Selling the dream: “Lifestyle porn” and comfort consumerism in the age of terrorism

Friday night, I sat on my couch and saw Paris descend into chaos. I also swiped through my Instagram feed. As I watched the death toll climb from 30 to 80-something to 129, I also mindlessly scrolled though social media.

“Ooh look at that, they sell Killstar and Social Decay at that boutique in Asbury Park. I’ll have to go tomorrow,” I thought to myself, semi-oblivious to the carnage on my TV. Dozens of people lay dead in the streets of Paris, with hundreds more wounded, and here I am planning a shopping trip for clothes I don’t need.

Isn’t it nice to think about happy things?

The notion of consumerism as an escape from the grisly horrors of war and terrorism isn’t exactly new. In the wake of 9/11, our leaders urged us to be strong, to stand united…and to shop. Then-president George W. Bush urged Americans to get on with their lives. To travel, spend money and keep the economy going. Otherwise, the terrorists would win. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered a similar message at Fashion Week one month after the terrorist attacks: “’Freedom to shop,” he declared, “is one of the fundamental liberties terrorists want to deprive us of.”

Guiliani and Bush presented an interesting point. Performing an act as mundane as shopping automatically creates a sense of normalcy, which is definitely comforting in times of crisis. What’s the alternative? Staying locked indoors, too afraid to leave our houses? America is not a warzone. For the time being, at least.

In the months following 9/11, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown initiated America: Open for Business, a campaign that featured posters depicting an American flag with shopping bag handles. The initiative itself encouraged Bay Area residents to “reinvest” in the economy, and to spend as much money as possible in restaurants, museums, shops and nightclubs. This was one of many similar initiatives launched after 9/11.

The most extensive work detailing the fashion industry’s response to 9/11 is ”The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” by Minh-Ha T. Pham (2011). Pham highlights the sartorial symbolism found in both the economic and emotional recovery of the United States after the terrorist attacks. She specifically mentions that that during this time, to be fashionable was to be patriotic and democratic. The “right” to fashion, whether in the form of haute couture or “cheap chic” from Target, sets the liberal and righteous West apart from the despotic, terroristic Middle East.

Numerous fashion journalists at the time used the burqa, worn by women in countries under Taliban rule, as the oppressive antithesis of liberal fashion. The right to self-expression via style is the exact opposite of being hidden away under a burqa (Pham does point out, however, that this line of thinking ignores the agency of many Muslim women who willingly wear the garmet for religious and cultural reasons).

I’ve only worked in digital marketing for three weeks, and even I can tell you how important it is for companies to “sell the dream.” It’s not about what actual goods or services you’re selling, but the message behind it. This is most notably manifested in the fashion industry. I remember skulking around the mall as a pre-teen and walking by Abercrombie & Fitch (oh the early 2000s). The teenage sales associates were setting up a window display. The glass had a decal plastered on it that read: ABERCROMBIE & FITCH – CASUAL COOL LIFESTYLE. I probably wouldn’t have even paid it any attention had the sales associates not made a comment about it. One of them said, “I couldn’t wear my new Vans to work.” The other one snickered, “that’s not part of the causal cool lifestyle.”

Thinking about these flippant early 2000s retail teens brings up two questions:

1)What the hell on earth even is a “casual cool lifestyle?”

2) Why is this important?

In 2015, it’s easy to write off A&F as an irrelevant and kind of weird artifact from the turn of the 21st century; of course they would come up with a dumb marketing slogan that seemingly doesn’t mean anything. However, there is something to be said for the creation and perpetration of so-called “lifestyle porn” as a means of comfort and distraction from the outside world.

Despite being a popular hashtag, “life porn” isn’t clearly defined on the Internet. It is #foodgram, #fitspo, #travelporn and #armparty all rolled into one. For the uninitiated, think of any workout account on Instagram featuring a fit, healthy girl wearing Nike running shoes, an Underarmour sports bra, and Lululemon leggings. Don’t you want to be fit and healthy like her? Or a smiling couple wearing earth-toned jackets and scarves on a cozily cloudy day in the Pacific Northwest. Looks more appealing than whatever it is you and your S.O are up to. Or an intricately-decorated table spread with an all-organic, Paleo, gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner (link to recipes in bio!). Compare that to binging on Bud Lite and sour gummies because you’re too lazy to cook. That’s #lifeporn.

One article astutely describes this phenomenon as the home of the “minimalist pixie dream girl,” aka the effortlessly chic women living highly stylized lifestyles played out on social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and of course, Pinterest. The insidious thing about the minimalist pixie dream girl is that the photoshoots and brand profiles of her perpetuate a lifestyle that is hardly attainable to the average person. She is only an illusion, a fantasy, a time-out from the chaos of the real world.

People find comfort wrapped in a cocoon of luxury. It makes us feel both secure and empowered, especially in times of turmoil. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and goddess of all fashion itself, articulated this sentiment best in the magazine’s November 2001 issue: “Fashion is essential in these difficult times, paradoxically, to keep us in touch with our dreamy, fanciful, self‐pleasing natures.”

Brands sell more than just products. They essentially sell a fantasy life. And the more “dreamy, fanciful and self-pleasing” it looks, the more people want to buy into it. Such is the nature of so-called life porn, and pretty much all marketing in general. Who wouldn’t want to be the gently smiling model in an advertisement, wrapped securely in a cable-knit sweater coat doing “fall things” in a pumpkin patch, clutching a Starbucks cup for dear life, because in the farthest recesses of our collective subconscious, another bomb could detonate, or plane crash into a building.

I am part of the generation that grew up in the post-9/11 world. Millennials are also the generation that became teenagers during the advent of social media. So much of our life – and our lifestyles – are curated and cultivated online. Above all, we are the products of post-9/11 hysterical consumerism, which then is put on display for all to see via lifestyle porn.

This is the landscape we’re living in right now. Given the terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend, or the massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya last April, or the double-suicide bombing in Beirut earlier this week, the fashion-as-freedom discourse is as relevant now as it ever was.

Advertisements

One thought on “Selling the dream: “Lifestyle porn” and comfort consumerism in the age of terrorism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s