As a side note: I think the phrase "sociological imagination," is one of the least-defined, and most over-used, in the inventory, but I digress...
Sometimes the things that tickle my sociological fancy are relatively subtle- like the interactions between shoppers at the grocery store. Others are a bit more overt- the political machinations surrounding Justice O'Connor's resignation. Few things have struck me more unexpectedly, however, than what I saw in an airport during my most recent trip to Washington, D.C.
I used to work in an airport and have long since grown accustomed to the extent to which they now resemble shopping malls. Gone are the days when all you could find was lousy pizza and a newspaper. Now, while you wait for your plane, you can buy gifts, a massaging chair, bath oils, or consume any of a variety of services. This is all the more striking to me, given that most of the things offered in airports I would never consider buying under normal circumstances, much less while trying to get from point A to point B. Yet, if such stores exist, they must be obtaining customers.
It is, of course, the obtaining of customers that is most critical. As retailers seldom tire of noting, it costs substantially more to acquire a new customer, than to retain an existing one. Consider this the next time you're dealing with a disgruntled customer service representative. In any case, since acquisition of customers is so key, airports are now as littered, if not more littered, with advertisements and billboards than the busiest strip of turnpike. All of this I can deal with- it's the new innovation that freaks me out a bit.
While in Reagan National airport I happened to notice a pair of well-dressed people strolling casually down the concourse. They were remarkable for two reasons: (1) they lacked the harried scent of desperation that often surrounds those who travel by air and, (2) they were carrying no luggage whatsoever. One of them, however, was carrying a sheet of paper. I approached carefully, hoping to gain a look at the paper, assuming that the holder had lost a bet. Instead, I realized that the sheet said "Fashions provided by Brooks Brothers." Indeed, I had encountered a pair of living billboards, whose purpose was to show off a product, in the flesh, and quietly guide those who are interested in obtaining such a look to the appropriate retailer.
Being blessed with very little shame I approached these individuals and asked if I could take their picture, explaining that I was a grad student in sociology. They were quite obliging and allowed me to do so. You'll find their photograph here.
Now, I know there have been some fairly bizarre publicity stunts before- the woman who sold advertising space on her stomaching while pregnant, the man and woman who sold ad space on their chests, and the infamous contest that involved naming your baby "Turok" in order to win $10,000 and drum up publicity for Acclaim's "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter" game. These are all fairly unusual approaches to advertising, but that is their major draw- they are unusual. This move by Brooks Brothers, by contrast, is a natural evolution, and an interesting further step in commercializing identity. I'm not really sure what to make of all this, to be frank, but I think it suggests a penetration of corporate thought into our individual lives that is vastly more profound than even the cyberpunk cynics have alluded to. Our two brave living advertisements are not sending the message "buy these products," but rather, "Buy my identity! Buy my impression! Buy me!" Such a message, and whether it is wise to send it at all, is worth thinking about.
So, in the aftermath of our celebration of the birth of the United States, let's all just ponder a bit what our culture is becoming. Perhaps before long, we will all be saying, "Buy ME!" There is a difference between using products to project your identity, and making products your entire identity.
Or at least... there was.