It took ten years of trials and tribulations, but the largest shopping center in Puerto Rico finally opened a Victoria’s Secret store. The people rejoiced. Hundreds made it to the gates on opening day, some as early as 4:00 a.m. Women (and probably a few men) took pictures inside the store, and those who purchased $100 worth of merchandise got a chance to take a picture with Brazilian model Adriana Lima. The press covered every little detail. It was, according to Plaza Las Américas’ President Jaime Fonalledas, “the culmination of a dream for many of our consumers.”*
The whole thing reminded me of a Czech documentary, Český sen, directed by two film students. It’s about a gigantic hoax in which Vit Klusák and Filip Remunda fool people into going to a fake store’s grand opening, through a marketing campaign. It’s a pretty funny film, but its true significance lies within the social and historical context in which it was made. This is post-socialist Czech Republic, where hypermarkets were so in vogue that a new word was created, as the directors explained in a 2004 interview. Hypermarketománie denotes “a pathological addiction to shopping in hypermarkets, the worship of hypermarkets.” What the directors wanted to do was to expose the practices of the advertising industry, and how they could even manage to sell nothing.
But through their hoax they also expose the frenzy for consumption that has swept over many places. It’s a mirror not just for the post-socialist Czech Republic, but for consumer culture in general. In Puerto Rico, the hundreds of people who attended the Victoria’s Secret store opening fell for the same strategies as the Czechs in the movie. Both of those groups were presented with a dream (in fact, the documentary’s title in English is Czech Dream).
The BBC documentary series How TV Ruined Your Life explains how this dream has transformed our lives. As the title indicates, narrator Charlie Brooker is not particularly optimistic about television or the societies it has changed: “We’re living in a world in which everyone expects the best of everything, with the unhinged sense of entitlement that used to be the sole reserve of insane Roman emperors or members of the Burlington Club. The more we want, the less satisfied we feel. Happiness seems perpetually out of reach.” And how did it all start? Well, with advertisers and programming “attaching fantasies” to products. Thus, shows like Cribs and My Super Sweet 16 bring us to a fantasy land where high quality underwear is the height of happiness and/or success.**
Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote about this: “Experts know how to turn merchandise into magical ensembles against loneliness. Things have human attributes: they caress you, they give you company, they help you…Publicity doesn’t inform about the product it sells, or rarely does. That’s not important. Its primary function consists of compensating frustrations and feeding fantasies: who do you want to turn into by buying this shaving lotion?”
Now, I know there’s nothing wrong with wanting or having nice things. And, in the end, there may not be much wrong with the media showing us a better life for our aspirations. But how much is too much? Have we reached the point where this consumption delirium is having consequences here, now? From my tone, you can guess that my answer is yes. While people kept filling up the Victoria’s Secret store in the last few days, another few men were killed on the island of Puerto Rico, surpassing 1000 homicides in the year, the highest number ever.
Most of these crimes cannot be detached from “the dream.” As Galeano says, quoting criminologist Anthony Platt, crimes are not just the result of extreme poverty. “They are also the result of individualistic ethics. The obsession with social success, says Platt, has a decisive bearing over illegal appropriation of things.” And I would add illegal appropriation of life.
Through this entire diatribe, the media have been present in two ways: as culprits of the crime and as prosecutors. For all the Klusáks, Remundas, Brookers and Galeanos of the world there are probably many more who are selling us dreams, and contributing to this frenzy. But the prosecutors give me hope; they show another side of media. Maybe next time a big store opens, I’ll stand in line with a screen playing their documentaries, and handing out flyers of Galeano’s radiography of consumer society.
* Yes, that’s a real quote.
** I don’t exclude myself from this. I’m very fond of my Mac.
(The photo is by Cyril Attias via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. CBS will broadcast this year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show from New York City on Nov. 29. To see a partial episode of the BBC’s How TV Ruined Your Life, please check below.)