I recently walked past a bus shelter displaying an advert for new flavours of Diet Coke — Feisty Cherry and Exotic Mango — bearing the exhortation “because you’re an early adopter.”
This tickled my inner Marxist. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men of late, but I couldn’t help thinking what brilliant advertising this was. Setting aside the fact that Cherry Coke was introduced in 1985 – and what exactly it is that makes this variant “feisty” – who cares what the product is? YOU should purchase it, because YOU are a trend-setter! YOUR patterns of consumption are so much more on point than others, who admire YOU so much they’ll want to emulate YOU. We, YOUR friends at Coca Cola, want YOU to be a key element in the dissemination of this product. Because YOU are special. Because YOU have a valuable ability to recognize what will be popular before it’s popular. Because YOU are an early adopter.
After all, what could be worse than being a sheep following the rest of the herd? You want to be the sheep who is out in front. Not just ANY sheep. But the LEADER of the sheep!
But still a sheep, right?
What we have here is an excellent example of what Karl Marx deemed “commodity fetishism” in Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867), whereby the market exchange of commodities, and the value placed upon them as objects by apparently autonomous rational actors, obscures the underlying economic character of the relationship of production between the worker and those with economic power – the capitalist. In Marx’s words:
the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (1867, 165)
Setting aside the gendered language and the invocation of the problematic concept ‘religion’ for now, I generally take great pleasure in rattling off versions of this critique, railing against the (type of) capitalism instantiated in this advertisement. “I don’t follow trends,” I say. “I don’t buy things just because they are fads.” I wait until the price comes down, until there are a few years of feedback, until the technology has become so ubiquitous that the premium for the “new” is removed. “I don’t have time to watch the latest things on television” … presumably because my time is just so precious and important?) Hey, that’s why I’ve only just started watching Mad Men (2007–2015) in the past 6 months. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad until 3 years after the final series had been broadcast… what a hero I am!
All of this is exemplary of my participation in a particular discourse. A discourse in which I am supposedly “better” than “everyone else” … the “unthinking masses” who seemingly follow the directives of corporations. Who apparently feel compelled to enjoy the same entertainment as their contemporaries at the same time… because #FOMO. Who simply must own the latest piece of technology, dress in the most fashionable of styles, know all the latest gossip, and be known to be listening to the latest music as if their lives depended on it. In short, I am the stereotypical, holier-than-thou academic. So aloof… so worthy… because I know best, right? And because I never engage in similar behaviour…
Of course not. This is a particular discourse which allows me to feel comfortable as I move about the world. It has been built up over years of feeling unable to keep abreast of every issue, feeling behind the curve, and never being one of the cool kids. And this has then been compounded over the past decade by my identification as part of the imagined community of “academics”. There are alternative discourses. I could be deemed “unfashionable”, “out of touch”, “irrelevant”, “uncool”, “sad”, and “dull”. And my imagined community of opponents, the “early adopters”, might well see themselves as “ahead of the trend”, “fashionable”, “up-to-date”, “relevant”, “cool”, “hip”, “chic”, “fun”, “vibrant”, “in touch”, and so on.
My point? There is nothing inherently “true” in either of these dichotomous discourses. Ultimately, why is Shakespeare any more “proper” than Love Island? Why is fashion a “lesser” form of art than “high art”? Why is my consumption of academic texts, Star Trek, Stella Artois and 0% fat natural yoghurt any more or less problematic/edificatory than someone else’s consumption of caviar, Oprah Winfrey, Vogue or McDonald’s? It’s all a question of power and boundary maintenance, and the construction of that imagined community… whatever we choose to call it.
In any case, no matter what I think, I am an “early adopter”. Because I have always drunk Diet Coke, for as long as I can remember. I can’t abide “normal” Coca Cola. And Pepsi just isn’t the same (because there are only the two options, right?). So, all that work was done years ago, before I can even remember. I was part of a Diet-Coke-drinking habitus. And, thus, we return to questions of agency once more…
After all that, I quite like Cherry (Diet) Coke. I could do with some “Feisty Cherry”. And perhaps, after reading this post, you could too…
All we like sheep have gone astray…