It’s all about you

How the new narcissism became a marketer’s dream, and turned our economy on its head.

It’s all about you

An exclusive excerpt.

Let’s face it, debt never was our friend, even though it pretended to be (No money down! Don’t pay ’til spring!). We wanted to believe it, and did, to the tune of $1.1 trillion (our national household debt). In 1980, the average Canadian was $5,470 in the hole, including mortgage debt. By 2007, that number had swelled by more than six times to $34,523. During this time, our perception of debt was transformed: once a bogeyman to be avoided at every turn, it’s now more like a member of the family, albeit a nagging one, who simply needs to be managed. Most often, this explosion of personal debt is chalked up to years of easy access to capital and low borrowing rates—and that certainly played a major role. But how do we account for our own increasing willingness to submerge ourselves in liabilities? Over the past quarter-century, we somehow warmed to the idea that the travesty of not living the life we imagined far outweighs the consequences of borrowing more than we can reasonably hope to repay. What changed?

The truth is, debt is only a symptom of a much more fundamental shift. Turn on any television set, read any magazine or newspaper, or venture online for even five minutes and you’ll begin to notice the language of entitlement. Everywhere we turn, it seems someone is confirming our inherent worthiness to us. Dell Computers, for instance, says in its “Purely You” campaign: “We don’t make technology for just anyone.We make it for only one. You.” Burger King tells us to “Have it your way.” Ford fawns, “Everything we do is driven by you.” Air Canada offers you the “Freedom to fly your own way.” AT&T transmits “Your true voice.” YouTube advocates that you “Broadcast Yourself.” Microsoft asks, “Where do you want to go today?” Pier 1 Imports reminds you, “It’s Your Thing.” TimeWarner Cable promises to unleash “The Power of You.” The Home Depot cheers you on with, “You can do it. We can help.” And Alpo, looking out for your beloved four-legged friends, asks, “Doesn’t your dog deserve Alpo?” The desired response to these slogans is always a variation on the same theme: Yes, I am. Yes, I can. Yes, I do. Yes, my dog does, too.

This is the “You Sell,” a pitch that has evolved over time to become the dominant theme in consumer culture. In its simplest terms, the You Sell is the message that you are an inherent VIP. Nobody else can tell you what to think or do. You deserve the best. You’re entitled to nothing less. You are unique—an original—and as such, each and every choice you make should be a reflection, an amplification, of your essential, irreplaceable self.

Also at Dude, where’s my job?

The You Sell is in ads for TV services that allow you to watch your shows on demand—“where you want, when you want.” It’s in commercials for retailers like Best Buy that invite you to “Get yours.” It’s in Nescafé ads that say, “It’s all about you,” and billboards for Scotiabank that tell you, “You’re richer than you think”—when the truth is, you’re probably not.

Where marketers used to primarily sell products or brand values, they’re now selling You—an idealized, self-actualized version of yourself—back to you. Whether the conduit is clothing, computers, credit cards, hotel rooms, software or furniture, when it comes to advertising, You are the real goods. In fact, You have become the only real product anyone is pushing.

Of course, advertising has always promised us a better life through stuff. But listen for it, and you’ll notice the pitch has changed. The shift is subtle, but powerful. Effective advertising has always involved strategic feats of deception. But the You Sell contains a different sort of lie, one that is significantly harder to spot since the wisdom of it seems to spring forth from your own head.

Lifestyle advertising used to be about the idea that if you buy a particular product, you will, by extension, acquire an array of desirable qualities associated with that product—glamour, intelligence, physical attractiveness, wit, personal strength. Think of beer commercials: with a pint of Labatt Blue, you too could join a log-cabin party in the Canadian Rockies populated by horny bikini-clad coeds. This is aspirational modelling—the kind you’d see in cigarette ads, where the men are manly and the women are liberated and the only thing ostensibly separating you from them is a lighter. Aspirational ads ask, “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?”

The You Sell turns this model on its head—instead of being aspirational, it is affirmational. The message is always deferential. It says: You are already perfect, just as you are. You know it; the advertisers know it. Now, it’s just a matter of enhancing your inherent specialness and broadcasting it to the world via a kick-ass array of products.

Perhaps the quintessential example of this shift is the L’Oréal Preference beauty campaign. Since 1973, L’Oréal Preference has featured beautiful models and celebrities like Heather Locklear in its TV ads, flipping their hair, and with a wry smile declaring the brand slogan: “Because I’m worth it!” The message was always, if you aspire to be as desirable as Heather Locklear knows she is, you’ll use this product. But in 2004, L’Oréal’s advertising team got wise to the idea that women don’t want to hear that Heather Locklear is “worth it.” They want to be told that they are. In other words, the message shifts from, “hey, this is what you could be” to “hey, this is what we know you already are.”

Now, L’Oréal Preference ads feature the same beautiful models with the same incandescent hair. Only, instead of luxuriating in their own natural beauty, this new generation of spokesmodels looks coyly into the camera and tells you, the consumer, “Because you’re worth it!”

All advertising is rooted in fantasy. But with aspirational advertising, the dream world is “out there.” It’s a world to which you do not (yet) belong, where the people are beautiful, skinny, wealthy, and happy. You can aspire to belong, but the fact that you never quite do is what keeps you buying. With affirmational messaging, on the other hand, the dream world comes to you. These ads tell us: All those phonies out there? They should be so lucky as to associate with the likes of you. In a narcissistic culture reared on self-esteem rhetoric, the implicit message that “you’re not good enough” is no longer appealing. Consumers today respond better to honey.

Whereas aspirational advertising creates unattainable targets for consumers to strive for in perpetuity, affirmational advertising encourages a different sort of skewed self-perception. The You Sell places You at the heart of every narrative—as the star, the winner! The You Sell is all about reinforcing the “democratization” of luxury, the idea that things that were once seen as luxuries are now regarded as everyone’s entitlement by virtue of being able to afford it. You should never feel guilty about self-indulgence, the You Sell tells us. If fact, the worst thing you could do is accept less than you deserve, or, God forbid, let somebody else tell you what’s what. Only You know what’s right for you.

James B. Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, has written extensively on the new luxury: “Call them yuppies, yippies, bobos, nobrows, or whatever, the consumers of the new luxury have a sense of entitlement that transcends social class, a conviction that the finest things are their birthright,” he writes. “Never mind that they may have been born into a family whose ancestral estate is a tract house in the suburbs.”

More often, these days, home is a 700-sq.-foot box in the sky, as condominium marketers have embraced the You Sell with ferocious enthusiasm and staggering results. Ads promising a life lived “on your own terms” and dangling an idealized, sophisticated urban existence have driven a historic stampede into new condo developments in every major city on the continent—all of them financed by a mountain of debt. Mortgage debt in Canada now hovers around $850 billion, more than twice what it was 10 years ago.

But that is certainly not the only place where the You Sell has helped to fuel a consumer frenzy. Cellphones, designer sneakers, televisions, cars and computers—they’re all the domain of the masses now. Things we used to consider wants—microwaves, televisions, washers and dryers—have largely become needs. In a 2006 Pew Research Center study, two-thirds of Americans reported they needed (rather than just wanted) a microwave oven—this compared to a decade ago, when two-thirds saw this appliance as a pure luxury. Ninety per cent now say they need a washing machine. Seventy per cent need air conditioning. Half say they need a home computer and a cellphone and almost a third need high-speed Internet. The You Sell tells you it’s your entitlement—not just to have everything you want, but to get a free upgrade, too.

Like aspirational advertising, the You Sell is built on the understanding that we use consumption as a crucial means for constructing the personal identities we wish to present to the world. But whereas the former is primarily used to sell us on aspirational qualities—specific traits like glamour, skinniness, sex appeal, sophistication, etc.—the virtue that is sold by the You Sell is You. Affirmational ads push one-size-fits-all notions of individuality, authenticity, and entitlement. In inviting us to selectively piece together “your” burger, “your” home computer, “your” airline, and so on, the You Sell helps us create a patchwork sense of self—the self we would be if our identities really were buildable from the outside in. In other words, the product on offer becomes a secondary, malleable aspect of Brand You.

The beauty of the You Sell is that all of the work of it happens in the consumers’ own head. Phrases like “Your burger, your way” tell us nothing about the product itself, and in this way, marketers keep the idea of individuality infinitely customizable. (What kind of burger is it? Any kind! The you-tell-us kind!) To one consumer, “Your burger, your way” might mean a double cheeseburger with all the fixings; to another, it means nothing but ketchup. Burger King doesn’t even have to guess. Not only does the You Sell force each consumer to do the mental work of conceiving the burger they want, but it has the added bonus of making each one feel as though they—not Burger King—are the authority on burgers. Ultimately, the consumer’s choice of burger becomes that much more significant to them because it appears to convey something essential about who they are. If the sell is effective, consumers won’t understand that they’re not in control. What a great formula for a business.

The You Sell ignores the inherent contradiction that if everyone is special, no one is special. It knows that you will ignore it, too. Media theorists have suggested that the best aspirational ads—in dangling that dream world in front of our noses—can actually function to make people envious of the version of themselves they might become. Affirmational ads, on the other hand, present us with an idealized You and entice us to fall in love with our own reflections.

Promiscuous with its praise, the You Sell embraces everyone equally because everyone’s a potential sale. But one of the great paradoxes of the You Sell is that the more we all buy into it—and the more store-bought “individualism” we express—the more homogenous we become as a group. There can only be so many meaningful status signifiers in the public’s consciousness at a given time—and the more status a product or brand carries, the more people choose to incorporate it into their personal-identity scrapbooks. We all wind up using the same signifiers to send the message: “There’s no one else like me!”

Critics of consumer culture may be quick to decry this approach as a product of corporate psychological engineering. But in fact, consumerism is always about symbiosis, as much as the anti-consumerism movement would like to downplay the free will of the average buyer of stuff. The You Sell is enormously successful right now, but it is largely a byproduct of a generation of relative political calm, technological advances, and spectacular economic growth. It exists because, for years now, people have had cash to burn. Increases in real income and decreases in family size have allowed for a major boom in discretionary spending. In 1973, American families spent, on average, 62 per cent of their annual economic output on primary necessities like food, housing, and clothes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2005, families spent only 49.6 percent—or just less than half. With so much extra cash, we had the luxury of allowing our needs to become more specialized, and less pragmatic. Faced as we are with a deeply uncertain economic future, this is a decidedly impractical mindset to hold.

And so, as tempting as it is to pin this consumer frenzy on the “corporate machine,” the You Sell is a machine we’ve all helped to build, and we feed it every day. “There’s a lot of tsk-tsking that goes on in popular conversation about how bad consumer society is but we’re on the producer side, too,” says Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “There is no giant robotic presence that’s doing this to us. When we talk about how it came to be, well, people must’ve wanted a lot of stuff.” We’ve always known that stuff costs money. The difference now is that the inner voice that used to tell us we can’t afford something has been increasingly drowned out by a ubiquitous refrain, played over and over again: You’re worth it. From a marketer’s standpoint, nothing could be easier than saying it. As for the rest of us, the real question is: why are we so desperate to hear it?

An adapted excerpt from The Ego Boom: Why The World Really Does Revolve Around You (Key Porter) by Steve Maich and Lianne George, available on Jan. 27