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    A View from the Pew
    Thursday
    Jul072011

    Market Place Musings

    After reading Juliet Schor and Tom Beaudoin on religion and consumption, I began to reflect on Beaudoin’s position regarding the “unique dynamic” of “branding” as a verb, capable of shaping “a consistent and coherent identity” within a specific community, namely, that of young adults within a college setting. When considering this particular pericope, I decided to take several intentional walks at two private Catholic colleges, where I respectively work and study, to specifically pay attention to what students wear, how they carry themselves, and how they interface with one another in coffee shops, libraries, classroom areas, and gyms. The practice of Christian presence as hospitality and availability always plays out in a very deliberate way within my own practice of ministry, and that includes walking intentionally on both college campuses. However, this exercise became a more focused activity, one I attempted to perform without moral certitude or agenda, keeping an open eye and mind to the physicality and interaction of students on both campuses, with an ear to Schor and Beaudoin as I walked and observed. I offer several equations as a result of this exercise:

    Abercrombie and Fitch + Coach + Nike = Status, Power

    Jimmy Choo + Calvin Klein + Victoria Secret = Envy, Desire 

    Status + Power + Envy + Desire = Acceptance and Confidence

    Status + Power +Envy +Desire+Acceptance +Confidence = The Look

    In these two private college settings, I found that The Look contains not only a distinguishable physical appearance in students who espouse brand economy practices, but also carries with it an aura of poise which manifests itself as an air of superciliousness, a “brand” of arrogance worn as surely as any logo apparel. The Look communicates how one wishes to be seen by peers, issuing physical appearance as one's own personal traits (cool, strong, intelligent, etc.) These young power magnates appear to set the bar for other college students who may not possess the monetary resources or the physical norms that The Look requires, creating an abyss between those who can and those who cannot. In my opinion, “branding”, when lived out as a verb, not only marks those who adopt marketplace ideologies, and adapt their identities so that they can really experience the pleasure that their own imaginations conjure, but also “brands” those it leaves in the wake of its effects. The old adage, ‘marked for life’ comes to mind when recalling those students who sit with me because they’ve been made to feel different and struggle with their own self-image. Even good ministry sometimes falls short in its attempt to call to mind that every individual is created in the image and likeness of God when a human being feels crushed by the impact of marketplace ‘branding’. The haunts who embody those everyday elements that college students encounter play themselves out through episodes of bulimia, cutting, excess drinking, drugs abuse, gossip, co-dependant relationships, and other forms of depression. I would add to Schor’s claim that materialism creates neurosis and risky behavior those who feel that they cannot measure up to America’s marketplace dictatorship, driving them into a state of despair. “Branding” is alive and well and is often before me as students live their own Calvary, attempting to reclaim their own truths from the bill of goods that marketplace icons try to sell them. 

    After my two intentional walks, I mused that The Look dominates my two colleges. What does this say about us as institutions? Who are the targets of our market? Who do we invite and accept into our institutions? Schor claims that young people become ‘branded’ at a tender age, through a composite of influences created by the culture of our time. The two aforesaid institutions gean much their student constituency from a professional clientele of parents and moguls who provide a kind of modeling of what power, influence and prestige appear to look like. Marketplace contouring plays out in the professional world through brand suites and ties with clout, Blahnik power, and other eponymous attire which has the potential to inform, form and transform accountants into power-broker look-alikes, lawyers into economist wanna-be’s, business owners to entrepreneur-hopefuls. Do our students model what they witness in their parents? Or, do they adopt The Look, if they’re able, when they arrive on campus, and if so, at what point are they ‘branded’? 

    While guilty of parental transgressions from time to time, (I love really great showes and so does my daughter!), I will not purchase brand names for their own sake, but will find companies like Kenneth Coe, which advocates awareness through AWEARNESS1. I’ve worn my own sons out with my sermons on profit-at-any-cost companies (a perfect example of Beaudoin’s warning about moralizing!), but happily report that my lectures must have taken at least partial effect. All three of my kids will think twice before purchasing a piece of clothing from companies whose market practices are in question. I continue to watch for ' branding' signs among the young adults with whom I'm privileged to share a relationship and continue to consider the question, “To whom do we belong: to God, or to the market gods?” Indeed, to whom do any of us belong and how will we live that conviction out in the future?