Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Marketing Character

This blog originally appeared on October 23, 2011.

When Jean-Paul Sartre described a life lived etre de mauvaise foi he was not speaking so much of dishonesty or destructiveness to others, but rather, a dishonesty to oneself. The bad faith examined by Sartre is the life lived in what Heidegger called fallenness. Heidegger described the person who has become lost in culture, buried so deeply in the layers of the social that the authentic self is concealed. Heidegger does not isolate the self from culture; however, he does describe authenticity as a remembering or awareness of the identification with culture. This is the soul of Sartre’s bad faith -a life completely forgotten in the isolated spectacle of the manufactured desire.

Nearly seventy years ago Eric Fromm described a panorama of bad faith found in contemporary, American society. Whereas Sartre spoke of bad faith in a general way, Fromm identified and described taxonomy of social personality patterns. Although these descriptions were made in the postwar heyday of consumer America, they are more prevalent now than ever before. The character orientations of American society clearly illustrate our cultural evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo consumens.
“Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality.” -Eric Fromm
The Ways of Being in Society: Ethics of Adaptiveness
In Man for Himself Fromm describes five character styles that are of bad faith. In speaking of these five ways of being, Fromm uses the term character. Although this term has become demonized in contemporary, objective trait theory, the term necessarily includes ethics as a core of who we are. Fromm’s 1947 text is subtitled: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. The point here is a vital one -a personality theory that is value-free is, necessarily, free of value. Purging ethics from the human removes the distinction between the species, the thing that makes Homo sapiens, sapiens.

Character is an adaptive quality or orientation that arises from a specific environment. Evolutionary psychology calls this the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness (EEA). Personality, however, must be considered not only in terms of the environment but also in terms of the attitude one takes towards the EEA. In this way we have a very complex interaction between the EEA, attitude, and style of being. Some of this, of course, is deliberate, calculated, and intentional, but most of who we are is completely habitual and unconscious.
As both a product and producer of our social and political environment, we can see the traits of individual character in the political and social milieu of the EEA. There is no better archetype of culture manifested as character than that of contemporary, America and what Fromm called the marketing character.
The Industrial Revolution introduced the ability to produce massive surplus. Unlike the artisan who would be individually employed to produce a particular table or chair for a specific patron, the mechanized factory can mass-produce replicated, identical goods in such quantity that no wait is necessary for the consumer. However, this changed the dynamic between producer and consumer, from an individually produced article for a unique customer, to a mass produced product for an abstract consumer. When supply exceeded demand, demand itself needed to be manufactured. This was the birth of marketing -the manufacturing of desire.
It was not long until human beings, categorized as either blue or white-collared, became commodities themselves. The Industrial Revolution and mass marketing of products cultivated an EEA in which human beings, themselves, became commoditized products with a market value. This is most evident today in the corporate human resources departments. In contemporary America we cease to be people and instead become brands, commodities, or resources to be bought, sold, and consumed.
Growing up in this EEA makes one oblivious to it. This is known as captivation-in-an-acceptedness, the state of not considering to question the taken for granted conditions of existence. The contemporary Zeitgeist of American culture is that of the marketing orientation. The objective of the American education system is not to encourage innovative, dynamic, and radical thinking, but rather to produce marketable job candidates. We have come to value ourselves in terms of marketability.
The objective of the American education system is not to encourage innovative, dynamic, and radical thinking, but rather to produce marketable job candidates.
The result of this shift, from I am what I do to I am what will sell, is evident in the advertising and media images that are used as icons of success. The celebrated image of the survival of the fittest businessperson, like Donald Trump, or the vacuously hollow indifference of the fashion model, is imitated on the street and in the office. Although we do not personally know these celebrities we rely on their image to teach us how to be (or appear to be) successful.
A basic need of human being is a sense of identity. The marketing character comes to understand herself not by what she is, but rather, by what others think of her.  Fromm proposed that prestige, status, success, and notability are the basis of the marketing character’s sense of self. I will argue that today it is not merely success, status, and notability that is important, but rather, it is the appearance of these qualities that makes the marketable self.
It is also noticeable of this way of being that as one regards himself as a commodity he will come to regard others as commodities to be bought and sold as well. Others cease to be people, for the marketing character, and are instead a means to an end. The marketing character does not have a human exchange with others, but uses others as she uses products.
The marketing character style is a phenomenon of contemporary, American, culture. This life orientation is unique to the social and political climate of Post-World War II, America. It is a way of being that orients itself not on what one is, but rather, what one appears to be.