Pseudo-Individualism

In his article "Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs," Bernard Gendron writes about part interchangeability and pseudo-individuality. Gendron plays off the name of the Cadillacs (the 1950s singing group) and the Cadillac (the swank, bourgeois car produced by GM) to explore the relationship between these two ideas. Gendron asserts that pseudo-individualization is the "indisputable capitalist complement to part-interchangeability" (Gendron 1986, p. 21). Part-interchangeability encompasses the physical mechanisms and workings of industrial products, such as the engine parts of the Cadillac, and pseudo-individualization designates the "external trappings" (21) or the stylistic nuances that define a Cadillac from a Lincoln Town car. The more industries rationalize their production processes, the more likely that part interchangeability will prevail, yet the selling of brands demands that consumers perceive differences between these products. Pseudo-individualization is thus a result of the imperative to stylistically differentiate that which is functionally similar. Hence, the Cadillac car is memorable for its tail fins. Advertising encourages us to believe that packaging differences reflect differences in the essence of the product, while they are really part interchangeable. Gendron states, pseudo-individualization glamorizes style over the real inner content (21).

In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige speaks about subcultures and what they represent. He states, "subcultures express forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioral codes, law breaking, etc.) (Hebdige 1979, p. 91-2). The idea of style as bricolage (as originally expressed by Claude Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind) is a way in which subcultures and other groups, including advertisers, reorganize the meanings of everyday objects such as safety pins, combs, and technology, substituting for their understood and pre-established meanings sets of meanings which draw attention to the objects because they now seem to lie outside the usual hegemonic category.

The use of bricolage in advertising is indicative of the increasing postmodern nature of advertising and also of the society which is responsive to that advertising. The ad for this analysis is from the 1996 campaign for Airwalk (as found in the February 20, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone). In 1995, Airwalk was a relatively unknown company associated with specific subcultures such as skaters, ravers, and some surfers (all of which have some similarities). By late 1995, it appeared that Airwalk shoes were a hot item for not only certain subcultures but also many parts of mainstream society, much as Doc Martens were in the late 80's and early 90's.

At first glance this advertisement is incongruous and does not immediately create a connection to the shoes (brand name) which are being advertised. The person in the picture is dressed in a vinyl cowboy style shirt, a bolo, and a black hat and has long sideburns. This person appears to be wearing makeup and is wearing two rings on each hand - mixing the signifiers up in this manner makes the gender of the model ambiguous. The position of the model, the lipstick/makeup and also the relatively long length of the model's finger nails also contribute to the ambiguous gender of the model.

In addition to the hermeneutic puzzle regarding the model's gender (and what this says about the shoes to the reader) is the set-up of the scene. The model (he/she) is holding four cards, has a die on one of the rings, and is sitting in front of three stacks of poker chips and a pair of Airwalk shoes. This implies that he/she is gambling, presumably for the shoes, or at least with the shoes as currency. This would seem to be a high stakes game.

It is also important to note the use of color in this advertisement. The background is a gray/silver material that is gathered up in folds that resemble a bad prom dress from the 80's. Holding the folds are strips of gold. The table on which the shoes and chips are sitting is made of a turquoise and white Formica from the 50's. The brown of the vinyl shirt is straight of the 70's. The shoes are a sleek package of white and navy; the only congruous colors in the whole image. The background, including the model, has been made a bit fuzzy while the shoes and chips are stark in comparison. The shoes are symbolic (or pull together) of the bits of retro kitsch used in the entire picture. Perhaps they are saying that they have a bit of every era in them.

In this ad the theories of Theodor Adorno and Dick Hebdige come together in a unique, postmodern mélange because this advert is inherently about style; the shoes are cool and different and have traces of subcultural capital still attached. The pseudo-individualization created by the funky bricolage of objects and style in the advert are meant to differentiate the shoe from others such as Sketchers, Fila and Adidas. The advert is telling us that they are unique (maybe as a company, certainly in advertising style) from other shoe companies.