True Colors: Car Choices, Food Sources, and the Fauxthenticity of Our Times

by James Haydn Gilmore

3500 words

At the lectern for the 2011 multidisciplinary design conference Gravity Free, meeting at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, stood award-winning graphic artist and designer Rick Valicenti. Toward the end of his slideshow, Valicenti displayed a color palette for automobiles in the 1950s―vivid blues and vibrant greens, sharp reds and bold golds. The colors jumped off the screen. He next showed the present-day array for car colors, which he dubbed “the color palette of cement.” Valicenti concluded with an impassioned plea for designers to restore color’s rightful role in good design.

To experience firsthand this dismal grayscale road-scape, perform this activity the next time you go for an extended drive: Say aloud the color of each automobile passing in the opposite direction. Nearly eighty percent of the traffic encountered will be black, silver, gray, or white. Sprinkled in the mix, an occasional red (“Road kill!”). If a blue or green car drives by, it’s likely to be one embarrassed to be blue or green. Truly arresting colors are rarely seen on the road today.

Or try this experiment: Go to a major city auto show, the kind held annually in large exhibition halls, where nearly every make and model of vehicle can be found on display under one roof. Enter each brand’s exhibit, and when staff approaches to see if they can be of any assistance, respond by asking, “What colors do you have?” You’ll be met with blank stares, for car salespeople seldom encounter someone shopping color.

Henry Ford is dead; long live Henry Ford. Today’s consumers can have practically any color they want; yet three out of four still pick black, the color of death, or some near-death alternative.

This predilection toward black in the marketplace is by no means confined to automobiles. Consider luggage. Observe the baggage carrousel at any airport: the percentage of black on the belt exceeds that of cars on the highway. Nearly every suitcase and wheeled roller is found in one of fifty shades of—black. In other product categories, if any color dares compete for marketshare, it must always do so on the basis of being “the new black.”

Before going any further, let’s establish some context.

ENTER THE EXPERIENCE ECONOMY, AND AUTHENTICITY

A fundamental shift is occurring in the very fabric of advanced economies. Experiences have emerged as a distinct form of economic output, as distinct from services as services are from goods. Experiences represent a new genre of economic output. We’ve shifted over the last two centuries from an agrarian economy based on extracting commodities, to an industrial economy based on manufacturing goods, then to a service economy based on delivering services, and now to an experience economy based on staging events.

Some distinctions are in order. Commodities are natural materials, extracted from the earth and stored in bulk. Manufactured goods (made from commodities) are tangible things, and once made are placed into inventory awaiting purchase. Delivered services (using goods) are intangible activities, performed only in response to actual demand. Staged experiences (laid atop services) are memorable events that unfold over a duration of time. These days, people spend incrementally less time and money on commodities, goods, and services, while simultaneously spending more time and money on experiences that engage them in a personal way. Increasingly, consumers are shifting their lives into the realm of experiences.

Let’s illustrate this progression with a few examples. Take birthdays. Fifty years ago, my mother made my birthday cakes from scratch, actually touching commodities―flour, sugar, eggs, cocoa (‘tis bizarre behavior in the twenty-first century). But, like many other moms, she one day stopped making cakes from scratch and instead started buying boxed cake mixes. Later, parents stopped making cakes from these packaged goods and instead called the grocery store, or bakery, to have a cake made on their behalf. Today, parents not only outsource the cake-making service, but the entire birthday party―to Chuck E. Cheese’s, a laser tag arcade, a local pottery studio, or any number of other party-staging venues.

Or consider coffee. Growing up, my father would buy whole beans and grind them in a small wooden box that had an ornate cast-iron handle mounted on top. My parents one day abandoned this self-grinding practice and instead bought ground coffee in a large can. Folgers! When I entered the workplace, I never brewed my own coffee (a whole pot was too much for a single man in a rush to work each morning), but instead bought a cup each day from the food service vendor at the office. Today, I consume most of my coffee in the muted backdrop of Starbucks or my local Phoenix Coffee, where I saddle in to do work, read my newspapers, or sit with friends in the ambiance of a coffee-drinking experience.

In each example, one can see the shift in consumption―from commodities, to goods, to services, and then to experiences. An abundance of other experiences fill today’s economic landscape. Parents smother their kids with experiences: building plush animals at Build-A-Bear Workshop, making pilgrimages to American Girl Place, visiting Disney or other theme parks, paying for sports camps, music lessons, academic challenges, and dance competitions, and equipping the home and car with movie screens and video-game devices. Adults pamper themselves at spas, when not pushing themselves at fitness centers. Some tackle Tough Mudder. Others treat themselves to relaxing weekend getaways at luxury resorts or boutique hotels. Restaurants offer myriad new dining experiences and gastronomic adventures. New forms of tourism abound: wine tourism, film tourism, eco-tourism, disaster tourism, volunteer tourism, and so forth.

With this shift to experiences emerges a new consumer sensibility, or the primary reason for making a purchase, the dominant reason to buy.

If we look back at the days of the agrarian economy, we see that the main criterion for making a purchase was availability (price had not yet emerged as the dominant sensibility). Folks went to the market―then a physical place―to buy five dollars’ worth of some commodity, say turnips. While the price per pound might have varied by day, consumers had little concern for the cost, unless the price was to spike; and the price would only spike if turnips were in short supply, less available.

It was with the rise of the industrial economy that cost emerged as the dominant consumer sensibility. What mass production did was bring down the cost of goods to the point that nearly everyone could afford to buy items in most every product category they wished. People made purchases because (and when) they could afford to do so. We forget how our grandparents (or great-grandparents, for you Millennials) made their first ever purchases of dress clothes and formal shoes, radios and televisions, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. The world is today saturated with goods because this cost reduction enabled such a great accumulation of possessions.

With the service economy emerged the next sensibility, for quality. When activities which had been performed by oneself (mowing the lawn, ironing shirts, cooking meals, changing motor oil, coloring one’s nails, and so forth) were instead done by others (landscapers, dry cleaners, restaurateurs, beauticians, etc.), buyers of these services focused on the quality of the activity being done on their behalf. And this concern for quality performance not only applied to the purchase of services, but trickled down to purchases of commodities and goods as well.

Enter the experience economy―with a Starbucks café seemingly at every corner, arcade-held birthday parties every day (and every year), Geek Squad computer technicians (in Geekmobiles!), Jumbotrons and light shows at sporting events, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, the Burning Man Festival, “virtual reality” and “augmented reality,” and a mobile app for every experience under the sun. This increasingly mediated, intentionally staged, multi-sensory, technologically enabled, and commercially driven reality―all the time, everywhere, and with everything―gave rise to the desire for authenticity. Consumers now want “the real” from an artisan purveyor of genuine wares, making purchases on the basis of how authentic they perceive any particular offering to be. (Often attached to this new consumer sensibility is an aversion to even being perceived as a consumer, of course while all the time consuming!)

These four successively dominant consumer sensibilities can be defined as follows:

Availability:purchasing on the basis of accessing a reliable supply

Cost: purchasing on the basis of obtaining an affordable price

Quality: purchasing on the basis of excelling in product performance

Authenticity: purchasing on the basis of conforming to self-image.

No longer satisfied with just accessible, affordable and excellent offerings, consumers now make commercial purchases (and non-commercial decisions) on the basis of how well these purchases (and decisions) conform to their own self-image.

In her book, The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel captures this sentiment with a most concise construct: “I like that. I am like that.” Regina Benedict in In Search of Authenticity elaborates: “Authenticity… is generated not from the bounded classification of an Other, but from the probing comparison between self and Other, as well as between external and internal states of being. Invocations of authenticity are admissions of vulnerability, filtering the self’s longings into the shaping of the subject.” People view as authentic those “Others”―anything outside of the self―that conform in both depiction and perception to their self-image, their perceived state of being. They make choices about what to buy and what to refrain from buying based on their view of how authentic or inauthentic they perceive something to be. At the same time, their purchases (and non-purchases) come to reflect the selfsame self-image to which these decisions conform.

HmmI buy the color palette of cement. I am the color palette of cement?

McDees_SKossoff

CAR CHOICES: YOU ARE WHAT YOU DRIVE

A friend of mine, a high-energy creativity instructor, drives a purple VW New Beetle; the color was not available from Volkswagen, so he bought a paint job in the aftermarket. The car, not to mention the steps he took to paint it, is truly a reflection of its owner.

But let’s go beyond color to look at another way in which car choices demonstrate the self-images of those who buy and drive them.

If someone really cares about the environment, what kind of car does he or she drive? Why, a Toyota Prius, of course—or some other hybrid or electric car. Never mind that a Hummer arguably represents a more environmentally friendly car—wait, what?

—You heard me: the Hummer may be better for the environment. How so? Well, the Prius is manufactured in Japan, ships overseas via ocean liners, and requires routinely recharging its battery―more frequently the more one drives. The Hummer is made in Indiana, bought mainly in the Midwest, and gets such poor gas mileage that owners drive them sparingly. Someone who perceives his Prius―and therefore his own self―as the embodiment of concern for the environment, seldom looks beneath the hood. The energy from fossil fuels needed to produce the Prius and ship it long distances, or to recharge its battery, does not weigh into the buyer’s purchase decision. The mining practices employed to extract lithium or nickel from the earth for its batteries, or the future disposal issues that will emerge after battery life fades, also don’t factor into the decision. No one compares the operating life of a Hummer vis-à-vis that of a Prius to see which lands in a landfill more quickly. No one calculates the direct and indirect energy consumption over the total lifecycle of the respective vehicles. No, if one really cares about the environment, one buys a Prius. The point here is not whether the Prius or the Hummer is better for the planet, or whether miles per gallon should be the sole measure of eco-friendliness; the point is that few people ever bother to do the necessary analysis to find out.

One individual who has scrutinized the environmental costs of electronic cars is Bjørn Lomborg, author of Cool It and The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg notes that by the time an electric car comes off the assembly line it has already accounted for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, versus 14,000 pounds for a gas-guzzler; the difference equates to about 40,000 miles of gas-guzzling. But car buyers don’t base their car choices on reading Lomborg, or even his detractors (who are many). They make their automotive decisions based primarily on their perception of the kinds of people who drive certain kinds of cars.

FOOD SOURCES: YOU ARE WHERE YOU EAT

It’s no news that people incessantly fret about food these days. Some could argue for hours about what constitutes real food. One can easily imagine debates in some circles over where to find a “real Italian” restaurant. (My answer: in Italy.) Or overhear angst about the nutritional virtues of quinoa, regrettably available only via exports that compromise “food security” for Bolivian farmers. (My response: keen-what?)

Much attention today indeed focuses on food sources. Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax, masterfully recounts the emergence of interest in organic foods and its morphing into local foodism. Potter views the whole affair as a case study in “conspicuous authenticity” in which preferences are based on conferred status. (Basically, from Potter, authenticity can be seen as feeling superior to one’s fellow human beings.) At the end of the 20th century, interest in organic foods chiefly resided in the holdover hippie fringe. In the 21st, with rising affluence at its zenith, Sixties-infected Boomers gradually took to high-priced organics. Then Whole Foods, Wild Oats Markets, and even Trader Joe’s brought it all to scale. Some foodies jumped ship, landing in heirloom produce, raw foodism and the like. And when Wal-Mart introduced an organic line, “locavores” were born. First they embraced the 100-Mile Diet. To trump that, the 50-Mile Diet emerged, then the Rooftop Diet, or the Community Garden Diet. As Potter explains, those concerned for their food sources―which is really an “authentic” concern about having a more advanced view of food than others―had to answer the question, “How local is local enough?”

Dare I say: All food is local. Some just travels farther than the rest to get from farm to table. Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, addresses the impact of transporting food in The Food Police, concluding that the carbon impact of production and harvesting practices on the farm far outweighs the impact of subsequent transportation, by a ratio of nine to one. In other words, a highly inefficient farm near your home represents a worse source of food than a highly efficient one some distance away.

Think local food is de facto better food, in terms of freshness? Two questions: (1) Do you know how many hours a trucker can legally drive in a 24-hour period of time? (2) Are you aware that some 18-wheeelers are driven by a team of two drivers? Well, then: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration restricts a tractor-trailer driver to eleven hours of driving within a 14-hour window on any given day. Teams of drivers can therefore haul a cornucopia of crops from California to Chicago in just a day and a half; a single driver can deliver peaches to Philadelphia the same day he departs Georgia. To compete, the rural farmer who treks into the city for the Saturday Farmers Market had better not pick his produce any earlier than Thursday.

What about environmental impact? Consider this key metric: pounds per mile driven, as a measure of the fuel required to obtain one’s food. Think about how many pounds of food are transported per mile in refrigerated trucks. An 18-wheeler’s trailer might contain up to 45,000 pounds of produce. Divide by 3,000 coast-to-coast miles, and voilà: 15 pounds per mile. That’s the efficiency of our nationwide box-store food network. Local shipments from regional distribution centers to local grocery stores, by the way, also tend to carry this maximum payload, so the final leg of delivery from these DCs―even if making multiple store stops―will average nearly the same figure; and most people live closer to a grocer than they do a pop-up farmers market.

Any urban market, on the other hand, with vendors trekking, say, an average of fifty or more miles to the downtown site, had better have 750 or more pounds of crops in the bed of their pick-ups if they hope to achieve the same food-mile efficiency. There’s slim chance of that. And if some do, in fact, haul in that much: How much actually sells? Are these homestead merchants as accurate in predicting needed volumes as the logistics departments of major grocery corporations? What is the destination of the unsold excess, and how many miles does it go to get there?

Even if a restaurant grows all its own produce out back in the yard, a couple driving ten miles to dine there one evening had better each eat over seventy-five pounds of food to leave an energy footprint on par with dining at home with food bought down the block from their grocer.

The point isn’t that urban farming is entirely futile, or that concern for freshness is misguided; no, we all should care about the food we put into our bodies. The point is that few of us crunch the math before deciding upon our food sources. Most culinary decisions are based mainly on the perception of the kinds of people who dine at certain kinds of restaurants, and where they buy their household food.

FAUXTHENTICITY: TO SOME OTHER SELF BE TRUE

Prius drivers and locavores certainly mean well with their car choices and food sources. And we could easily pick on any number of other purchase decisions and consumer behaviors, beyond automobiles and restaurants, which similarly call into question the connection between the perceived authenticity of a personal choice and the underlying reality that corresponds to it.

Take for example the antisocial nature of most “social” media. Surely you’ve encountered digital intrusions in your life: your teenage children (or your spouse!) texting or tweeting in their laps at the dinner table; colleagues taking a cellphone call that suddenly and rudely interrupts the face-to-face conversation you were having. (Or you’ve come to consider these behaviors both normal and acceptable ones; perhaps you’ve been such an intrusion in others’ lives.) The world has become one giant phone booth, with ever dumber conversations on, ahem, smarter phones (#epic #nomnom). Participation in these new forms of media (one’s “electronic life”) is not grounded in any premeditated evaluation of how best to communicate intelligence. People just pick products and populate profiles based on their perception of the kinds of people who use various platforms of technology. (What do you think of someone who still uses AOL? Want to join them?)

The same holds true for almost any significant behavioral trend that emerges in our culture. Consider two of the most visible means by which people today self-express, tattoos and selfies―the former leaving a permanent mark on the human skin, the latter instantaneously uploaded into siloed streams (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever’s next) of amorphously immaterial musings. Look at the actual demands placed upon the self in these forms of expression. Unlike a self-portrait painting, for which a person must first learn the skill of painting and then spend significant time creating the image brushstroke by brushstroke, both tattoos and selfies require little individual involvement or personal activity—other than selecting a pattern (which admittedly many people labor over for hours and hours before deciding) or striking a pose (without much thought whatsoever). One merely sits back, pushes a button, and picks a filter―passively engaged in pre-selected disengagement.

Oddly, the recent painting pursuits of former U.S. President George W. Bush strike me as telling, serving as an ironically iconic commentary on our times. Bush’s portraits of other world leaders and celebrities are really a series of self-portraits; yes, all paintings of someone else, but each a reflection of “W”―unrefined, well-intentioned, heartfelt, and endearingly mediocre. At least Bush took the time to tackle the artistic form and brush the strokes, however amateurishly; most disengaged representations and presentations of self today are really just a rendering of someone else’s polished taste.

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we find placed on the lips of Polonius, in his counsel to son Laertes, the familiar lines that best capture the contemporary desire for authenticity,

This above all―to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

In choosing cars, sourcing food, texting under the table, tattooing in the parlor, and the host of other earthly experiences we take in―and put on―we have succumbed to making decisions based on the perception of what kind of people buy, drive, eat, do and don’t do this or that. And we pick our particular place in the procession. It’s not really authentic. It’s also not inauthentic. It’s best described as a kind of fauxthenticity, turning Polonius’s advice into something altogether different: This underneath all—to some other self be true…Thou canst then be false to every man.

But we don’t see it. We are in the dark, driving about in cement-colored cars.

JAMES HAYDN GILMORE is coauthor of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want and The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. He teaches a course on the Experience Economy at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, a design course at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and a course in cultural hermeneutics at Westminster Seminary California. He resides on three acres of land in Geauga County, Ohio, and drives an orange Jeep Wrangler. His wife buys groceries at a nearby Giant Eagle Supermarket.

Tags: , , , , , , ,