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Listmania!: Target Marketing, the Internet, and the Consumer's 'Me'

Both the best and worst thing about shopping online is the sense of being singled out.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #62, December 2002

Both the best and worst thing about shopping online is the sense of being singled out. Every time you use your Safeway Club Card, you make yourself a better target. They have your phone number, after all. Yet the danger isn't palpable. You may realize what's happening on an intellectual level. But you don't feel it the same way you do when your computer monitor confronts you with a catalogue of things that "You may also like. . ." Fond of inflatable sheep? Consider a cuddly vinyl stegosaurus. Like listening to Michael Bolton in hand-dyed hemp? Try it wearing distressed lycra. There's something about seeing the pattern of one's desire in 12-point Verdana that inspires trepidation.

If you're like me, you spend a good deal of your time on the internet looking for mistakes in your consumer profile. Epitonic informs me that my favorite and now sadly deceased rock band Pavement is similar to Beck and suggests I seek out Modest Mouse, The Breeders, and Yuji Oniki. Beck? I mean, I like him and all, but he's a far cry from Pavement. And those other acts? I can't see much of a connection between them. Except, of course, that they all grace the densely packed shelves of my Fenton McClaren "loss leader" storage units. Alright, so maybe my indignation is a little exaggerated. Nobody wants to be pinned down by an equation: Topographic maps + (Pac-10 college basketball - the Greek system) * ((Matador Records - men's fashion) + (Postmodernism - novels that are longer than they need to be)) all squared by the foggy flora of Northern California. Does that really add up to me?

* * *

This is the question that keeps me shopping. While I may be too poor to buy items merely for the sake of transforming my consumer identity, the fact that I've considered doing so speaks eloquently of my search for an answer. The problem, of course, is that there really isn't one. No matter how much we like to believe that a purchase will solidify our identity this record, that coat, the car my idol drives — our sense of self has all the permanence of a sandcastle.

With each passing decade, our connection to tradition is further eroded. And with that erosion, the foundations of identity disappear. Even as people around the globe frantically pursue the feeling of tradition, they confirm their estrangement from it. To provide true security, tradition can't be something you seek. It has to be there all the time, beyond questioning, as permanent as the sun.

This poses a major problem for makers of consumer goods. Every desire needs discipline. When the remnants of tradition were a stronger presence in people's lives, it was easier to direct their spending. Their hope for the future was still rooted in the past. The right combination of signals could usually make them get out their wallets. But now our nostalgia is less predictable.

Many of us, particularly those of us under 40, can't even remember what it was like to feel the loss of tradition. Whereas our grandparents and parents still experienced the periodic nerve-firings that confuse the amputee, we can't even imagine what it would be like for tradition to be part of our body politic. We're more like the mammal that lost its tail millions of years ago. You can show us an X-Ray and point out vestiges of the lost organ, but we still won't be able to mourn its absence authentically.

* * *

The challenge facing companies that market to the tradition-challenged is finding a way to shape our desire enough to get us to the check-out stand. In actual stores, from Target to Macy's, this requirement has led to a seemingly limitless proliferation of end-of-the-aisle displays that remind us of a particular product's existence. You can no longer count on consumers going down each aisle, methodically filling a shopping list. But you can at least hope that the sight of a familiar item, isolated from the confusion of the shelves, will inspire some shoppers to put it in their basket. And that's the bulk of the battle, because it's unlikely that they will take it out before they pay. Some people do, of course, leaving misshelved products throughout the store, because they couldn't remember where they picked up most of those impulse items if they wanted to.

The demand to make products stand out from the crowd is hardly new of course. It explains the increasing emphasis on packaging in the past 150 years and the advent of the "special". The difference is simply one of degree. The dark genius of a store like Wal-Mart is that it makes products that are neither new nor discounted into impulse items merely by presenting them a certain way. The other day I saw a 7-foot tall stack of Tide laundry detergent in the middle of the store, with a simple "Everyday Low Price" sign. Despite my dedicated reading of Adbusters, I still paused for a minute. Did I need detergent? Was Tide cheaper than All? Should I make another trip to Sam's Club?

If stores can do that with products nobody wants to purchase, imagine what they can do with the ones you actually like. I guarantee that a 7-foot tall stack of Pepperidge Farm cookies would compel me to throw a few bags in my shopping cart. But there's also a good chance that I wouldn't remember to buy them without such overt provocation. In a sense, though, it's that provocation that I seek when I go shopping. I know that my memory will be stimulated.

It would be a lot harder to get people to the store if the trip only promised stocking up on staples. It's our dreams that propel us down the aisles, remembering what we truly require — detergent, paper towels, flour — in pursuit of the superfluous — decorations, candy, DVDs. Without this ideological coupling, our consumer behavior might spin wildly out of control.

* * *

This delicate balance breaks down on the internet. Even those of us who spend a good portion of each day online are unlikely to shop for toiletries or paper products in cyberspace. Then again, a few years ago there were dozens of start-ups intent on getting people to do just that. What the venture capitalists who provided them with financial backing failed to appreciate is that people only like to shop for what they like. Had more of those internet grocers and pharmacists found a way to integrate impulse items into their offerings, they might have lasted into the Enron era., the first and biggest of the internet retailers has never descended to hawking paper towels. But the company's product line is still remarkably diverse. If there's an equivalent to the big-box stores on the internet, it's Amazon. And, while you can't really call Jeff Bezos's brainchild an unqualified success story — it's hard to wash that much red from your hands — Amazon's sheer staying-power testifies to the fact that it's doing some things right. Most prominently, it has devised the best strategy for getting consumers who are looking for one thing to purchase another.

To be sure, few of the products Amazon sells ever qualify as true necessities. Maybe you just have to get a book on viticulture to keep your grapes from going bad. Or perhaps you really must order that DVD so that you can show a close-captioned version of a film for the hearing-impaired student in your class. Aside from special cases of this sort, however, Amazon's product line is targeted at desire rather than need. Yet, within a context where people are only shopping for what they desire, need gets redefined.

Like most other internet retailers, allows you to collect items in a virtual shopping cart. It's easier to put things into this cart and to take them out than would be the case in physical space. For this reason, the shopping experience is less linear than at Wal-Mart, Target, or Costco. Instead of gradually filling up, your shopping cart is in a constant state of flux. The same book or DVD may go in and out of the cart several times before you proceed to the check-out. The trick for internet retailers is to get you to believe that some of the products in your cart truly are must-haves. In order to pull this off, however, a company like Amazon must help you distinguish between purchases you can defer and purchases you have to make right now. To give this a more theoretical spin, the distinction between need and desire must be reinscribed within the field of desire.

Naturally, this challenge also faces traditional stores that sell the same type of products as Amazon. Record stores, electronic stores, bookstores all have to find ways of getting you to buy things in the absence of clear necessity. This is where internet retailing has a clear advantage. Instead of trusting that your love of stimulation will lead you around the store finding things you can't live without, online emporia can bring items — or at least their descriptions — to you. Like the salesperson at your favorite classy boutique, the databases at Amazon know both what you've purchased in the past and what you've considered purchasing without closing the deal. Product displays in physical space are a compromise, trying to appeal to as many consumers as possible. But the product displays on your computer screen are focused squarely on you.

I suppose you could make the claim that shopping online is more "democratic" because it brings the personalized attention of the classy boutique to the masses. So long as you have enough bandwidth or patience, you can feel like a star browsing in Beverly Hills or Manhattan. This is the flip-side of my initial point about targeted marketing. Your sense of self may have the permanence of a sandcastle, but it keeps getting reconstructed by that seductive voice that calls to you and nobody else but you: "Be true to yourself. Buy!" Consumer identity is a moebius strip. Inside blurs seamlessly into outside and vice versa. Our true selves are out there in the marketplace, ready to wear, see, listen, and eat.

* * *

If you heed Karl Marx's theory of alienated labor, you might conclude that we shop in order to regain the part of ourselves lopped off by capitalism. According to this line of thinking, desire is predicated, not on something we have always lacked, but something that has been improperly taken from us. Our labor flows into the commodities we produce, like fruit juice into one of those plastic popsicle holders. But someone else ends up with the privilege of slurping up the sweetness.

The problem with this analysis is that you don't need to be a wage slave to engage in panic buying. There are plenty of people in Boca Raton whose most strenuous task is picking up the phone to call their broker, yet they still shop with all the zeal of middle-class consumers. The truth, I imagine, is that life under capitalism teaches all of us that our only recourse is to purchase what we lack: integrity, pleasure, love. Maybe it's not only labor that can be alienated, but alienation itself: the rich soak up our surplus lack. It makes a strange kind of sense.

One thing we do know from reading the National Enquirer and The Star while waiting in line at Safeway is that stars are every bit as envious of their neighbors' possessions as the suburban father who lusts after his buddy's new gas grill. Even if you can buy what you please, you can't always get what you want. It's "human nature." For everything else there's MasterCard.

Maybe capitalism simply provides us with a convenient cover story that helps explain the lack we inevitably feel. We see other people deriving profit from our labor — even stars and CEOs have this experience — and project a sense of wholeness back into the past, imagining a time before want. The picture of a well-fed infant at its mother's breast is as good as any. It's hard to conceive of a situation more ironic than that of the person who consumes and consumes in order to return to a time before becoming a consumer. But the proof of this formulation is all around us. I wonder, though, whether it does any good to be depressed about the condition it describes.

The allure of commodities is supposed to derive from the labor congealed within them. You try to buy back the part of you that was sent off down the assembly line. In all likelihood, however, the product you purchase won't be the product of your own labor. You end up with someone else's alienated labor and they end up with yours. And that substitution reveals the instability of identity under capitalism. If my house is filled with more "you" than "me", the distinction between self and other starts to dissolve. That's what Marx leads us to believe, anyway.

Without discounting this theory, I want to propose that we should complement it with one that focuses on consumption instead of production. The switch — I buy you, you buy me — that is the foundation for Marx's conception of alienated labor is mirrored in the contemporary shopping experience. You can't try to buy back that lost part of yourself unless you know who you are. But we only seem capable of learning who we are through shopping. This is where the Moebius strip of consumer identity manifests itself most powerfully. Perhaps we are as alienated from consumption as we are from production.

* * *

The most effective target marketing is the kind that doesn't feel like marketing at all. Of all the techniques that has for making you toss products into your virtual shopping cart, the most powerful is also the most simple and cost-effective: the "best of" list and its relatives. As you make your way through the Amazon site, you see a "Listmania!" sidebar to the right with links to the lists of consumers just like yourself.

I search for books by social theorist Judith Butler and am confronted with the following lists: 1) Some Key Texts of Postmodernism: A list by Nate, College student; 2) Gender Reading: A list by hannah1350n Student; 3) "If you're an arrogant theorist: A list by smartgirlglasses, Student; and several others. None of these lists explicitly follow the Top Ten format, though it's clear that the items on them represent some of the listmaker's favorites. When I search instead for records by my favorite band Pavement, the subjective dimension to "Listmania!" becomes more apparent. Although the first lists I encounter consist largely of Pavement discs, clicking on one of them presents me with a new, less specific set of lists in the sidebar: 1) know how I went from Metallica to the Shins: A guide by Andy Cusack, student, geek; 2) Be not held back by genres: A guide by Bobmarleyistheman, Music Fanatic; 3) DESTROY THE GENRE: A guide by kitschgirl33, the everyday cliche behind your façade; and several more.

When I take the time to peruse DESTROY THE GENRE, a list that includes Bright Eyes, The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and Buckethead, I get to see a third set of lists in the sidebar. Some are repeats from the previous set. But there are also new ones like the intriguingly named Music is almost as important to the proletariat as alcohol: A list by racemachine, A blue collar worker. Despite its title, this list steers clear of political commentary. But you can't help but wonder how we are supposed to interpret the list's title in light of the items it includes:

1. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Godspeed You Black Emperor

racemachine's comments: My appreciation for Godspeed cannot be expressed in words, nor can a lot of so called "post-rock." Has one of my favorite songs by them, "Storm." Also buy Slow Riot.

2. Is This It, The Strokes

racemachine's comments: They've been given to much credit, especially with Clinic and the White Stripes lingering around, but that doesn't mean they're not good.

3. Geogaddi, Boards of Canada

racemachine's comments: The newest by the best electronic band out there. It has way more melody than most electronic music, and is soothing while still being cerebral. Buy all BoC.

4. Survival Sickness, The International Noise Conspiracy

racemachine's comments: The best political band, they advocate Marxism from what I remember.

5. Internal Wrangler, Clinic

racemachine's comments: Simplistic, in a minimalistic brilliant sense. Totally different textures, and blends using classic pop arrangements. Buy this, and Walking With Thee.

6. The Raincoats, The Raincoats

racemachine's comments: More violins in some early post-rock. Strange stuff that makes me smile. The weirdest thing besides style of arrangements, is probably the tonal sounds of the recording, especially the drums.

7. Anahata, June of 44

racemachine's comments: More accessible than Slint, or Joan of Arc.

8. Rock Action, Mogwai

racemachine's comments: From noisey cement mixers to the awesome sights of exploding stars in distant space.


racemachine's comments: Punk that actually has some musicality to it, and good ideas.

10. Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise

racemachine's comments: I really like how the songs of Tortoise vary from very organic to very electronic. A nice blend.

11. & Yet & Yet, Do Make Say Think

racemachine's comments: Whereas Godspeed seems to mix classical music into their rock, or more likely the other way around, these guys mix in subtle jazz instrumentals. Two drummers!

12. From Here You'll Watch the Wor, Legendary Pink Dots

racemachine's comments: Very interesting band, with some influences of folk, and some horns. His lyrics are more like poetic ramblings.

13. Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, Blonde Redhead

racemachine's comments: Sweet sounding, with some nice escapes from normal structures/textures.

14. Blood Money, Tom Waits

racemachine's comments: I'm just getting into him actually. It's funny, as soon as I heard it I knew who it was, and I always had a feeling that the sounds I was looking for in music would be provided by Tom Waits.

15. Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse

racemachine's comments: Their best, and most people agree. Some of the best lyrics out there, coupled with some of the more accessible creative music behind it. Also buy Moon & Anatarctica, and This is a Long Drive....

16. Pacer, The Amps

racemachine's comments: Kim Deal, most people listen to the Breeders, but I think this is rawer, and sits right next to the Breeders album Pod.

17. Doolittle, The Pixies

racemachine's comments: Mmm, who needs Nirvana when you have the Pixies. My favorite album, but all of them are very good, especially Surfer Rosa.

18. Red Medicine, Fugazi

racemachine's comments: My favorite. Fugazi are probably the most interesting of the decently heavy but not that heavy bands out there. Why would you listen to Tool when there's Fugazi?

19. Complete Discography, Minor Threat

racemachine's comments: Probably the heaviest band I listen to, along with Black Flag, and the occasional Ministry.

20. OK Computer, Radiohead

racemachine's comments: This is tied with Amnesiac for me. Radiohead has really, really good songwriting, especially the lyrics. The music is pretty inventive for a well known band.

21. White Blood Cells, White Stripes

racemachine's comments: You can't get any more minimalistic than this: only two members! A singer/guitarist, and a drummer. All White Stripes is good White Stripes.

22. If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian

racemachine's comments: High Fidelity mentioned it as 'sad bastard music.'

23. Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth

racemachine's comments: Sonic Youth is definately classic, and have my favorite style of guitar-work.

24. Brighten The Corners, Pavement

racemachine's comments: So many bands are influenced by them. Why listen to Weezer when you have Pavement?

25. Horse Stories, Dirty Three

racemachine's comments: We need a new genre, post-folk rock. A violin, guitar, and drums; that's it.

My first impulse is say that this is a really impressive list. But what I really mean is that the list impresses me. By combining some of my favorite records with ones I'm unfamiliar with, it invites me to expand my collection. I've heard about Dirty Three for years, yet have somehow managed to avoid their records. Reviews haven't been enough to push me towards purchasing one of them. This list, however, may well do the trick. I feel that I can trust the listmaker's judgment because she or he — probably he — has put enough of me into it to make the not-me inviting. Who knows? In a year, all the records on this list might add up to me.

That's precisely the sort of thinking that Amazon wants to inspire. The traces of personality within the list — the misspelling of "definitely", the showy metaphor of "the awesome sights of exploding stars in distant space" used to describe the Mogwai record — differentiate it from corporate marketing. In theory, it's possible for a marketing department to manufacture lists like this one. But financial and time constraints preclude manufacturing the number that "Listmania!" features. The marketing department would require hundreds and hundreds of employees, working on nothing but lists.

Then again, you could argue that the consumers who submit their lists to Amazon have become part of its marketing department, without receiving any payment for their services. The reason the company features "Listmania!" so prominently is because it helps sell goods. While consumers' lists might also bring people together — you can write listmakers and, if they are willing, become their regular conversation partners — they are not provided as a public service. Any solidarity they bring about is incidental.

And yet, I can't help but find racemachine's list heartening. There's no way of determining the degree of irony in its description. Does the list's creator really believe that "music is almost as important to the proletariat as alcohol?" Is racemachine really "a blue collar worker?" Despite all the efforts to make the internet more friendly to law enforcement, it remains something of a masked ball. Maybe the FBI knows who racemachine really is, but I, as an online shopper, do not. What matters most here, though, is not the potential for duplicity in "Listmania!", but the fact that this list's creator saw fit to reference left-wing politics.

As problematic as it is, the idea that consumer preferences might add up to a collective identity — racemachine's "proletariat" — instead of an individual one demonstrates that the dream of a different society is still alive. Indeed, the very existence of "Listmania!" itself is a testament to that dream. We'd love to discover that other people have been singled out along with us, that our individuality does not stand alone. In the end, the culture industry still rebuilds our castles made of sand. But we want to see the handprints of our fellow consumers in the finished product.

Charlie Bertsch is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a founding member of the Bad Subjects editorial board. Right now he's figuring out how he can finally get a DVD player so that he watch the new Pavement collection in the privacy of his living room.

Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.