Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part One)

Although in his own day, Kerouac wasn’t particularly known for his sense of fashion, he has since become a fashion symbol. Levi Strauss paid $18,000 to use Kerouac’s name to sell jeans. Gap also used Kerouac to push merchandise a few years back when they told us, Kerouac wore khakis. Italian leather company Hogan made headlines this spring with its announcement of the Jack Kerouac Project. The Kerouac-inspired fashion line includes a $1,590 bomber style jacket, two styles of shoes (a $295 high top sneaker and a $475 working boot) and three bags (a travel bag, book bag, and back pack priced from $950 to $1,290), according to Fashion Week Daily. The Village Voice relates that the company stated that the Kerouac line is “a clear reference to Jack Kerouac’s mood and sensibility to which Hogan strongly relates, captured in the rugged and original preppy nomad appeal.”

Emerging Thoughts

I took my 130 books to Second Treasure, the recycling shop at the tip in Wellington.  As I said before, I selected these books because they have no meaning for me; they have remained objects and not become transformed into mementos.

If you walk around that junk shop you can see all kinds of things from the cupboards and spare rooms of houses all over Wellington.  I looked at rows of paintings leaning against the wall, and through the record bins at LPs by John Hanlon, Lionel Richie, and countless others.  There were odd bits of furniture, and battered stereos and TVs.  Even, among a pile of junk, an old slide projector. 

In the final episode of Season One of Madmen there is a scene in which our “hero”, Don Draper, presents his vision of an ad campaign to Kodak for their latest design innovation; a rotating slide cartridge (pictured above).

I have provided a link to the segment here, but if you have not seen the show much of the impact is taken away, and perhaps it is better not to see it this way, as a highlights package, it’s a bit like tearing a page out of your favourite book and telling a friend to read it.

Don tells the Kodak men that the way to promote this product is not to focus on the technology, but on something more powerful.

My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro, a copy writer, a Greek, named Teddy, and Teddy told me the most important idea is… “new”.  It creates an itch.  You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.

But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product.  Nostalgia.  It’s delicate, but potent.

Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound”.  It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. 

This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine.  It goes backwards, and forwards, it takes us to a place where we ache to go again….  It lets us travel the way a child travels, round and around, and back home again to a place where we know we were loved.

The marketing for Mackenzie bread seeks this; the power of nostalgia.  Of course we usually think that nostalgia is personal, but I think that groups of people in a country can also have a kind of national nostalgia.  The funny version of this national nostalgia gimmick is played out in the L&P ads (brought to you by Coca Cola), and the serious version is often tried when someone is using the All Blacks to sell something.  Probably the most successful version of this in New Zealand must have been the Toyota ads that featured the Welcome to Our World song.  All of these ads are appealing to a shared nostalgia for a New Zealand where you could leave your keys in the car, where the All Blacks played mainly because they loved it, and where empty man-alone landscapes were readily available.  Whether this New Zealand actually existed or not is a moot point; some of us like to imagine it existed.

But Don Draper is right about using nostalgia in advertising; it is delicate as well as potent.  Delicate means that the advertising guys usually blow it.  They blow it because of things like this photo.

It is a picture of my mother mucking around on the slopes at Tekapo some time in the 1960s, with two friends.  My dad is taking the picture.  This photo represents a piece of family history.  Even though I was not around when this picture was taken, the fact that I would come here many years later because my mum and dad had in the past makes that place more special for me.

Strangely, Mackenzie bread do not use this photo in any of their ad campaigns although they do try to speak to me directly about the special quality of the Mackenzie Country, and the past.  Don Draper uses his own family pictures to pitch his ad idea to Kodak, and boy is it effective, but when that ad campaign rolls out they will not be using Don’s family pictures, they will be using something generic and staged to simulate the same effect.

Our specific memories are generalised to manipulate us into buying crap we don’t need from companies that don’t care.  Funny thing is that some of that crap becomes meaningful, and creates a twinge in our heart that takes us back to a place where we know we were once loved, or where we once loved to be.

This is my favourite book cover.  I am pretty sure it will always be my favourite even as my opinion of the book changes with time.  I could have gotten this book out of the library or borrowed it off a friend, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I’m glad I went down to the bookstore and bought my very own copy.  I bought it on my birthday, and I have inscribed the inside cover with my name and the date: 9 March 1993.

I remember lying on the grass in front of the Hunter Building reading On the Road.  The first few years at university were a very happy time for me, and endless possibilities seemed reachable, possible.  Later, as friends left and I stayed on and on I felt like the last guest at a party wandering around empty rooms strewn with streamers and discarded bottles, but at the time I read this book that feeling was in the future.  When I read On the Road that afternoon in 1993 it was a bright sunny day, and a couple of friends were there too, lying about on the lawn talking, and I remember thinking that this was how life should be, and that I too could be a great writer and have tremendous adventures with my friends.

I have a lot of memories connected with this book.  They are to do with specific people (a friend who was a real bullshit artist, and loved Kerouac), about writing (meeting with friends once a week in a cafe to swap  our latest stories), and about places (the Hunter Lawn, or Mike’s Bar, or Murphy). 

It is unnecessary and wasteful to produce millions of copies of the same book, but I am glad I have my copy.  That’s why capitalism is good.  I get to have my own copy of a book I have grown to love. 

And here’s the reason capitalism is bad:

The Hogan Leather Jacket

It’s the holiest of holies in American mythology, the stuff of Dean, Kerouac, McQueen, and Maverick, and the designer who monkeys around with the leather jacket does so at his own peril. So rather than undermine all that heritage, Hogan has decided to build on it with its new Rebel line. Inspired by the legends of Kerouac, Dean, and other rabble-rousers, the Rebel leather jacket has been washed and worked over something good to give it a lived-in, broken-down patina and an attitude that’s right for this (or any) season.

Leather jacket ($1,590) by Hogan Rebel Collection.

 Bullsh*t.

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5 thoughts on “Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part One)

  1. I enjoyed this post.
    Can you see my clothes becoming popular if I ever make it as a bass player?
    Don’t worry, I can hear your answer.

  2. I enjoyed it too.

    I may be stating the obvious, but I think that the era of ‘Mad Men’ signaled (and instigated) the change from owning the just necessities of life being the norm for the average person, to owning a slice of everything being the natural desire.

  3. It can be disturbing to really dig into what you buy and how advertising influences this. My favorite advertising stories are first Coca-Cola defining Father Christmas in its image, and secondly Edward Bernays helping break US women’s resistance to buying cigarettes by terming them ‘torches of liberty.’

    One of the problems with the Kerouac jacket advertising is that it states the feelings and identity they are trying to invoke. Once stated these seem false and manipulative. But I like the jacket.

  4. Richard – You heard my answer correctly

    Nicola – The “you can have it all right in your own home” phenomenon. That winds up being a pretty big home with whole rooms and wardrobes devoted to holding piles of crap you never look at. There’s a book called The Undercover Economist that has a great example of this in it – the lawnmower. Every single household owns one, but wouldn’t it make more sense for there to only be one or two communal lawn mowers for every five or six houses? Sounds like COMMUNISM to me, Comrade.

    Adam – Torches of Liberty? You’re kidding me. He must be quite an icon of the feminist movement.

  5. There was a great document series ‘Century of the Self’ about PR and advertising. There are extracts of it on you tube. For the smoking thing check out

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