind as a species has a long (pre)history of the divisive effect of tribalism, but there is something to be said for the biodiversity it can bring. Looks and sounds used to come from individual cities and were radiated out, from Madchester to Northern Soul, from Tin Pan Alley to Detroit techno, there was a sense of place, or at least of origin that was transmitted with the pop movements they spread. Now the cultural behemoths are transnational, with Lady Gaga as a 21st century Nemo, and her stage show a vast, Nautilus, constantly touring, spreading its agnostic gospel.
Located within this wider movement towards the transnational, the current trend towards craft- the growth of market, micro-brewing, niche designers- feels like an oddly futile gesture in the face of this homogenisation. As companies operate as supra-national missionaries, spreading their brands values and core benefits from place to place, everywhere begins to look the same. The same logos give cities from Lago to Los Angeles an increasingly eerie sense of Deja Vu. Inside the industry they talk about ‘missions’ and ‘reasons to believe’ as if buying and the self-actualisation it is meant to bring is a new religion that could save us all. With one million people a week moving to cities to be bombarded by these companies proselytizing mission-statements, our very aspirations are being standardised. It is the same transnational brands that provide empty ciphers into which we pour our hopes, whether we are a student in Chengdu or a single mother in Quito. It is Apple phones and Nike trainers and Johnnie Walker scotch that will save us, make us look 5 pounds thinner, put a tiger in our tank and a giant in our toilet bowl.
Linguistic trends are only serving to quicken the shallowing. Language serves as the framework from which ideas and culture hang. The peculiarities of grammar and syntax of any given language help to shape its cultural tropes. The lazy cultural stereotyper might want to assign directness in the German character to its penchant for compound words for instance or British circuitousness to the Passive Voice. Sweeping over-simplifications aside, language is an integral part of the cultural narrative of the place where it was evolved and where it is used. It is a living record of an evolutionary trajectory, such as Autumn, reflecting the Renaissance’s influence on 16th century British society in displacing ‘Harvest’ and ‘Fall of the Leaf’ from usage over time. (Incidentally making the continued preference for Fall in American English more English than the English, something no doubt that every (small R) republican and Anglophile will unite in horror over).
The growth of English as a second language because of its dominant role in business, due to the convergence of the growth of America in the 20th century with the legacy of Empire from the 19th century is only part of the 21st century linguistic shifts. UNESCO posits that over half of the 6000 ‘living’ languages in use today will be extinct by the end of the century. When they go, they take with them 3000 cultural histories, 3000 oral traditions, sets of superstitions, beliefs, verbal tics- ways of understanding and interpreting the world. These are instead replaced by a shared lexicon of urban experience, a way of articulating problems and ideas peculiar to the city and at once universal to them all, as that becomes a dominant mode of being, and as cities develop to ape previous templates laid down in the urban environment. It doesn’t help that many newly-urbanising countries are looking to older cities rather than their own history of the communal living experience to set down a path for development, drawing on expertise from the very same ‘Wax Museums’ that are re-imagining themselves as parodies of their own pasts.
At the same time, there is a strong, countervailing movement being brought about by the very same technology that is shrinking the world outside our front doors. While at once bringing the mainstream together into a kind of transnational grey-mush popular cultural consensus, it is also allowing diversity to flourish at its ever-increasing ( and increasingly bizarre) fringes. To experience other cultures we must look to online spaces, where this diversity is being driven. This new transnational eclecticism may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is doubtless something for everyone there and it is undoubtedly made more extreme by the marginalisation it revels in, when faced with an increasingly blander mainstream- a point that is patently obvious after about 30 seconds on 4chan or any online pornography listing site. But what it does do is give life and depth to a sense of other and in doing so celebrates difference in a way that travel no longer can.
But it is not just alternative tribes that are developing online that make this the golden age of staying at home. Greater definition and higher fidelity makes the experience of staying at home more real than most of what you can experience in real life, especially when so much of that is now being viewed through a screen with headphones firmly placed in ears. A friend who was about to head to the mountains of Nepal trekking for two weeks was suffering a sleepless night before departing, worried that he didn’t have the right music selection for this trip on the iPod to walk to. Forget the birdsong or the sounds of nature, if the foothills of the Himalayas needs augmenting, why not do away with the imperfect reality and all that tiresome travel it requires and just immerse in the experience the technology can provide? As trips become tick-lists, and access is limited and planned, surely the Discovery Channel can give you the kind of unparalleled access that going there never could? The Blue Planet in HD, tablet open to wikipedia on your lap is a more immersive and educational experience that a second rate diving holiday or trekking trip could ever hope to provide. How far are we away from the kind of full-wall, holographic viewing technology that mean this will really be the case. And if immersing in this reality isn’t what switches you on, why not immerse in an alternative one? Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games offer an expansive alternative which you can spend days in. For some it has been too seductive a prospect with a number of deaths being reported amongst the most hardcore of these gamers, including a 3 month old child in South Korea who died of malnutrition after being left to fend for herself by its game-addicted parents who were engrossed in an online child-rearing game in an internet cafe for hours each day.
Though, in-extremis, it is shocking, it does show how attractive an option this technology provides. In a world where the experience that we once sought from going abroad is standardised to the point of absurdity, these immersive technologies suddenly offer something more original, something more real than reality. As travel becomes a process to be endured and one city becomes indistinguishable from the next, getting on a plane or train somewhere seems as likely to narrow the mind as it is to broaden it, spending time in identikit terminii with the same jaded nomads. In the next decade and beyond, perhaps it will be the experiences that we have in our front rooms that will challenge and surprise us more than anything we might find up a mountain in Morocco or on a beach in Indonesia if we do not start some kind of cultural conservation. Truly this is the golden age of staying at home.
I recently watched an episode of Man vs. Food on one of those nondescript channels that populate the badlands between the post-lad hangover zone of BBC and the less salubrious members of the C4 family and the outer limits of the tragi-comic late night masturbatory purgatory of the Babestations and Rabbit Chats, where dead-eyed women mentally compiling the shopping list for tomorrow’s ASDA run unrhythmical vibrate their spray-tanned buttocks. For those who don’t know Man vs. Food, it is a programme where Adam Richmond takes on ‘big food’ at a variety of local restaurants across the US.
In each programme he meets local chefs who claim to cook the best ribs, the juiciest burger, the spiciest wings. The central set piece of each episode sees Richmond take on an eating challenge at a restaurant in the faceless middle-American town that that episode finds him in. ‘Can Adam defeat the Lamesa, Texas, 25-pound steak challenge?’ ‘Will Adam conquer the Mason Falls, Iowa King Crab Carnivale?’ ‘Is the Sedalia, Missouri Hog-Roast-for-one a Pig too Far?’. Invariably the answer is always ‘yes’ (or no, in the case of the last announcer VO-ed cliffhanger question), this man can conquer this food. At first, I was disgusted by the whole concept, but then I was hooked. We watch spectators watch this man in a restaurant take on a week’s calories in one sitting, transfixed by the site of enough food to feed a family somewhere else for a week is crammed into the gaping pie-hole of one fat American travelling cook. The visceral nature of the whole spectacle, the sense of theatre, the element of dramatic set piece (Will He?- but of course he will) makes the whole thing oddly beautiful, and you find yourself urging him on with every mouthful, despite the victory over food being a foregone conclusion.
But it began to dawn on me that actually was what made it so beautiful is that in many ways it was a renewal of the American Dream, that it was a new covenant that reconnected contemporary America with its pioneer spirit, with its past, with its founding fathers. The sheer wastefulness of the task celebrated the country as a land of plenty, as the ‘big country’, as this vast set of possibilities. The idea that this man was taking in the food represented those who are brave enough to grab that opportunity to take on that surfeit of goodness, of stuff. The ordinariness of the man who is to conquer this food shows how this is available to us all, how we could all make it in America- there is the space the possibility for anybody to become whatever somebody they want to be as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway says of the embodiment of the same dream gone astray in the mid 2oth century ‘Jay Gatsby…sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.’ Man vs. Food renews the great American possibility of self-creation, re-invention- it represents that blank canvas loaded with opportunity with every oversized steak-knife and giant ersatz-silver salver. In watching this one man over-stuff himself on deep-fried goodness we are seeing a return to everything that once-made America great, a post-MTV rearticulation of ‘The New Colossus’, incribed on the plinth of Liberty, with every bite