The function of Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters, the mainstream hipster chain, has been in the news recently because it appears their sales are dipping.

Urban Outfitters has always been good at feigning cutting edge authenticity right down to their fake second-hand t-shirts. But might their flagging sales be a sign that their carefully constructed maven-driven brand be waning?

Could it be due to the emergence of ‘normcore’, which may (or may) not be the antithesis of UO’s veneration of unending novelty, that people are becoming tired with novelty, that UO is being seen as inauthentic and by younger people as clothes for old people or, simply, is it the impact of years of economic recession on a company selling very expensive lifestyle brands?

Whatever is behind it (and I’m sure they’ll rise, phoenix-like out of the ashes of lower-than-expected-profit-growth), I thought it was time to revisit a ranticle I wrote in 2003 at a time I was quite taken with critical theory and Situationism.

Let’s see if it stands up to time, and foolish youth.

“What is lost, what is disappearing, is secrecy. Everything has to be rendered visible. Nothing exists unless it’s hyper-visible.” – Jean Baudrillard.

If anything is to define the last decade of the twentieth century and the new millennium it’s nostalgia. History is supposed to be dead – at least the history we were taught, the history we were sure of. That kind of history was written by the winners for the winners. The alternative histories, the ones told by the losers, were deemed irrelevant and unimportant to the grander narratives – like the great nineteenth century, nationalist projects. These were the great nation-building days of Bismarck, the Habsburgs and King George V, history was something to be embraced like a confident, reassuring handshake from your father. This was the way it was and this is the way it shall be.

All we have today are alternative histories. It’s coldly ironic that in an age of mass global communication, society has become more fractured and historically isolated than, probably, ever before. Every episode in history, which once could have embodied your entire country’s being, can be syndicated for television and consumed by the insatiable culture machine that is the mass media. Real history, the type that built nations, the type that meant so much has just become another commodity – all historical events are equal in that they’re plastic and disposable. Instead of one clear narrative, the fabric of our collective heritage has been blasted apart by wave after wave of philosophical iconoclasts and capitalised on by everyone. There are so many interconnecting strands to our experience, past and present, that devoid of essential meaning, everything has become a sort of commodity – even our own individual experiences.

The current flux of nostalgia, then, must be a reaction to this historical breakdown. When ‘objective’ accounts of history become obsolete and every event is downgraded to nothing but a quantum variable, where can anyone turn for meaning? Surely the only direction is inward. Nostalgia, then, is the expression of a subtle kind of existential crisis; in order for people to prove themselves to themselves and achieve identity, they naturally begin to refer to themselves, to their own history. It’s possible to trace this shift through art. Modernist art has veered away from the hubristic, all-encompassing theories of the Bauhaus, Suprematism and De Stijl to a more introspective method of self-referral – modern art, now, is characterised by unscrupulous references to itself through an inaccessible bricolage of nearly untranslatable signs and signifiers. There’s no certainty of meaning, just individual interpretation which is, in itself, dependent on each individual’s experiences and memories.

This recent compulsion to always justify your own existence through external signs may have begun with the compulsion of art to represent reality in its own terms, because it has encountered its own crisis, but people now appear to be doing the same thing. People are beginning to define themselves in terms of objects and commodities and experiences and memories more than before, collective or otherwise. In this sense, we’ve truly entered the reality of the sign; people don’t seem so content to foster memories as actualities, we have to own something to prove it to ourselves that we were there – or not, as the case may be.

Of course, other cultural artefacts from the television and the movies serve as a slightly different kind of currency. These are the kind of memories we have that we’re certain of: Saturdays spent watching The A-Team, Tuesdays spent watching MacGyver and the Crystal Maze or weekdays wasted watching Ulysses 31 and Thundercats. Instead of identifying ourselves with our nations’ past histories, we’re much more content talking about things which really did form us. Conversely, this brand of alternative, individual history, in all its solipsistic undertones, has generated a whole culture that is much more open to discuss things that really meant something then and means something now – who are willing to involve themselves in animated discourse. Who says we have to talk about politics all the time?

Quite simply, people are turning away from grand history as a primary form of identification and meaning to these alternative histories which are now becoming more culturally evident. The serendipitous meetings of millions of histories are coming to mean much more to young people than any book composed by Jacob Bronowski, E. H. Gombrich or Isaiah Berlin.

The process of proving yourself is as much a personal matter as it is interpersonal. Those late night, animated conversations about who was can play Face in The A-Team movie is a common example of a natural instinct: to prove yourself to yourself through dialogue – through other people. As much as historical certainty is a subjective matter, we’ll never fully relinquish our instinct to insist we’re right even if infinite diversity has generated latent indifference to most things. Whatever happens, we’re going to stand up for what we believe in because that’s who we are and who we convince ourselves we are.

Will the second machine age kill off account planning?

A while back, I mused about the coming of the second machine age and the singularity. As computers get better and better at doing more and more human jobs, what will this mean for humans? (You might ask what it will also mean for computers, but they’re not conscious yet and can’t entertain such questions.)

As the first machine age made large swathes of people into animate detritus of the early 20th century, will the second age do the same to ‘creative’ sectors like advertising and, self-interest to declare here, account planners?

Well, it definitely looks like the role will have to radically transform.

The ‘big data’ explosion of information-gobbling Leviathans across the globe is reducing the work planners have had to put into finding, comparing, cross-referencing, controlling and analysing data when working on accounts.

This, theoretically, reduces their time spent on this, meaning they can see more and do more more quickly and more cheaply, their productivity skyrockets, their ‘insight-per-hourly-labour-input’ ratio goes through the roof and agencies and clients make buckets of money. Right?

There is no doubt that properly aggregated and deployed data helps advertising/communications much more targeted and effective. There’s a whole industry in market and advertising intelligence services where users can manipulate nearly real-time data be tweaking a few parameters here and there.

But Chris Kocek, in his ‘The Practical Pocket Guide to Account Planning‘, makes the point that as useful as all these data analytics tools are, planners actually have to spend quite a lot of time calibrating them to ensure that the results are actually relevant, useful and meaningful. It could actually take so much time to tweak these systems that a planner may have been better off sitting in a café, running a focus group or door-stepping some shoppers to find that killer insight. Or at least clarified their objectives and got the precise information required for the job through old fashioned means.

In my previous blog on the second machine age, I mentioned John Searle, the philosopher who dogmatically argued that machines may ape consciousness but they’ll never possess meaning. I can see both sides to this argument (but don’t totally agree).

On one hand, computers will do whatever we tell them, and if we tell them to become so complex and to cross-reference data so much that they begin to make very meaningful associations about the natural and social world and then begin acting in ways consistent with that, who are we to say they don’t possess meaning?

On the other hand, I still think there’s a qualitative difference between that and being a human with a nervous system (the human brain is the most complex structure in the universe), with thoughts and feelings and passions and feelings about memories (computers are brilliant at memory, but not so good on feeling) and, deep down, utterly incomprehensible irrationality kept in check by an unfathomably complex thing we call culture or society. (Does this bring me close to David Chalmers’ position on consciousness?)

Thought and feeling are inseparable anyway.

This is why we crave stories. Our civilisations are built around mystery and myth and meaning, all of which encompass our deepest truths, desires and fears.

If account planning is about uncovering these deep truths, based strongly on intuition, backed up by solid information, deployed by an agency to solve a client’s business problem by answering (and creating) people’s needs and desires, then how could machines replace this function without being (nearly) human themselves?

Only then might planners’ jobs be at risk from machines; but if machines eventually become as human as ourselves, then we’ll be colleagues so we might not even see things that way. Or, in another scenario, the robots will be better than us in every way, in which case we’re all doomed.