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North American Consumer Culture

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North American Consumer Culture
Short Paper 1
Due at 11:59pm uploaded to Quercus in .doc, .docx, or PDF (.Pages files do not work)
1250 Words (min) – 1400 Words (max), Bibliography and Titles not counted.
Cite 2+ outside academic sources
Cite 2 + sources from the course for 4 sources Total Required.
Avoid Google. For academic articles, search

Step 1: Select Your Topic
1. Early Consumer Culture
Think back to the period between 1850 – 1900. Millions moved from farming communities to big cities across Europe and North America and found work in factories. Outdoor markets were being replaced by indoor shops. Gas and electric lighting lit up cities around the world. The rising middle classes in North America and Europe strolled the streets into the evenings, with attractive shop window displays enticing them to buy the latest fashions, adornments and gifts for the holidays.

Billboards and print advertising showed them “the good life.” This period saw the beginnings of “mass” society and arguably a mass consciousness, a hive mind. The collective quest for uniqueness amid the sameness arose alongside the rise of Psychology. While social class is often the focus of the newly empowered consumers of this period, North American Indigenous groups had been marginalized for centuries and Black Americans had only ceased to be “property” in 1865, living into the 1900s with almost no property or voting rights. The good life presented in ads therefore had many blind spots and sins of omission.
Select 2-3 period ads. Who do they target? Do they promise distinction?
OR Select a historical development or event (like the Chicago World’s Fair 1893)) to examine in relation to the rise of advertising and consumer culture. Did the event glamorize consumption? Technology? Industry?

2. “Promotional” Culture
Consider how consumer goods and entertainment media (a new book, show, series) are promoted outside the realm of advertising. We examined how promotion can happen in more subtle forms of marketing, like radio, podcast and talk show appearances by public figures. In many cases, such public people are promoting their outfits and jewelry to us just by appearing at a Hollywood or TIFF premiere or art gallery Opening Night or Gala. Many have multi-year contracts to wear only one brand: Jennifer Lawrence has long been an “ambassador” for the fashion brand Christian Dior; Tiger Woods’s “steadiness and reliability” on the golf course made him a favourite ambassador for Banks and Investment companies, who dropped him when his personal life became tumultuous. Andrew Wernick’s definition of this culture suggests that art and media forms are increasingly enlisted to promote something else: even independent cinema has product placements from Pepsi and car companies. Historically, the cigarette march organized by Edward Bernays promoted smoking to women without a single advertisement shown.
Choose 2-3 case studies you think engage in promotional culture
Social media feeds from celebrities are a possibility
How is the promotional accomplished with no direct ads shown?
3. Sign Wars: Targeting Cynical Consumers
Consider how consumers began to tune out by the 1960s, and how advertisers had to work to win people back. How is our attention directed to messages that perhaps reflect back our own cynicism? Select ads that try to speak to the alienated viewer. Do the ads really present a cynical angle about our culture of advertising and widespread promotional images? Or are they quite optimistic beneath the surface that we will buy the products? On the other end of the spectrum, you may find that such advertising campaigns revert to emotion and authenticity somewhere in their narratives. Do the ads target an intelligent viewer and empower that person, or do they merely make their promotional point in a more covert way? Think big picture about where cynical ads may lead us culturally and even politically (ads say: “we know you know we’re not telling the truth”).
Select 2-3 ads. How are they addressing our cynicism?
OR Select 2-3 ads that invoke authenticity in response to cynicism
You may compare cynical ads with ads presenting authenticity and address whether, in fact, they are doing the same thing
4. New Media and Consumer Culture
Consider how much of a digital “footprint” we all leave online, even if we abstain from some social media sites. When we shop in stores, we often use a points card or credit card. When we shop online, our history is stored and predictions are made about our next purchases. Data scientists can even fill in a profile about our entire lives: income, region, race, gender and personal interests. These can include practices like online contests which we examine in the course, such as the competition for “likes” orchestrated by Lionsgate Studios to promote The Hunger Games sequel using unpaid teenage fans. The data collected by our new media devices can also result in narrowcasting or target marketing to certain groups. Facebook has been scrutinized for targeting right wing groups with paid ads spreading conspiracy theories and chauvinism, potentially allowing Hillary Clinton to lose votes to Donald Trump. There is a concern that we are all seeing different messages, or polarizing ones. A Google search from a rich area will yield ads for lifestyle products, while a search from a poor address will yield ads for legal help and criminal record erasure. Amazon and Ali Baba are now huge global merchants, who likewise know their consumers well.
Select 2-3 examples of how new media affects consumer culture. These can be the practices of companies or case studies of individuals who have been targeted
How is our digital footprint sold back to us? Is our privacy respected?
Can predictive technology simply be used for good, or is there a concern?
5. Branding and Consumer Culture
Brands “position us within the story of the product” according to experts. The story of Nike is success and achievement, for instance. The company has grown that story into a sort of mythology, as competitors producing running shoes failed to produce a strong mythology. The power of luxury brands is to present an entire lifestyle, often exclusive and rarely seen, unfolding behind the walls of penthouse apartments, island compounds and private clubs. As with most things in advertising, the image presented in a Prada ad is likely glossier than the reality lived by even the wealthy classes. Brands are also called “love marks” since they must evoke a powerful feeling from consumers (Apple does, Dell does not). High, Mid and Low ads target different groups. Copious sums of money are also spent selling tobacco and alcohol to less wealthy consumers, who tend to smoke at higher rates. Apple has promoted “difference” as its brand so successfully that it is now the most common computer brand worldwide, no longer so different. Brands inspire recognition, affect and loyalty above all.
Select 1-3 brands to examine
OR, select 2 campaigns (mult. ads for one company for comparison)
6. Gender, Consumption and Ideology
Gender representations in ads are one area in which little progress has taken place over 40 years. Women are nonetheless prioritized in ads: A men’s magazine is full of ads featuring women; A women’s magazine is full of ads featuring women. LGBTQ magazines such as Out and Advocate also showcase glossy ads featuring people from across the gender spectrum, but many of these are celebrities. Men do appear in ads. But they appear differently, and are positioned differently. Depictions of men as professionals, leaders, strong and empowered persist alongside images of women as passive, withdrawn, dependent, child-like, lower down, and tied to kids. Thankfully, LGBTQ-focused visual and print media have diversified the range of people we see in the consumer culture we inhabit. As scholar Jean Kilbourne has noted in her “Killing Me Softly” video series on YouTube, depictions of women targeted at the straight male consumer have scarcely changed. Indeed, Kilbourne thinks some have gotten worse since the 1990s waif / anorexic look became widespread among fashion models. The trend was not the fault of the models, but of mostly male editors and designers in search or more and more attention to their magazine or fashion brands.
Select 1-3 ads or 2 campaigns to address.
You may choose to address traditional gender roles or consider how gay and non-binary subject positions may be changing these rigid gender depictions in advertising, or a combination of the two.
Step 2: Write an organized essay of at least 1250 words of text (max 1400)
Use the concepts covered in class as frameworks for analysis.
Make Introductions brief – end them with your Thesis Statement
Describe your Case Studies briefly: include a small image as Figure 1 etc in the body of your essay.
Reference at least two authors assigned in the course.
Reference at least two outside sources, academic (books, journals)
Websites and Magazines can be used IN ADDITION but do not count
Utilize a recognized documentation style (e.g.,
Include a Bibliography of your 4+ sources.
Avoid long block quotes.
No Title Page please.
Choose something that interests you!
*Integrate ALL quotes (quotes cannot stand alone in your essay):
As Smith says, “representations of women in advertising are often…” (Smith 10).
Quoting is preferable to Paraphrasing. Be clear when you borrow someone
else’s words by “quoting” and citing.
When in doubt, follow the “5×5” Essay Model (even if 6+)
Reading from class:

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