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A middle-class Christmas

Two festive ads show us some of the twists and turns at the heart of a British middle-class Christmas.

Waitrose: thinking and imagining, not consuming and communing

As it does every year, Waitrose tackles the complicated relationship the British middle class has to the festive season.

The brand has become known for an off-centre approach to Christmas. It’s not about what’s happening around the table – groaning with turkey and mince pies – as we see in typical Tesco and Iceland ads.

While the table is the symbolic centre of Christmas, Waitrose prefers to look at what’s going on outside the home. The characters in its festive ads are often looking out of windows – cuing a state of mind that is flying outwards (solitary, separate, transcendent) rather than content with hearth and home.

This year, Waitrose shows us a girl waiting for a robin.  Her experience is internal and private. In middle-class culture, the sanctity of one’s inner world prevails even at the most communal and shared of times.

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The characters in thess brands’ ads are also not consuming. They’re observing. That positions them as a little bit superior – we don’t see hands constantly reaching out and grabbing mince pies as we do in a typical Iceland ad.

British middle-class culture wants to be different, to set itself apart. It also wants to be superior – to show itself as thinking, observing, imagining, private and reflective, not just consuming and communing. Christmas ads offer a neat crystallisation of these aspirations.

 

M&S: Commander-in-Chief

In the M&S ad, Mrs Claus takes charge of Christmas. While pretending to stay home – hubby is off doing the traditional thing in his sleigh – she zooms off in a helicopter to fulfil a particularly tough present mission.

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The ad plays on a gender dynamic familiar to British middle-class families. At Christmas, it’s the woman of the home who is Commander-in-Chief – and she runs Christmas like a military operation. He has the sleigh – but she has the helicopter. She is the technology, the rationality and the organisation that serve the season’s higher emotional purpose.

It’s also a hidden rationality. Her mission is covert, while his is the visible one. The role of reason and organisation at Christmas-time have to be hidden, as we don’t want to destroy the myth of love and magic.

It’s interesting to see how technology and rationality combine with femininity in this ad. Aren’t these attributes mostly associated with masculinity? Yes, until they become covert or back-up. Then they become feminine qualities, as they are at Christmas when they need to underpin the emotion and magic that we see ‘front of house’.

 

 

 

 

The Library of Fragrance (1)

A visit to the Library of Fragrance

The Library of Fragrance is a US brand which does a great job of capturing today’s emerging culture of sensory experience.

It offers around 150 different fragrances – single-note scents reflecting an incredible range of experiences.  These include tomato, grass, chocolate, coconut, birthday cake, almond, apple tree and amber amongst many many more.

So what is this brand getting right? We can take from it three insights highly relevant to personal care today.

Goodbye ‘nice’

The brand does away with traditional distinctions between scents – ‘earthworm’ sits alongside ‘earl grey’; dregs’ alongside ‘daisy’. There is no separation between pretty and ugly or between categories of experience: food, fantasy, flowers and chemicals all furnish inspiration.

This is important as in sensory experience we are moving beyond what is ‘pretty’, ‘appealing’ or ‘sexy’ in the traditional sense. The idea of exploration and discovery is becoming more important than self-adornment or aesthetic enhancement in the world of the senses.

Reading the book of the senses

The brand name itself is spot on with regard to emerging sensory culture. Culture now puts a higher value on sensory experience than before. All our senses matter now – with a culture of education, learning, exploration springing up around them.

Think about artisan coffee and the precision of the discourse surrounding that – tasting notes and endless subtleties. The Library of Fragrance suggests something similar for fragrance: that it can lead us on a journey in which we can cultivate our sense of smell, refine it, expand it and educate it.

Follow the trail into other worlds

There’s also something magical about the idea of the Library of Fragrance. Not only is it a place of education – it is a place of wonder, a portal to other worlds, like a Borges-style library in which each book opens onto a universe.

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This idea reinforces the new prestige accorded to sensory experience – it’s not just nice, pleasurable or indulgent. It’s a way to travel in time and space, and to expand experience beyond previous parameters. So fantasy references are key to the brand. We don’t know what Moonbeam, Angel Food or Russian leather smell like, but we can imagine.

The Library of Fragrance hits exactly the right note when it comes to new and emerging perspectives on the sensory. We learn and imagine through our senses – just like in a library. And, just like in a library, there are no limits to the travels and dreams waiting for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why detail is taking over (and over-sensitive is the new normal)

Detail is no longer insignificant. Quite the opposite: it’s become a major cultural force. Around us are signs that big abstractions and grand narratives are losing ground to the tiny nuance as a site of meaning and investment.

ASMR is a key example. Standing for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR is an internet culture devoted to subtle sensory experiences – whisperings, rustlings, crinklings, scratching. These are pursued for the weird, almost indefinable impacts they can have on the nervous system: tingling, bubbling, explosions of stars.

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What caught my attention when I heard about ASMR was its quiet take on digital culture. Digital often gets described in terms of ‘loud’: we hear about people shouting on social media, over-sharing, ranting, bombarding each other with information, and so on. But ASMR offers a digital space devoted to the barely audible, the ineffable, the whisper.

In this sense it brings in the idea of an emergent and expanded sensoriality. What experiences come about when the senses start to work in new ways? How do things shift and change when we tune into experience more precisely?

Earlier this year, BBC Radio 3 tuned into the interest in fine-grained sensory experience with The Tingle FactorThe programme explored music capable of producing elusive, hard-to-describe sensory effects as tingles, chills and shivers down the spine.

Observe

Mindfulness is another important reference point here. It’s near impossible to miss in cultural discourse today, from the corporate to the therapeutic. Like ASMR, mindfulness asks us to attend to subtle, granular levels of experience. It is about capturing as much as we can with our awareness rather than skipping over texture to repeat conventional categories of experience.

Whether or not it references mindfulness overtly, today’s discourse on the self often invokes ideas of precision and detail. Through fitness wearables, for instance, we can see and know ourselves in more detail than ever before – following the subtly changing landscape of our biometrics in real time, if we want to.  Lisa Feldman Barrett has recently written in the New York Times about the importance of emotional granularity in health and well-being: experiencing nuanced shades of emotion rather than bigger umbrella states such as ‘great’ or ‘terrible’

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Beyond its role in capturing data, technology is playing a part in the rise of detail by allowing us to see and hear with fantastically heightened precision. Visual technologies are racing to ramp up the definition available: from the most commonly available level of resolution, Full HD, we are looking ahead to 4K Ultra HD (4K refers to the number of pixels contained in a frame on the horizontal axis). And while that is still on the horizon, 8K HD is already hoving into view: Japanese state broadcaster NBK is considering leapfrogging 4K to go straight to 8K – that’s how fast things are moving, says Steve Mays.

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The same development is happening in the audio space. High-res audio promises a dramatically increased bitrate – with ‘bits’ referring to units of audio data processed per second. ‘You can even feel sound beyond your natural hearing range, with exceptionally high frequencies of up to 100khz’, writes Sony of its USB DAC headphone amplifier

It’s a startling statement – a promise of sensory detail so granular that it will redefine the boundaries of human perception. Steve Mays says something similar in his previously-referenced article on the imminence of 8K visual definition, writing that it ‘inflates the envelope of human visual acuity and then pops it with a loud bang’

Implications

So what might be the consequences be of an expanded human sensory capacity, offering greater access to detail than before?

On the one hand, being able to see and hear more offers great potential for self-knowledge, with both therapeutic and political benefits. Recent BBC coverage of micro-aggressions shows how this can work in practice. By attending to the nuances and details of everyday life, tiny behaviours emerge that were unseen, or deliberately excluded from the frame, previously. When these behaviours work subtlely to reinforce power relations, they can legitimately be termed ‘micro-aggressions’ – examples include a woman getting interrupted more often than a male colleague in meetings, or a black person getting less eye contact in an interview.

Micro-aggressions are notoriously hard to challenge: it’s not one manifestation that’s the problem but their cumulative effect over time. They’re so subtle that to point them out can easily seem like paranoia and over-sensitivity.

Today, however, over-sensitive is the new normal. As we’ve seen, our sensory capacity is expanding due to complex technological and cultural factors. We are seeing more, hearing more, and picking up on more nuance and detail.

But this newly sensitised gaze can potentially be put to less empowering purposes. The tiny details of our lives, captured moment by moment on social media, are absorbed into algorithmic patterns that make us inescapably visible and knowable for all kinds of reasons.

So the implications of sensory expansion and the rise of detail are multiple. We get to see and hear more but more is also seen and heard about us. The phenomenon works in many ways and needs to be investigated using the very fine-grained attentiveness it has spawned.

 

 

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Women with cameras

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The women-with-cameras code shows a certain idea of the female creator to be on the rise.

Clunky, sometimes oversized, retro, even baroquely-steampunk cameras differentiate these photographers from the selfie-taker with her sleek smartphone. Instead, these women are adventurer-photographers in a 20th-century mode: daring, modernist, experimental.

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In this code, the female creator takes on the symbolic role of the 20th century male auteur: brave, solo and pioneering. It’s about individual vision and perspective – the same interest in uncompromising female creativity that has led Yves Saint Laurent to feature Joni Mitchell and Celine, Joan Didion.

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Fragile

A current visual code empties faces of their solidity to merge them with the worlds they inhabit. The self becomes a sheer layer within the world, no longer a separate entity. A major meaning behind the code: everything affects and influences us; we are our environment.

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photographer Jasper James

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Simple skincare

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I am food!

You see it often in France and Spain – images of foods, or soon-to-be-foods, joyfully anticipating and collaborating in their own consumption. Pigs are popular, probably because they are symbolically both eaters and eaten in many cultures.

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Animals and vegetables are also often seen sporting napkins, licking their lips and holding knives and forks, or stirring the pots which contain them.

You see this code in the UK and US too, but more often in an industrial context and with a competitive twist – for example, potatoes striving to be selected for the highest destiny of them all: the crisp packet.

Recently some friends in Barcelona sent me the startling image above of a frankfurter anointing itself with ketchup. There seems to be something so deep-rooted going on here about the place of food and nature in our world – and the celebration of the sacrifice which enables life to go on. Christ’s body was food, while a sage of one of the Upanishads sang: I am food! I am food! I am food! – fuel for the world and its transformations.

Perhaps the frankfurter anointing itself with ketchup, joyfully offering itself as food, represents a modern echo of these age-old themes.

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Classrooms of India

Education is important in India, so it’s not surprising to see ads set in classrooms. But this setting often has an additional function: to help negotiate conflicts between India’s emerging, youthful modernity and its long-established respect for tradition and authority.

Two TV ads currently being aired give us a very similar storyline: a hint of rebellion and autonomy amongst the students, followed by the restoration of the teacher’s authority. In an ad for Indian watch brand Titan, the students get to their feet in a chorus of their own making – as if standing up to the teacher with a display of their own ability to self-organise. But the hint of rebellion is a red herring, as they’re actually getting to their feet to present him with a retirement gift. Authority is restored; student autonomy becomes a way not to challenge but to pay a creative tribute to the teacher.

 

Similarly, in this ad for on-line fashion retailer Myntra, a display of student autonomy is resolved and neutralised – here, when the teacher appears to restore order.

In both ads, the storyline revolves around the tussle between youthful autonomy and self-expression on the one hand, and traditional structures, on the other. A balance is struck: tradition wins, while allowing students to express themselves within certain boundaries.

But a recent ad for newspaper The Hindu gives us a more unsettling account of the relationship between traditional power structures and the next generation. A class is asked to debate a political issue while observing ‘proper parliamentary behaviour’. The students take the instruction literally and a fight breaks out – copying the disorder previously seen in the Indian parliament. So here, there is no safe, respected authority to take back the reins: disorder is present at the heart of power itself.

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Models and Makers

Models are a big theme emerging in advertising and popular culture at the moment.

Talk Talk’s UK 2012 ad shows figurines from a toy village coming to life after the visitors have gone home.

Honda’s Channel 4 idents feature models of the brand’s crowning glories past and present.

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Ikea has brought out doll’s house furniture – not just for kids, designed to become adult collectibles too.

IKEA HUSET Doll's House Furniture

Beyond advertising and consumer culture, artists and designers such as Slinkachu and Christopher Boffoli (below)  are also using models, miniatures and figurines.

Christopher Boffoli

In Brighton, digital agency Developing Dreams and artist Emilia Telese have created an installation enabling people to be ‘printed out’, by a 3D printer, as a mini figurine.

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Semiotics can help spot emerging patterns like this one, identifying the bigger cultural meanings behind its diverse expressions. Here we can see a growing interest in the process of ‘making’ – the model implies the maker, and the miniature implies the power of  craft, skill, technology and the human hand itself. Many brands are now looking to explore this space and semiotics can provide the wider cultural awareness and conceptual tools to help them do so.