Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How to win friends and influence people

I watched television after some time and saw a series of ads.
I watched a very interesting ad featuring Shahrukh winning the respect of a sceptical professor by taking him for a ride in a car. I am not sure whether the ad was showing that Shahrukh was proving his point on automotive engineering by building this prototype and letting it do the talking – a translation of effort into a tangible result and, hence, recognition – or whether he just bought the car readymade and let it do the talking on his behalf – buying a good and getting recognized through its purchase. I think it was the latter since the car was branded and the finishing looked beyond a prototype worked on a lathe machine in a lab.

The ad is interesting because it captures the essence of the consumerist society we live in. Rather than letting your actions speak for themselves, you buy products to speak for yourself. Hence, ultimately the abstract ideas of success, relevance and meaning are translated into goods which you can buy in the market. What is called the emotive appeal of ads is actually the translation of our abstract desires of achievement – of being a good parent, a responsible citizen, of being recognized, of being considered abreast with peers – to goods that only the marketers can sell to you.

It’s all the more interesting as it features the biggest marketing wizard of modern India – Shahrukh. Over the years Shahrukh’s ability to innovate and always be in the news has been amazing. (A note: I respect the guy for climbing the top of a ladder littered with junkie talent-challenged star kids, tho’ his movies are totally irrelevant for me.) It was Shahrukh in 1999 who definitively linked what you wear with your Yo! Factor in his yellow Tommy Hilfiger jackets in KKHH. Shahrukh used products to endorse his own uber-coolness like none before.
We might bemoan the fallen standards and how the marketers have taken over our culture – which they have – but it’s what it is.

The problem with a strictly consumerist society is that (A) at its full throttle its goods eat away everything – there is no space outside the goods where you can define itself – and that (B) there is an illusion that if anyone works hard enough, they can buy the goods to underline their own essence.

A. No space outside.
The measure of a prosperous man is no longer in the mind he refines but the goods he owns;as an example – I am not trying to underline my greatness here but speaking from my experiences – to repeat an advice I got some time ago: my strictly-functional sub 2000 mobile does not suit someone of my profile. Someone of my profile gets defined by the flats he stays in, the clubs he has membership to, the car he drives and the model of the cell-phone he flashes. Might still not be so relevant to my generation but Generation Mediocre (my on affectionate term for Gen X) – yes.
The other example is a cousin of mine whom I met at a family function a couple of months ago. He moaned how we had done nothing to uphold the good name of our grandfather – a freedom father and a philanthropist. There were no roads named after him, no busts anywhere and no trust – except for the one he’s opened in his names a decade after his death. I know he was earnest and he seriously believed that my grandfather’s social contributions are recognizable only in tangibles like these. Improvement of someone’s social circumstances, even if via an invisible hand, is too abstract and, hence, not real. Period.

People who suspect whether the abstract idea of the self can be reduced to everyday tangibles find less and less space in the consumerist society. The success of a movie or a book – which can be cultural vehicles available to the masses to connect deeper with their spiritual and human self – are measured now only by the money they bring. It’s not surprising that some of the biggest producers of cinema are into diamonds, pan masala and land dealings (how much more un-abstract can it get?). How often have we heard an author pooh-pooh the elitism of the critics; and how often have we seen another of these critics succumb to the hard realities of these numbers – numbers that you can measure, multiply and divide, and publish as facts.
People who still not give in become the pariahs – relegated to the shadows where they stand and question themselves – What’s wrong with me? Why am I not being able to see what everyone is?

B. Not everyone has access to the goods.
Do I need to explain this in a society where the only reason that you are reading this in a laptop in an AC room is the accident of your birth while a man wipes your car down in the basement for a monthly salary of less than your lunch trip at McDonanld’s?
That man will never define metrosexuality as he will always be deficient of the goods that define it – for here is a hierarchy to goods. A Maruti 800 is inferior to a Verna even though you might be driving alone in a chock-a-block traffic.
That man will always be a wannabe – borrowing recognition through cheap imitative goods.
Or that man will one day burn the goods that relegate him perpetually at the bottom of this consumerist hierarchy (the hierarchy was perpetuated earlier in feudal and caste systems that we have officially dismantled, but is an essence of the new hierarchy too – only in a more subtle form).

There is one another characteristic of this culture.
It’s stressful. The idea of the product is linked to the idea of the individual and the more the goods being marketed in the market, the more the ideas of self you can slip into.
Which car should you own? Which cold drink should you drink? Which T-shirt, with a wacky one-liner you can underline your witticism with, should you wear?
You end up keep changing the goods (You do an image-makeover these days when you want to do a mental makeover).
Or, in the future, if too many people find that they share a common stress they cannot understand, they might end up rejecting this culture that sells them their sense of self.

But the hope is very dim.

PS: I would be travelling to Bangalore from Thursday to Sunday.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Help! Help! I am being repressed!

This's got to rank as the funniest script moments