The Consumer Republic

Power To The People
The fierce battle for consumer attention is not, for better or worse, the big story. For most journalists, it is the only story.
There’s nothing marketers love more than a holiday, a special occasion on which to hang a beer promotion, premiere a movie or send a dozen long-stemmed roses. So I’d like to propose a new one: April 23. On that day in 1985, the Coca-Cola Co. introduced New Coke to the world.
But it’s not the spectacular marketing fiasco that we’d celebrate. We would honor the response of consumers, who spontaneously rose up to take control of their fates and dumped New Coke overboard like so many barrels of English tea.
The Cola Rebellion was an indelible demonstration of who was the boss in the empire of signs. The French Revolution has Bastille Day and the American Revolution has July 4. For the revolution that created the Consumer Republic, April 23 is the symbolic date that marks the birth of a new nation: of, by and for the consumer.
In the 12 years since, the impact of this uncommemorated event is felt everywhere. The Consumer Republic is not only cleaner and better lit than the old American republic it replaced, its revolution has transformed every institution-from political to educational to artistic. In every sphere, the only values that count are relevance and customer satisfaction. The focus group has the last word.
Take note: The Consumer Republic isn’t just an American phenomenon; it’s a global state of mind. Pity the poor queen of England, who, in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, didn’t realize that she reigned in the Consumer Republic. She didn’t grasp that she was only as powerful as her ability to reflect ideas and sentiments, much like any ad campaign, that capture the feelings experienced by her subjects.
What’s to thank for consumers’ vast and growing power? Technology. It’s technology that delivered alternatives in the media and on the grocery shelves, thereby arming freedom of choice with real muscle. Due to these choices, the most valuable limited resource in the Consumer Republic is nothing as tangible as oil or uranium. It’s the attention of consumers.
While the bandwidth of our culture keeps expanding, the bandwidth of the human mind stays more or less the same. Consumers owe their authority to the fact that the demand for a share of their minds far exceeds the supply. Today, maintaining an ironic attitude is practically a civic responsibility. Yet, the one word that retains total sincerity is “you.”
The fierce battle for consumer attention is not just the big story. It is, for better or for worse, the only story. These days, for instance, audiences follow the drama of weekend grosses of new movies with the avidness they once devoted to reading reviews. And who can blame them?
The marketing of movies is often more ingenious and entertaining than the movies themselves. Clearly, marketing is the religion on which the Consumer Republic is founded.
Of course, the Consumer Republic has been a boon for advertising. Under its regime, advertising is no longer a slave to selling. Since marketing puts consumers first, ads are free to give them pleasure, diversion, entertainment- the product shot be damned. In the Consumer Republic, it is finally clear that advertising does not make culture merely a sideline to its real job of moving product. Making culture is advertising’s real job.
But it’s not just advertising that makes culture.
The Consumer Republic owes its aura of phantasmagoric abundance to the fact that there’s no object or form of communication so mundane that can’t have a cultural dimension. I’m not just talking about the ever-proliferating media, which grinds the stuff out 24 hours a day. Every object, every service, every public space-a store, a shoe, a restaurant-is the occasion for the creation of some meaning, some experience, some pleasure that will coax these magic words from the consumer: “It’s me.”
For a cultural critic, the Consumer Republic, with its endless supply of events and products, its constant trends and instant obsolescences, represents a cultural bonanza to analyze and dissect. Yet in other ways, it’s not such a hospitable environment for pundits.
To be honest, criticism is obsolete in the Consumer Republic. What good is it for a critic to determine good or bad versus the only judgment that counts-the consumer’s? As culture hardens into a mirrorlike surface, it distills and reflects the dreams of its audience. In short, there’s less for a critic to do. Excellence, a subjective criterion at best, is a secondary concern. In the Consumer Republic, what the consumer wants, the consumer gets.
So how do you hold up the author to scrutiny when everyone knows it’s the reader who creates the text? The sad fact is that while there’s plenty of attitude in the Consumer Republic of the 1990s, there’s a paucity of different points of view. And in a world of infinite variety, that may be the greatest irony of all.