How has this monotony come about? The internet and social media have a lot to answer for. Perhaps you’re thinking about your summer wardrobe. A quick peek at Instagram will show you how everyone else is styling the latest trends to perfection. Those trends have filtered down from the catwalk so bewilderingly fast that you might be finding it hard to keep up – but don’t worry. Various internet sites can put together an entire outfit for you at the click of a mouse. After all, a look that’s generated by computer algorithms drawn from what people all over the world are wearing surely can’t be wrong.
You can similarly discover what you should be eating, guided by a host of social media gurus and celebrities; kale is a little passé but a swift Google will reveal plenty of recipes for chia. (If you’re dining out, you’ll probably be sitting under exposed ducting; the industrial aesthetic that used to be so original is now seen in chain restaurants across the world.) Shopping for your home? You’ll no doubt be seeking something handcrafted and artisanal; it’s a wonder that the world’s artisans can keep pace with demand. The rise and rise of the ‘curator’ mean ‘good taste’ has never been so easy to achieve. Similarly, there is plenty of help out there for those wondering what to think. As with ‘good taste’, the middle ground is safest. Students, generally considered radical thinkers, are refusing platforms to speakers with controversial views at universities across the UK and US, aiming to make campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where no one feels offended, threatened – or challenged. Politicians, businesspeople, actors and other prominent folk know that one ill-judged comment or Tweet can cause serious career damage, so they (or their PRs) police every word. Friends first broadcast more than 20 years ago, remains one of the most popular television series of all time, endlessly downloaded and broadcast; according to USA Today, it earns Warner Bros $1bn per year as its gentle, unthreatening humor enchants the next generations of viewers. It’s all very nice. And very beige. And rather fake. As we become disillusioned with endless choice, skeptical of the perfection portrayed on social media, and bored by homogenization, the refreshingly bold and the unashamedly brash are coming to the fore, offering a new and welcome honesty across the board.
We are becoming immune to novelty, simply because we’re seeing too much new stuff – and too much stuff that isn’t even new, but more of the same. There’s nothing aspirational about good taste that you can simply cut and paste; we’re spoiled for choice but bored with choice at the same time. Even designers whose Maison d’être is getting us to buy stuff are acknowledging this. Paul Smith, talking to Business of Fashion earlier this year about the radical streamlining of his business (read more about fashion’s restructuring in our Undercurrents feature), said, ‘I think the world has gone mad. There’s this absolute horrendous disease of greed and over-expansion and unnecessary, massive oversupply of product.’ A study by Harris Poll and Eventbrite shows Millennials prefer to do things rather than buy things: 78% would rather pay for an experience than material goods, compared with 59% of Boomers. There is also more awareness of inequality of kinds – and frustration at lack of action.
The middle classes are shrinking; according to the Pew Research Center, the middle class in the US has shrunk to half the population for the first time in 40 years – and, while this represents both the American rich getting richer and the American poor getting poorer, more people are slipping into poverty than climbing the income ladder. The recent leaking of the Panama Papers, which detailed information about more than 200,000 offshore companies, is the latest scandal to highlight how much easier it is for the rich across the world to ‘avoid’ tax than the poor (local traders in the small Welsh town of Crickhowell took their taxes offshore earlier this year in a flamboyant, headline-grabbing protest against the tax avoidance tactics of large multinationals). The European refugee crisis has ignited strong responses at both extremes, ranging from mandatory quotas across the EU to closing borders entirely. Anger is leading people to take their desire for change beyond simply clicking on an online petition: voters in the US, UK and Europe are abandoning centrist politicians and turning to extremes both right and left. Germany is among the European countries seeing the rise of far-right nationalist groups, left-wing Jeremy Corbyn amazed pundits by winning the leadership of the UK Labour party, and the clearest example must surely be that of right-wing Donald Trump’s initial success in the US presidential campaign. Trump’s uncompromising, bold, simple messages form a large part of his appeal. ‘Trump is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms,’ as one voter told The Atlantic.
Trump is not the only prominent figure with a resonant voice. Comedians such as Amy Schumer and satirists such as Andy Dawson, writer of the Get in the Sea Facebook and Twitter feeds, cut to the chase with direct language that pulls no punches – and grabs our attention. The sea, as Dawson observes, is ‘cold, wet, and unforgiving’ – and, as such, the ‘perfect place to dump shit products, moronic people, and crap pop culture.’ Among his candidates for submersion: water sommeliers, juicing, and Shoreditch. Get in the Sea was lifted from niche rant to mainstream book when it was published by the Michael Joseph Penguin imprint. Rowland White, publishing director at Michael Joseph, told the Bookseller magazine: ‘Rarely can a few words I can’t repeat here have been used quite so expressively, surgically and deservedly as they are on Get in the Sea’s Twitter feed. The care and intelligence – not to mention a righteous sense of outrage – is there for all to see. And it’s funny.’ Josh Ostrovsky, aka The Fat Jew, similarly uses humour and satire in pop-culture commentary: ‘Fat Jew teaches free spinning classes to homeless people on Citibikes that aren’t in use so they can achieve toned bodies. He’s such a giver.’
Instagram, officially described as ‘a simple way to capture and share the world’s moments’, is, on the face of it, simply a fun way to share images. But we’re getting wise to the less appealing side of the perfect images people present on social media, which is increasingly being exposed as a marketing tool rather than a social arena. Widely followed celebrities such as the Kardashians can command an alleged $300,000 per post. And a number of studies have shown how the immaculate lifestyles that social media portrays make followers feel jealous and inadequate. That perfection, however, is not all it seems. For a debunking of Instagram, look no further than Essence O’Neill’s page. The 19-year-old former ‘Instagram star’ has rewritten the captions of pictures on her page, detailing not only how she was paid to wear the clothes she’s showing off and the make-up needed to cover her acne, but also the painstaking 50 shots and skilled use of filters needed to achieve just one ‘spontaneous’ image – the kind of picture O’Neill refers to as a ‘perfectly contrived candid shot’. She is now working on a satirical book, How to Be Social Media Famous, and aims to become a writer. Other critiques are more subtle. Excellences and Perfections, an art project by Amalia Ulman, gained tens of thousands of followers drawn in by the invented Instagram progress of a young women who moved to LA, got a breast enlargement, went through a breakdown, and documented the whole process via a series of selfies – a spoof hailed as an artistic triumph, and also a sharp takedown of Instagram perfection. The joke, Ulman explained, was ‘admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.’
It’s not just the perfected, standardized body that is over-exposed (Keira Knightley gained possibly more publicity than she would originally have garnered by insisting that a 2014 topless Patrick Demarchelier shoot for Interview magazine was not retouched). Design aesthetics are often equally cookie-cutter. Oikos, a ‘lifestyle magazine for realists’, has been described on the It’s Nice That website (itself a seeker of the new and original) as ‘a fine antidote to the “fifty shades of beige” lifestyle sold to us by some popular magazines’. The first issue featured ads for contraception, an interview conducted in a sauna and beautifully photographed food waste. Oikos founder and editor Ria Roberts notes ‘a highly pervasive aesthetic in lifestyle brands that could be called soft minimalism or perhaps secular Puritanism. This is the world of things arranged neatly and #KinfolkCoffeeSunglasses. They employ a muted palette, sometimes punctuated by the saturated colors of houseplants, pressed juices and organic produce.’ Not Another, an installation and magazine series by designers Daniela Treija and Sara Sturges, pokes fun at the ubiquity of the repetitive design tropes Roberts touches on: pineapples, marble, carefully positioned plants.
‘Not Another was inspired by creatives who are grabbing the nearest idea which fits with their criteria,’ explains Sturges. ‘These visual cues and stylistic tools are replacing good old-fashioned originality. Why go through the strain and drama of creating something new and uncertain when you can reach into the wide resource of existing stylistic tools and create something tried and tested and almost guaranteed to be visually coherent and universally adored?’ Set designer and Wolff Olin’s creative director Sandy Suffield also wittily acknowledges the deception behind the glossy image. Her Faking It project, created in collaboration with photographer Dan Matthews and food stylist Jack Sargeson, shows beautiful images of food – but reveals that the ‘champagne’ is, in fact, water, soy sauce, and Alka-Seltzer, and acknowledges that the delicious-looking ice cream is made of instant mashed potato by including the pack in frame. Also in the realm of food, the Deliciously Stella Instagram page in praise of junk food pokes fun at the virtuous Deliciously Ella website’s healthy recipes (founder Bella Younger, who has a book coming out later this year, told Buzzfeed she started the account because she’d ‘spent four hours a day looking at Instagram and feeling bad about myself’) while hashtags such as #cakefail, which allow people to wryly share their genuine, less-than-perfect attempts at recreating elegant recipes, are as far from food porn as it’s possible to get.
SKEWERING THE CLICHÉS
Marketing is similarly not immune to subversive piss-taking. Brands of all kinds have homed in on the idea of the artisanal narrative recently and as a result, the ‘authenticity’ tag, much over-used, has become particularly vulnerable to satire. The Kinfolk lifestyle magazine, which documents ‘simple living’ with carefully composed pictures, has found itself the butt of the Kinspiracy joke, which mercilessly parodies the original magazine’s studied image style on Instagram. A spoof ad spot for artisanal firewood showing the production of handcrafted bundles from Smoke & Flame, ‘North America’s only premium handcrafted firewood manufacturer’, priced at $1,200 each, also nailed a number of those artisanal clichés; maker CBC skewers the aproned, bearded maker, the close-up workshop shots, the overearnest voiceover, the eye-watering prices. Quilted Northern’s birchbark toilet paper April Fool spoof this year pointed up similar stereotypes, using an equally inappropriate product to underscore the joke.
SEEKING AUTHENTIC AUTHENTICITY
So how are brands to respond to this tricky mix of ennui and dissent? Realism and honesty are the keys. ‘Realness is becoming more and more prevalent in mainstream culture, taking on many different forms,’ says Ria Roberts, editor of Oikos. Brands such American Eagle’s sister lingerie brand Aerie have launched campaigns emphasising real women and lack of retouching. Popular ‘plus-size’ model Barbie Ferreira was the first size US size 12 (UK size 16) model to be chosen for American Eagles’ #AerieReal campaign. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the word curvy or plus-size because there are women who identify as that, and I’m not offended by it whatsoever because I don’t feel like being bigger is anything wrong,’ Ferreira told Time magazine. ‘Curvy and plus-size models will just be models once it becomes more normalised and we get more representation and people are used to it and not shocked by it.’ That normalisation may be on the way on the catwalk as well as in campaigns. IMG’s new Brawn division focuses on plus-size men, avoiding the usual clichés of both gym-honed physique and male waif. Eva Gödel, who runs German modelling agency Tomorrow is Another Day, is known for street-scouting unconventional-looking men for Rick Owens, Hedi Slimane and other fashion heavyweights. She told Dazed & Confused that the archetypal buffed body ‘never drew her interest’. Some of her most successful models, she added, she found when simply driving around. ‘Of course, I have some who are classically good-looking, which I like as well, but really a lot of them are not so. Most of the time when I ask if they want to come for casting at my modelling agency, they laugh and say, “You’re fooling me, this is a joke,” or whatever. I tell them to look at the website then they really like it.’ Clothing brand & Other Stories, part of H&M, recently launched a lingerie campaign called For Women, By Women, with an all-natural aesthetic. The campaign stars real women rather than professional models: body hair, tattoos, scars and birthmarks are not retouched. Products are also being founded on the premise of solving real problems and breaking taboos. Thnx is a new underwear brand for women to wear while menstruating, avoiding the need for tampons or pads. The brand blends great design with technology and straight-talking communications.
BAD TASTE MARKETING
One sure way to stand out against a bland background is to deliberately set out to shock – or even offend. ‘It’s becoming harder to gain standout in a world of startling technological developments and a bombardment of messaging through various channels,’ Emma Harris, founder of the Glow London consultancy, told Marketing magazine. ‘Pushing boundaries is a great way to cut through to the consumer and create the talkability factor.’ Diesel creative director Nicola Formichetti recently announced to Dazed & Confused that from SS16 the brand will be advertising on YouPorn and Pornhub. ‘At Diesel, we want to talk about things that not everyone else is talking about – I like that we get to do that. Sexuality is still a taboo in today’s world,’ he said. Diesel’s advertising already subverts more traditional campaigns by being totally open about the purpose of ads with slogans such as ‘This is where we tell you what to wear’. Of course, one era’s bad taste is another’s norm: French Connection’s FCUK campaign, which caused outrage in the 1990s, would now barely raise an eyebrow. However, this kind of advertising can also backfire. Or can it? Is the publicity generated by causing offence in fact worth it? Fruity King, which runs mobile gambling games, has insulted Amy Schumer and footballer Yaya Toure’s wife Gineba, and ‘joked’ about Yemeni child slaves – leading to official industry watchdog reprimands and criticism on Twitter. An ad for Irish bookmaker Paddy Power that mentioned disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius was the most complained about in the UK in 2014. An online petition at Change.org demanding it be withdrawn attracted more than 125,000 signatures; the Advertising Standards Authority took the unusual step of ordering the campaign to be pulled immediately, saying it was likely to cause widespread offence.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
Clarity and originality don’t stem from following the herd. With so many visual media platforms to draw on, and the speed at which ideas and concepts are now disseminated, it’s all too easy to be sucked into the current zeitgeist – whatever it may be. When a bandwagon is hurtling past you, resist the urge to jump on. Brands that challenge or empower consumers, and encourage them to be true to themselves, rather than simply trying to shepherd them in the same direction as everyone else, enable self-confidence and originality. They also attract the consumer interest and attention that is so difficult to capture with a blander message. Rebels need to be honest, courageous – and independent. Even large companies are tending to externalise their anti-bland teams to locations where there is no danger that risk-averse corporate policy will rein in creativity or subversion; 38% of the world’s 200 biggest companies have launched separate innovation units in global tech hubs, according to the 2015 Innovation Game report from Altimeter Group and Capgemini Consulting. Fresh thinking has to be nimble and fluid, not constrained and overly monitored. While social media drives blandness and sameness, and makes us think that we all like and want the same things, it’s also a powerful tool for those challenging the status quo. Across all platforms, there needs to be a genuine, truthful message behind the subversion, wit and sharpness (or bluntness) that will get your message across. Consumers responded positively to authenticity before that message lost its validity due to being over-peddled – but the underlying desire for honesty and realness is as authentic as it ever was.