The Boutique Individual: Brand New World

My mother took a conservative position on toys: Less was better, in part because you should be outside playing anyway. I might have preferred a different approach. But now that I have a two-year-old boy and toys are again on my radar, I see the wisdom of my mother’s old-world view.
It’s partly a matter of self-preservation. Toy marketing has grown devious. Television tie-ins are standard. There are strategic alliances between toys (Duplo and Bob the Builder, for example), which try to create complex multi-toy-group dependencies. But my larger concern is for my son.
We visited a big toy store recently. He wanted a baseball and bat. But to my surprise, his happy chatter faded to silence as we wandered past the Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob gear, the toys pitching Marvel, Pixnar and Nickleodeon content. Then, as his breathing quickened with anxiety, it dawned on me. With the possible exception of the plastic bat and ball we never found, no toy in the store was designed merely as a vehicle for imagination. Instead, every toy was pre-freighted with brand story, all of which were all being yelled at us simultaneously.
Which is right about the point my son asked to go home. I wasn’t having a great time, but the experience was actually making him unhappy.
Happiness or, more precisely, unhappiness in the face of consumer plenty – this is where I find myself after three years of writing about branding in these pages. I suppose it was inevitable from the moment I introduced the Boutique Individual, a personality type whose very sense of self is derived from the brands he consumes.
“Today, what consumers want to buy the most is identity,” wrote Emilie Lasseron in a paper published by the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy last year. Which vindicates my point about the existence of the Boutique Individual phenomenon, but also raises a more important question: When identity is a commercial product, what brand promise is either upheld or broken in the transaction?
The answer is happiness. Lasseron suggests as much when she argues that brands now offer an alternate way to articulate who we are and forestall the “disorientation and uncertainty” that might otherwise arise from the loss of traditional institutions – church, town hall, extended family – in which identity was once constructed. And there is a growing community of political consultants who agree, having built an industry to measure happiness scientifically. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness project was the original, attempting to measure public contentment, peace with the environment and harmony between neighbors. But we now also have the Happy Planet Index of the New Economics Foundation, the World Map of Happiness as developed by the University of Leicester, the happiness rankings of the World Values Survey, and a Canadian Index of Wellbeing coming soon from the Atkinson Foundation.
These macroeconomic indices arise from a conviction that economic data, such as GDP, doesn’t measure our progress toward the ultimate deliverable: personal well-being and happiness. But its also an increasingly popular view, judging from the fact that kids’ entertainer Raffi has written a song on the topic. Counting indiscriminately / That’s what’s wrong with the GDP / Counting only the mo-oney / Makes no sense to me…”
Which is ironic since most people wouldn’t choose to define themselves in purely consumerist terms (“counting only the mo-oney”). Yet our voracious need for identity didn’t vanish when we dismantled those illiberal institutions that once defined us. So it is that great swathes of the secular West are forced into reliance on consumer markets for lack of other cultural means of expression. Consumerism, for many, is the only language that remains.
Which is precisely why corporations speak to Boutique Individuals in “Corporate Stories”, using toy store-like brand narratives to sell the vacation homes and luxury cars of adult play. It’s why consumers express themselves with “Personal Branding”, presenting themselves as if for sale. And it’s ultimately way, when Boutique Individuals talk to themselves, asking if their brand is delivering as promised to themselves, they ask the questions of the happiness industry. Not: Am I living a good life? Or: Have I done the right thing? But: Am I happy? What would make me more happy?
Perhaps this is what evolution intended for us, although that would be discouraging given how the Boutique Individual’s quest for happiness seems to make him so unhappy. Dozens and dozens of recent books are fattening the pockets of the happiness industry. And as Darrin McMahon writes in Happiness: A History, “The very prevalence of these titles is a sign that all is not well.”
I agree, particularly after sampling some popular books and having found them to disseminate advice in only three counterproductive categories: painfully obvious, simplistic to the point of being useless or simplistic to the further point of being dangerous. The Happiness Makeover, Stumbling on Happiness, Authentic Happiness, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill… I’m not criticizing this literature only because it’s badly written and ill-conceived. The point, rather, is that the quest for personal happiness, played out in the marketplace of Boutique Individuality, is wholly self-defeating.
I have two reasons for believing so. The first relates to ends and means. As philosopher Roger Scruton has written, the West has become very good at “means” (ways to do things), while getting much worse at “ends” (reasons for doing things). We’ve stroked old beliefs off the cultural books, in other words, without any balancing double entry. And while we might try to solve this problem by denominating every human activity in the currency of happiness – I’m doing this to find my happiness. I need this to be happy – we would do so only at a terrible cost. Because if every activity were a means to that same end – every conversation, dog walk or job well done valued only in terms of the personal happiness derived – then no activity would have intrinsic value. Certainly no action would be justifiable on the basis of social custom or personal sacrifice alone. And while nihilists will be content with this situation, those interested in meaning and community will be less so. “Measuring the things that matter,” promises the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. “Economics as if people and the planet mattered,” echoes the Happy Planet Index. What matters. What has meaning. This articulation is important, sketching an emptiness that the indices then struggle to make concrete.
And it’s that same emptiness that underlines my second reason for questioning whether Boutique Individuality, obtained on the open market, can ever deliver on its brand promise of happiness. Because at the heart of every commercial market, you find the steady pulse of demand. It is satisfied through purchase, yes. But then it is renewed. Indeed, people generally attain more only to develop a taste for still more. That insatiability is the escalator on which human progress has ascended to this point. But it’s one thing to be dissatisfied with your apartment, knowing that if you had a larger one, you’d set your sights still higher. It’s quite another thing to be aware of your Self as a source of the same endless dissatisfaction, something that must be traded up, and up again. The fading of those old institutions that bequeathed identity is an emancipation, certainly. But just as certainly, many now find themselves unhappily in new chains.
A familiar refrain to those who remember their high-school Huxley, in whose Brave New World, endless pleasure came only at the expense of happiness, just as suffering was banished only by banishing joy. Less familiar might be Huxley’s prescient words from the forward to the 1946 edition of the book: “The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored inquiries into what the politicians and participating scientists will call ‘the problem of happiness’ – in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude.”
In forecasting global totalitarianism, Huxley was wrong about the type of servitude. But it takes only a modest adjustment of his anti-utopian vision to see our Boutique Individuals as enslaved in the world they have made, this Brand™ New World.
After the toy store, the beach. This is how, in our Vancouver-based family, an agitated kid is reset on even keel. No toys but shells, sticks, rocks. And we fill these with our imagination, telling our stories, creating meaning by doing no more than finding starfish and crabs, throwing driftwood for the dog.
My mother, whose views on toys and life have been so important to me, passed away on March 31, 2006. Community for me, of course, was irrevocably changed. But on the beach, two continuing connections flash to mind as my dog pounds into the surf. As a leather-brown old-timer makes his way through the barking dogs and yelling kids and smiling adults to slip into the waves, to breaststroke smoothly out into the bay.
In the first connection, I sense the land tipping off and sliding under the water, and just as life is a thing passed between generations, the beach suggests how everything visible continues on seamlessly into everything that is invisible. In the second connection, as my old guy disappears into the high waves, I consider all of us remaining on this beach. We may have stripped our culture of its old machinery for the creation of identity. We may have left ourselves with a culture of hollow brand promise, endless satisfaction of appetites that remain un-sated, endless pleasure to those who remain, at core, unhappy.
But we’ve done nothing to alter our urgent need for one another, lined up as we are along these two axes. Those of us on this beach, in the now. And those arranged beyond us, having gone before us or waiting to come after. And to understand ourselves – our Selves – at the intersection of those two lines is to break the imprisoning grip of Boutique Individuality. Perhaps even to regain a way of living that carries, if not the promise, the possibility of community, of meaning, and – if we look away, if we leave it in our peripheral vision – of happiness itself.
Posted: Monday, Dec. 11, 2006 10:00pm