Show-Off Nation

Last week, Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson thrust his intellectual rapier at Toyota Prius drivers, those supercilious owners of "hippie cars" who care only about their image. "Prius politics is mostly about showing off," Samuelson wrote, "not curbing greenhouse gas emissions." As Ben Adler noted on TAPPED, there's no reason why you can't show off and reduce carbon emissions at the same time, and Prius owners are certainly doing the latter, no matter what their motivations.

But Samuelson's attack on the eco-righteous raises a larger question: why is it that we assume that people we disdain are consumed with how they look to the rest of the world, while we, and those who agree with us, are all about substance?

I'm not arguing that Prius owners aren't concerned about what image they project. As the New York Times reported a month ago, the Prius has outpaced other hybrid cars in sales precisely because, unlike its competitors, it looks distinct from an ordinary car. So when you drive it, a Prius shouts "This is a hybrid!" to anyone passing by. More than half of Prius owners surveyed by a market research firm cited by the Times said the main reason they bought it was that "it makes a statement about me." This survey may or may not be accurate, but it's a safe bet that a substantial proportion of Prius owners thought about the image their car projects when they bought it. In other words, they're just like everyone else.

I don't know what kind of car Robert Samuelson drives, but if I had to guess I'd say it's a large, expensive sedan, perhaps a Lincoln or a BMW, the kind of car befitting a well-compensated conservative columnist who isn't afraid to flaunt his position atop the socio-economic hierarchy. No less than the owners of the Dodge Viper ("Ignore my receding hairline, I'm young!"), the Subaru Outback ("I'm outdoorsy!"), or the Hummer ("I'm a man of action, and I am not, repeat, not overcompensating!"), Samuelson surely knows exactly what he wants to say with his car.

In fact, with the exception of the music we listen to, there may be no consumer purchase into which Americans put more consideration over what kind of image we project than our cars. Yet most of us pretend that unlike the obedient sheep wandering mindlessly through the nation's malls, we are too smart to be influenced by advertising or concerned with image, making independent, rational judgments on what to wear, drive or buy.

Don't blame yourself, though. For nearly half a century, advertisers have been relentlessly selling us the idea that we can create individuality through consumption. We've seen this 30-second mini-drama played out thousands of times: individuals are emancipated by a product that perfectly captures their rebellion against The Man, their pathbreaking uniqueness allowing them to cast off stifling conformity and smash convention as the stuffy agents of the establishment look on in horror. A 1965 print ad reproduced in Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and Rise of Hip Consumerism purrs to potential car buyers, "Listen. Those sounds you hear are habits breaking. Ties snapping. Records falling. They're the happy sounds of the Dodge Rebellion." To this day, Madison Avenue assures us that nearly every product on the market is a way of flaunting our distinctiveness.

When you do so, you don't just separate yourself from the pack, you become real, not just a consumer but a genuine human being. You may live in a boring town and work at a boring job, but with the right combination of purchases you can create for yourself a life of authenticity, something fundamental and true.

It's no coincidence that as politics has begun slowly to catch up to the sophistication of Madison Avenue (and it has a ways to go yet; most ads for candidates are pathetically amateurish and ineffectual), we have come more and more to value "authenticity" in those we elect. Every voter has just enough Holden Caulfield in him or her to respond when scorn is heaped on the latest phony politician, with his carefully chosen words and carefully coiffed hair, trying to convince us he's something he isn't.

Yet no voter is nearly as consumed with authenticity as is our intrepid press corps, of course. So they demand to know what politicians have on their iPods, which books they've recently read, and what their favorite foods are. They explain what the candidates' choices in clothes say about their essential beings, and what their cars tell us about who they are deep down in the places they want to keep hidden. Since the politicians are so assiduously concealing their true selves from us, the reporters have no choice but to scour their credit card statements for clues, like anthropologists scrutinizing an unearthed cache of pottery and utensils to paint a portrait of the civilization that created them.

For their part, the politicians know that the reporters will sift through the grains they reveal with Talmudic care. So they treat every question on their personal habits and consumption like the land mine it is, hewing to answers that sound straight from a focus group. Nowhere is this more obvious than when they are inevitably asked what music they listen to: Democrats can be counted on to invoke Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp (bulletproof blue-collar cred), while 80 percent of politicians seem to listen to U2 (critical and intergenerational acceptance, plus the soupcon of global activism that says you care about problems that are so large you needn't commit to doing anything in particular about them).

Many of the reporters and columnists currently ruling the media roost came of age during the 1960s, when rebellion was domesticated and commodified almost the instant it emerged (that Dodge ad, remember, was from 1965, before Woodstock or the Summer of Love or Kent State). No generation is more convinced of its own authenticity, and its ability to spot the lack of same in others, than the baby boomers. Though a conservative like Robert Samuelson would no doubt cringe at being lumped in with his ne'er-do-well contemporaries who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, just like them, he knows a phony when he sees one. It's not somebody who drives a car to make a statement about themselves, just somebody who drives a car to make a statement Samuelson doesn't care to make.

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