BUGLE BOY -- THE COMMODITY MEASURE OF DIFFERENCE

different blood type
different color
different windows
different weaknesses
individuals
different education
names
race
voices
frequencies
different borders
different talents
different fears
different signs
different heroes
gods
nationalities
different schools of thought
emotions
different moves
combinations
different bodies
different statements
bugle boy
bugle boy
a common thread.
This advertisement for Bugle Boy is a perfect example of a postmodern aesthetic. In it, all these qualities of human life and interaction are given equal significance -- they are all made into free floating signifiers which are, miraculously, united under the totem group of Bugle Boy. Difference becomes merely a marker of modern life; more importantly, Bugle Boy becomes the unifying ethos -- a common thread -- of an increasingly diversified world. All the elements of the various lifestyles and appearance are not unsurpassable in the Bugle Boy World; yet in real life, the different "races, gods, schools of thought," for example, present overwhelming conflict. Admittedly, Bugle Boy does a damn good job of depicting a world in which difference is nothing but good (and people are incredibly accepting). What makes this advertisement unique is that it is not product difference that is being highlighted per se, but, rather, a difference of appearance, ideology and (sub)culture. Here the product is not accentuated until the very end of the advertisement; and even then, it is not a marker of difference, but rather "a common thread" that pulls all these different people together as a community of friends. Bugle Boy is only "different" in that different people wear it. Its main appeal is as a binding element in people's (post)modern lives.

Images only mean in relation to what they are not. The images in this ad are NOT of preppy kids; rather, the subculture style is being appropriated and commodified in order to sell the brand image. As Hebdige wrote, this is an example of bricolage in which cultural moments are being constantly appropriated. Symbols of subculture lose their potency when they are appropriated by corporations such as Bugle Boy. It is much easier to control -- domesticate and tame -- subculture when one can fit it to mainstream needs. Though acts like body piercing and tattoo art were once a sort of rebellion, they quickly lose any cultural value and meaning when they are transplanted into a dominant medium. But then who is this ad hailing? It is hailing viewers who are hip enough to recognize 'cool' when it's flashed on the screen in front of them. It lures an audience who like the image projected through body piercings and tattoos, but who will still shop at a mall for Bugle Boy jeans. This is an image-based world in which appearance is everything; in fact, it is only through appearance that one can be truly different. But the text attached to the images speaks to a false ideology of freedom and equality; it speaks of a world in which difference is good and nobody is rejected or ridiculed for it. This ad romanticizes the exotic Other through the use of subculture styles. Difference is streamlined into signifiers like tattoos and skin color; but what is signified is a world of endless variety that is still in harmony.

The concepts of commodity self, therapeutic ethos and pseudo-individuation are blatantly illustrated in this piece. The juxtaposition of freedom and restraint is also significant here, as it often goes along with the above three elements. The commodity self is one that emerges out of a consumer culture. In this ad, it appears as though the product (Bugle Boy) is not as significant as the personalities displayed. Yet all the people are wearing Bugle Boy; one could argue that it is the clothes that both allows for and transcends difference. Bugle Boy is selling itself as an image, a style, a way of life. In a world of abundant difference, the therapeutic ethos of this ad tells the viewer not to worry, because there is still a way to overcome all the differences that surrounds him. And talk about pseudo individuation! This ad preys on the hyper individualism of the American public. It says that difference can be attained through commodity consumption; personality can be not only enhanced, but perhaps even brought forth, by the Bugle Boy ethos. This ad creates, facilitates, maintains the desire for commodity relations; in fact, it is only Bugle Boy that unites all these different people and styles. The product is reified and put into an equivalence equation with the images of individual difference by which Bugle Boy gives you access to real social relations which are too often obscured by major differences between humans.

But this ad is also about the pleasure of the gaze. It is about spectatorship and fascination with the Other. There is the lure of the forbidden in here. The ad is colorful and packed with aesthetically desirable images; the "rap"/narrative in the background accentuates the frame shifts. Towards the end of the piece, the music slows -- what resembles a heartbeat begins, pointing towards Bugle Boy as the heart of all relations. All the cultural moments have been reduced to a sort of postmodern pastiche, though there is no real hermeneutic puzzle involved in this one. Granted the viewer does not really know what this is a commercial for until the end, but after seeing it once, there is no longer a mystery to be solved. This is a "fun" ad, but it has an underlying message that (if you watch the ad repeatedly) is rather disconcerting. On the surface this ad seems to celebrate and embrace difference; however, I would argue now that difference is being reduced to its most simplistic signifiers only to serve the ultimate purpose of commodity hegemony. This ad makes us believe that commodities are the primary path to harmony, peace and social relations. The message of difference validates Bugle Boy as a company with a mind and conscience. Notions of individuality and conformity play off each other strongly within this piece. On the one hand, there are a series of images that show "individuals." On the other hand, they are all united under the banner of Bugle Boy; that is, they all conform, even in their difference. It certainly appears as though domination and oppression have ceased to exist in the Bugle Boy World, but this is yet another form of hegemony.

This ad targets a niche market -- middle-class youth -- by appropriating signs of subculture. In a society that is alienated and fragmented, subculture seems to represent authenticity and unity. Subcultures are seen as expressive and, therefore, more real. By signifying authenticity, this ad has a surface message that speaks out against conformity and pseudo individuation. Middle-class kids like the way this ad looks -- or, better yet, they like the way the people look. A connection is made between the image and the product to create a truer individual -- one that the ad would have us believe is not self-conscious, not alienated and not a conformist. The ad is heavily coded with scenes of hyperreality; this works perhaps the first time through the ad, but after that it is so obviously mediated it loses its initial attraction. The viewer is being positioned to interpret Bugle Boy as "the real thing." Furthermore, there are a number of assumption being made here about subcultures as representing the real more than, say, middle class white America. Williamson's idea of 'alreadyness' is crucial: this ad attempts to depict who we are and also who we want to be. We are united by our differences through Bugle Boy alone. We can all be different in our own ways, but it is not insignificant that all the people in this ad are not of 'mainstream' culture. Difference is good, says the ad, only if it looks a certain way. After watching the ad over and over, I'm not sure if cool people wear Bugle Boy or if Bugle Boy makes people cool. I'd say it's both -- that's what makes consumer culture thrive.

Lynn Kaplan