Art and lies: capitalism, marketing & consumption
- By John Rooks -
- Jan 31, 2013
A group of students at the Maine College of Art’s (MECA) Art and Organizing: Connectivity & Culture class recently set out to explore transactional relationships and consumerism. Their project was part of a growing trend of “re-imagining” Capitalism today - one that takes social and environmental conditions into consideration for direct positive impact.
The fact that “Time as Currency” has recently leaked into pop-culture is a marker of a cultural trend. Justin Timberlake’s movie 'In Time' imagines a future where people work for time added to their lives, or die.
For #collcons, platforms like Yerdle.com, FriendsWithThings.com, Neighborrow.com allow users simply borrow items from other users. Some platform owners admit that they will eventually need to place a common value on the transaction, once they build an audience (investors are picky that way). Perhaps it is not so much Capitalism that they are changing, but Consumerism. But can you change Capitalism with the rules (Consumption) that prop it up in the first place? No, you can’t.
Other #collcons like AirBnB.com (beds and couches), Zipcar.com (cars), BabyPlays.com (toys), Zookal.com (text books) rely on traditional Capitalist values— cold, hard cash— but offer a one to many relationship (one product shared across many consumers). This is social-ized consumption. This is how Capitalism is being re-imagined today. And while it is entertaining and important, it’s not very re-imaginative.
The students at MECA recombined both approaches, added a twist, and re-imagined it this way: What if the price of a piece of art was that the consumer had to do something for someone else? The cost of a sculpture or t-shirt was, say, five volunteer hours. This approach changes not only the act of consumption but importantly the dialogue surrounding Cause Consumption
This, businesspeople will argue, is not very helpful. “How do I make money in a three-party economic system with a currency I can’t spend?” Maybe you don’t. Maybe someone else does. Or maybe we can simply take this experiment as a lesson in ROI Engineering. Like most Art, its job was to create a new line of sight, not offer the business community a new set of Capitalist strategies. For the art students, the transaction itself created a new value - a value to the greater culture.
Here’s the lesson...
What if we engineered our business strategies (marketing, for instance) to have Cultural ROI in addition to Financial ROI? Could we for example, develop promotions that provide direct benefit to the community? I do not include raising money for a cause here, simply because it is an easy out. Instead, point to Tide’s Loads of Hope campaign where the brand rolls into towns hit by natural disasters and does laundry for cold, dirty, exhausted people. This act of promotion enables a triple ROI. 1) It promotes the brand; 2) it supports a community in a tangible way; and 3) it re-introduces the concept of helping each other out that our political leaders seem to have lost. (More examples here: http://issuu.com/rooks/docs/more_than_promote)
The student’s art project reminds us that it’s the act of changing perspective (not necessarily the new view) that often changes ideologies. I’m not naive enough to think that we are going to change the underpinnings of our financial system in the next 100 years. But I am naive enough to believe that we can start to think about creating additional— possibly even culturally and environmentally restorative— value in the process.
Disclaimer: My company The SOAP Group was a community partner in the ideation of this student-led project. More at www.thesoapgroup.com
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