One of the more memorable lines I've come across in ads this year was in an Old Navy TV spot I saw a number of months ago:
The line "never give up your dreams of being fake" seems wonderfully perverse and even admirable -- especially in the context of our time, where personal authenticity is often defined by the forced emotions you see on "Reality" TV.
In fact, this spot seems like a parody of a reality show -- America's Next Top Model -- where young women competing to be models are often scolded, by Tyra Banks and her crew of judges, for seeming "phony" in their self-presentation.
And, as I found out on YouTube, it turns out that this particular spot was part of a whole campaign that awarded prizes for "getting in touch with your plastic side". Here's the commercial that kicked it all off:
The Twilight Zone of Identity
I think what makes these images stay in my mind is a memory I have an older story about the relationship between humans and mannequins. There's a Twilight Zone episode I've seen a number of times in rerun over the years (it originally aired circa 1960) that offers a haunting, even poignant, comment on this theme.
In it, Anne Francis (who later starred in the TV series Honey West), portrays a person lost in a department store. It seems she's trying to return a scratched golden thimble, and can't find where in the store to exchange it.
She ends up on a mysterious floor seemingly inhabited only by mannequins. Much to her terror, they come alive and speak. What's even more freaky, though, is that her contact with them leads to a realization about her own identity. Her discovery occurs a little over a minute and a half into this clip:
You can read this episode of Twilight Zone in many ways -- one of which would be a comment on the alienation of humdrum, 9-5 work in retail (or what's now called "the Service Industry"). If one spends one's life working in a department store, the episode implies, one only feels really human on vacation.
But what fascinates me is how in the older Twilight Zone clip, you have mannequins trying to be human -- while in the Old Navy spots of today, you see just the opposite. In one, it's sad to be fake. In the other, it's a bummer to be real. Why the radical shift?
Are We All Part of the Service Industry Now?
One fact cultural critics point to when explaining changes in contemporary social attitudes is the transformation of the types of jobs found in our economy. In the old days, the story goes, the work world was dominated by a large blue collar (manufacturing) sector and a smaller, white collar (professional) one.
Now, as manufacturing recedes, the so-called Service Industry is said to be taking its place. These are jobs where people provide services rather than make things -- and involve a range from retail sales to healthcare to many types of office and professional work. Naturally, such gigs demand that you display at least a passably attractive demeanor to whatever public you serve.
To over-generalize a bit, more of us than ever are expected to sell now -- and not only our services, but ourselves. Cultural critic Jim McGuigan, in a fascinating book titled Cool Capitalism, writes about the identity issues this more commericalized version of the self brings up:
"We all signal our emotions in social situations, by smiling and so on. When this is done at work -- for a wage, to please the customer in the interests of smooth operations and ultimately company profits -- how does it impact emotionally upon the person who is self-manipulating? Do we become the roles we play for pay? Is there an authentic self beneath the surface display ... Is the acting done at work only on the surface or does it run deeper, transmuting our emotional selves into that which we pretend to be?" (p. 171)
The Art of Cool Capitalism
The Old Navy spots have fun with such questions. As they put it: "Who can hold a big plastic smile the longest?" And in suggesting people who like the Old Navy brand are hip enough to manipulate their masks with ease, these spots offer a perfect example of how "Cool Capitalism" expresses itself, and what it looks like. Big bucks may come your way, they kid, if you manage not to flinch.
All of which makes me wonder if the angst about authenticity you see in the Twilight Zone episode might not be a product of the relative abundance of its own era. Perhaps you only worry about becoming a mannequin if your livelihood is secure.
Maybe today finding out you're human is what's scary.