“Free to Be…Consumers”

Posted on October 4, 2011 by

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“Today, the utmost radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face.” – Slavoj Žižek*

 

 

Now that the kids of America are officially back to school, it brings to mind the above commercial, which aired during last year’s back-to-school retail circus. The commercial, which is for Target, depicts three sisters, each identical, each at the same school, each in the same class, but with entirely different tastes. One is a preppy academic sort clothed in blue, the second is a sporty type in yellow, and the third is vaguely-defined knockoff-Ugg-wearing hipster in pink. Each expresses their particular style through Target products. The message is clear: consumers come in flavors. Target has products for every flavor of consumer.

In a diversified, consumer-oriented economy like that of the United States, this sort of messaging is to be expected. But what makes this message uniquely American is the music accompanying it. That song you hear is “Free to Be…You and Me” from the 1972 album of the same name. For those unfamiliar with it (or too lazy to click on the Wikipedia link provided), Free to Be…You and Me was an album created by the Ms. Foundation to teach children to feel comfortable expressing their own identities regardless of gendered norms. Basically, it’s a piece of educational activist art.

By using a song meant to educate children in free expression of their identities, this commercial co-opts the ideas of the activism behind the song. In the context of a commercial for a big box retail giant, the song becomes about educating children to be consumers. The freedom to express one’s self outside gender norms becomes the freedom express one’s self through shopping. Here, consumption is a way, the way, to claim your identity, to feel comfortable being yourself. Buying stuff is the number one form of identity expression, and companies like Target provide a place where “you and me are free to be you and me” by purchasing whichever products best express our personal flavor. All consumers are encouraged to pursue their own flavor because Target has them all. No one is left out of this inclusive capitalist consciousness-raising session.

 

*For extra credit, check out this illustration of a lecture by philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.” Žižek describes a sort of inverse of the Target commercial; instead of Target co-opting activism to encourage the expression of consumer identities, companies like Toms and Starbucks co-opt their own products in order to sell an activist identity.

 

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