The Consumer Republic: Reconcilable Differences

In the enchanted world of commodities, all contradictions are, in the words of Ian Schrager, merely “ostensible.”
On the day Ford Motor Co. announced its purchase of Volvo A.B.’s car division, I happened to spy one of the products that makes this deal such a coup. It was the C70, a sports coupe that has found a niche as a muscle car for women.
Here’s a hunk of Swedish steel that combines testosterone thrills and womblike security.
On one hand, it is a Volvo, which in brandspeak translates into “safe.” At the same time, it’s
engineered to go very fast. The C70 is a paradox–a safe car designed to be driven at potentially
dangerous speeds–and that paradox is the heart of its appeal. When Mom pulls up at soccer practice in one of these babies, she communicates not one but two images about herself: responsible caregiver and hot mama–both at the same time.
The C70 is a pointed example, but hardly the only one, of a paradoxical product that answers the millennial consumer’s desire to have it all. Those leather-lined tanks called SUVs captured the American car buyer’s head and heart by being practical and extravagant. Fashion designer Michael Kor’s mink sweatshirt of a few years back yoked the extraordinary with the everyday. When asked by New York Times Magazine to name his favorite object, hotelier and tastemeister Ian Schrager picked the Pilot Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen, because “it gets past the tension, the ostensible contradiction, between something disposable and something as grand from yesteryear as a fountain pen.”
Little wonder that in the ’90s, Calvin Klein, that walking divining rod of consumer moods, launched a fragrance line called Contradiction. Today’s consumers want the complexities of choice and the simple life; to be wired into technology and to exist in harmony with nature; to be materialists and to possess spirituality. Come up with a product or image that reconciles the seemingly unreconcilable and you’re golden.
Paradox is not limited to the world of things, but is commonplace in human relations as well. The difference is that in the latter case, paradox can be toxic. Scratch a dysfunctional family and you’ll find loved ones awash in each other’s paradoxical demands, says professor of psychiatry and behavorial science Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson in their classic 1967 study, The Pragmatics of Human Communication. “I want you to dominate me,” says the wife to the passive husband. Yet if the husband responds to this demand, he demonstrates his passivity, not his dominance. “Don’t be so obedient,” a parent tells a clinging child. But the kid can only stop being obedient by obeying. These poor slobs–and who hasn’t been on the giving or receiving end of such messages?–are caught in an unlivable double bind. No one can be simultaneously passive and dominant, obedient and independent. Such demands drive people nuts.
Yet when it comes to marketing communications, the opposite holds true. In the enchanted world of commodities, all contradictions are, as Schrager says, merely “ostensible.” Indeed, without recourse to paradox, much of late-20th-century advertising would be rendered mute.
Consider the strategy employed by most ad campaigns since 1972: Buy this product and become an individual. This horse has been flogged to sell all kinds of mass-marketed, mass-distributed consumables–shoes, cars, beer, computers, you name it–with no end in sight. But it’s a dictate impossible to fulfill: One cannot be an individual en masse.
In the early ’90s, the salad days of Gen X marketing, there was a rash of anti-ads that attempted to lure consumers by telling them, “You’re too smart to be taken in by ads.” Such ads are like the hypothetical man in Watzlawick’s book who says, “I am lying.”
Follow that statement to its logical conclusion, the authors say, and you’ll find “that it is true only if it is not true.” In a similar way, such an ad works if it’s not true (consumers buy the product, proving they’re not too smart) and doesn’t work if it is true (consumers are too smart and don’t purchase the damn thing).
Feel a headache coming on?
Paradox can do that to you. It’s far more straightforward for the advertiser to say: “Believe in me because I am lying.” Because, perverse as it may be, that is precisely the paradox contemporary consumers endure every day. How else to explain a nation of iconoclasts who worship icons? Or that today’s “cynical” consumers are more vulnerable to marketing’s blandishments than their trusting forebearers? Just note the phenomenon of brand mania.
In our relations with other people, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. But in our relations with things, we insist on it. In the magic sphere of consumables, we are lifted out of the world of “either/or” and into the paradise of “both/and.” Everyone knows that consumers want choice. But perhaps the choice they want most is not to have to choose at all. That’s paradox for you.