The Consumer as a Fan

I'm With the Brand

There's a parallel moment in nearly every episode of FANatic, MTV's new show that hooks up obsessed fans with their idols. Fan--upon meeting Celebrity--gains composure long enough to launch into a spiraling testimony about how Celeb has changed Fan's life. Sometimes there's a former drug problem, dead parents, depression, or poverty. In the midst of such catharsis, the stars come off as normal, reasonable, dull--real people after all.

Though "very MTV," formula alone can't account for the stunning similarities of the testimonies, which usually include bromides gleaned from Celeb's lyrics or interviews: Follow Your Heart; Strivers Achieve What Dreamers Believe; Be True to Yourself, Stay in School, Love Your Mother.

To the viewer--or anyone other than the fan, really--whether these beliefs were inspired by the Backstreet Boys or Van Halen (still waiting for the Strom Thurmond episode) is strangely irrelevant. The difference resides in the fanatic's head. Every so often even the star, instead of smiling appreciatively, will suggest that they're not all Fan imagines: "No, Johnny, you earned that A+" or "No, you got your life together, not me."

It's funny, but watching these testimonies to celebrity night after night undermines the very myth that makes them work: the belief that the object of affection matters. Said object could just as well be a foxy college professor, Jesus, or a brand of tennis shoes. Small wonder the pithy lessons gleaned from Celebs resemble ad slogans. The fanatic narrative, so fitting for MTV, is like that of commercials, with the stars working magic in the same way products do. Image is everything. Nike, Macintosh, Coke, Pepsi, Disney, whatever works for you.

She won't be on FANatic anytime soon, but Pepsi Girl Heather Denman drinks 14 cans a day, paints her fingernails with Pepsi logos, chooses her dates based on whether they drink Pepsi or Coke, and surrounds herself with Pepsi paraphernalia. The good people at Pepsi have even flown her to Hollywood for a Generation Next party.

Diehard Macintosh users are known as Evangelists for their zealous promotion of Macintosh products and circulation of lists such as Famous Mac Users and Why Mac Kicks Windoze Butt. Among Nike devotees, getting a tattoo is practically de rigueur. One fan, Claudia Montgomery, 37, sent me a letter she'd written (but never sent) to Nike chronicling her battle with drug abuse and eventual recovery through softball. She writes: "I am one of your most loyal customers. My closet is full of shoes and clothes. I guess one could say I have traded addictions. At least this one is healthy."

That consumer brands should inspire fans as devoted as those of musicians and celebrities makes sense in a way. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have long competed for each other's territory. Movies are long commercials, commercials are quickie movies.

Michael Jordan, Madonna, and the Spice Girls are not only themselves products (or brands) but ads. Buy the album. See the movie. Wear the cologne. Watch TV. A recent New York Times article suggests that Rosie O'Donnell--herself a vocal fan of theater--is the best ad Broadway could have, in the same way Oprah is the best ad books can have. This isn't strictly endorsement, which assumes that the one doing the endorsing is outside the picture. This is more like borrowing Snap! Crackle!, and Pop! to sell milk instead of cereal. As Advertising Age puts it: stars today don't sell brands, they are brands.

And brands, in turn, are human. Personification may be nothing new--Mr. Jenkins is only a recent addition to the pantheon starring Mickey Mouse and Tony the Tiger. But personification is only the most obvious method. Most brands work by acquiring social traits in one form or another. Market researchers frequently strategize by asking consumers, "If Vaseline were a person, what kind of person would she be?" "If you were at a party, whom would you rather talk to: Cadillac or Volkswagen?" Why? Because no one buys yellow carbonated sugar water or four-wheeled hunks of metal. They buy Mountain Dew or Saturn.

As a metaphor for consumption, though, FANatic is incomplete. Where are the cynics? And the dirt diggers? Most Pepsi drinkers don't collect used cans for wallpaper.

And in fact many of those cheering for celebrities joke about it. Internet followers of Ariel--the full-figured cartoon protagonist of The Little Mermaid--formed a group called Arielholics Anonymous to treat their "dangerous addiction." The Web site reads: "Can you recite the movie, the TV episodes, and all the songs by heart? Do you have urges to rub warm olive oil over Ariel? Did you need to take out a loan to pay for your expenditures on Ariel merchandise . . . then you need help fast!"

Fans of Mentos have written at length about the company's campy commercials, analyzing them for hidden meanings, staking out obscure details behind their creation, and sharing "Real-life Mento Moments." A lengthy Mentos FAQ--complete with company history, jingle lyrics, "Flavor Considerations," eating instructions, fan fiction, and loads of minutiae--is available on one of several Mentos Web sites.

Warm olive oil . . . ?

Whether these folks are any less obsessed than die-hard "Disneyaniacs," Mac Evangelists, or Nike lovers is arguable. They are, however, ironic rather than earnest. You can be obsessed as long as you do it with a self-awareness of being obsessed . . . a response advertising actually encourages. Ads all but beg to be read ironically: the "not believing" is built right in. That sense of detachment flatters us and keeps us watching.

Joshua Gamson is a Yale professor who's written about the way audiences increasingly crave info about the manufacture of fame--the story behind the story. "The process is a story in itself," says Gamson. Look at the Entertainment Weekly stories dissecting Eddie Murphy's "image 'recovery strategy' " and the anti-ads (Sprite's "Image is nothing," Miller Lite's Dick) that make fun of advertising. The exposure of artifice--rather than turning us away from commercial culture--engages us in other ways. When authenticity is irrelevant, we can see the celebs/ads as prefabricated jokes and remain wholly entertained. Witness all the anti-Hanson, anti-Titanic ("the Titanic sank, let's move on"), anti-Tamagotchi zines and Web sites. Of course, people focused on hating the Spice Girls--and collecting pictures, building Web sites, and making jokes about hating the Spice Girls--are nonetheless focused on the Spice Girls. Their criticisms don't challenge consumption; they suggest we're not consuming the right stuff.

"Everything is in terms of consumption," says Gamson (who, for the record, loves the Spice Girls, hates Disney, and suspects Julia Roberts could turn him straight). What's disturbing, he argues, is not that we use consumption symbols to create and communicate--but the fact that that's all we use. Commercial symbols clearly address real, human needs. But the solution they provide to meet them leads on a treadmill to nowhere. How to transcend mere fandom (or prove inspiration)? Be a bigger fan. To stand out from the audience, watch more, collect more, and whatever you do, be visible about it!

Stepping off the treadmill means not simply exposing and countering ads or TV shows, but creating real alternatives to commercial culture. For instance? Um, we're working on it. Meanwhile, Jazzercise?

e-mail: stayfree@sunsite.unc.edu

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