Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Can brand identity create community spirit?
Nothing works like an eye-catching title. Surely “Bowling Alone,” an article by Robert Putnam, a Harvard academic who appeared in the obscure American Prospect in 1995, had a provocative thesis. Noting the decline of bowling leagues, Putnam claimed the solitary bowler was a metaphor for a society that had withdrawn from community organizations and civic life over the past several decades. We were facing a crucial shortage in “social capital,” he warned.
But it was the title, with its high-low dissonance and slightly absurd pathos, that put the article over the top, landing Putnam and his wife, Rosemary, in People magazine.
Now comes the book, a five-year project employing a small army of researchers who seek to prove to academic critics a thesis lay readers considered a no-brainer: American community life is in decline.
Relying on data from Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Lifestyle study, Putnam charts the process of civic disengagement embodied in the plummeting memberships of organizations ranging from the Loyal Order of Moose to the League of Women Voters, Hadassah to the NAACP. In the decades following the war, membership in such groups exploded; since the ’70s, it’s fallen off a cliff.
It seems that as baby boomers approached the age at which their elders joined civic groups, they didn’t. Their idea of organization membership is writing a check to the Environmental Defense Fund. Self-help groups are their legacy to community life. If they see their neighbors, it’s likely to be in court, where one party sues the other over a home addition that may ruin their view. Instead of investing in social capital, they’ve been busy investing in themselves.
Not that they don’t complain about it. The yearning for community is a clichƒ that turns up in innumerable focus groups. Over the past few years, “community” has joined “balance” and “spirituality” in a holy trinity of branding buzzwords as marketers rush to fill the black hole of consumer malaise. In their way, marketers are as concerned about the lack of community life as Putnam, but unlike the professor and his feeble prescriptions for civic re-engagement by the year 2010, they’re doing something about it.
Or they think they are.
How many times have I heard earnest marketers extol brands as creators of community, sources of identity that bring disparate people together in taste tribes? They sometimes sound as if marketing brands were a form of social work.
Sure, we have only the barest acquaintance with the people who live down the street. But we have compensations: That special feeling of kinship we share with our fellow BMW driver who cuts us off on the highway. Or the charge we get when we log on to the Internet, where the c-word has been worn out by overuse, and connect with Weller pottery enthusiasts or eczema suffers like ourselves.
If Bowling Alone has anything to teach marketers, it is how specious much of this “brand community” idea really is. A lot of private choices put together do not add up to social capital. A connection, via chat room or list serve, is not a form of belonging. An objective similarity in taste is not the same thing as a subjective bond. That I may share certain attitudes with those who drive my car model means far more to a market researcher than to me.
One sure way to know “brand communities” are phony is that they’re always so upbeat, so supportive, so reinforcing of the individuals who chose them. Belonging to them doesn’t require any compromise. Real communities aren’t like that. They are sometimes brutal places in which people’s well-being is dependent on those who live in close proximity. Members of a community rely on each other to create jobs and to buy and sell goods. Their sense of self is inseparable from what their neighbors think of them. All that mutual dependence gives communities power to enforce norms of behavior and to punish any member who violates them.
Which, by the way, is why boomers opted out of community-building in the first place. And it may explain why they have become such enthusiastic consumers, finding their identities reflected not in the eyes of their neighbors but in the free-floating signifiers of the marketplace.
Brands are not the foundations of communities. Instead, they have proven a handy way to escape them. Marketers had best leave social work to the social workers.