Conspicuous Co-option | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

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Conspicuous Co-option

Using 22-year-olds to sell cars to 35-year-olds.

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For about a month before the inauguration I'd been fantasizing about throwing eggs at Bush's car on his special day. But then I decided to save money and stay home. I could always commiserate locally--at the candlelight procession from Wicker Park to the Anti-Inaugural Ball at Acme Art Works, for instance. But I didn't feel like walking that far in the snow, and truth be told I'm still in denial. So instead I went out for a night of drinking and dancing under the auspices of a certain corporate sponsorship that's been chapping my hide for about a year now.

Advertised as the car for Generation Y's urban trendsetters, Toyota's Scion has been self-consciously co-opting the cool kids since early last year. Instead of advertising in Vanity Fair or on Alias, the Scion holds events at nightclubs, promotes itself on the Internet, and publishes its own magazine, Scion, featuring Vice-like graphic design, CD reviews, and interviews with DJs, graffiti artists, and rappers. The campaign exploits young art and music scenes in cities like ours, paying street artists and DJs to make Scion-related art--and who's gonna turn down a little easy dough? In the name of scene support, Toyota's hosted a handful of graffiti and graphic-design shows in galleries and a bunch of hip-hop and dance-music parties, ten of them at Sonotheque.

Black Thursday seemed pretty much like a regular ol' night at Sonotheque, a narrow box of a place with no dance floor. The DJ roster included some big names: MF Doom, the Twilite Tone, Tone B. Nimble. The crowd was a good mix of hip-hop heads, hipsters, ravers turned store owners, and yuppies. Oh, and two French airline pilots--one with a neck tattoo--who were in town for the night.

The bare-necked pilot slurred to me in broken English that it was OK if he had another drink because he was just the copilot the next day. I watched horrified as he downed a glass of brown liquid. He was sucking noisily on the ice cubes when up stepped a dark-haired beauty in a midriff-baring turtleneck sweater (you're either hot or cold, honey, pick one), a distressed, multipocket miniskirt, and pointy-toed knee-high boots. She told me her name--Aurea Macil--and that she'd met the two Frenchmen at the bar at the Sofitel, where they were staying for the night. Macil knows Obi Nwazota, owner of the Wicker Park clubwear boutique Softcore, who's chummy with Christian Alexander, who's in charge of throwing Scion parties in 12 cities, including Chicago.

On my way over to introduce myself to Alexander, I stopped to watch the video screens above the bar. A three-minute Scion commercial ran on a continuous loop: car pornography of the Scion models, which look like toasters with wheels, close-ups of headlight titties and bumper asses interspersed with scenes from a dance party and phrases in giant block lettering like EXPRESS INDIVIDUALITY, BREAK THE MOLD, and REVERSE BORING.

Diesel pulled the same kind of youth-pandering move a couple years back with its protest-themed "Action! For Successful Living" campaign, which featured young protesters holding up signs that said FREE THE GOLDFISH and PLANT MORE FLOWERS and other entreaties for "change." IBM did it in 2001 with its "Peace, Love, and Linux" stencils on sidewalks around the city, including in front of Reckless Records on Milwaukee, and McDonald's pulled the same thing with the "I'm lovin' it" catchphrase.

The economics of hip was articulated best three years ago in Richard Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class, which presumes that "human creativity is the ultimate economic resource." Artists, musicians, writers, designers, scientists, engineers, and other knowledge-based professionals are responsible for almost half of all wage and salary income, says Florida. Which means, says I, that our spending money must be a force to reckon with.

When our economy goes boom, these are the people who build new forms of social cohesion and put us back together, Florida says. They revitalize downtowns, start new companies, attract other entrepreneurs, and build solid tax bases. The creative class tends to congregate in cities with lots of cafes and museums, with good music, bike paths, and plenty of artists and gay people. It's the curse of the artist and the homosexual--wherever they go, young professionals follow, making such cities big, shiny, attractive targets for marketers trying to sell coffee and toys and cars and music and the very idea of cool to the precious 18-to-34 demographic.

Scion's PR from a year ago says its target market is 22-year-olds who "demand authenticity" and like to express their individuality. "Things need to be 'real,'" goes my favorite line. But what's real, according to Toyota's own figures, is that the median age for Scion buyers is 35.

Christian Alexander throws parties with 1,500-person guest lists at Sonotheque, a club with a capacity of 264--the line of young scenesters down the block makes the whole thing seem more exclusive and, by extension, makes the Scion seem cooler. But, as Alexander puts it, "parents buy Scions," which sell for $13,000 to $17,000.

I'd stopped thinking about all this somewhere between my fourth drink and falling over a table in the VIP section, where a dude in a suit and tie shined a little flashlight in everyone's eyes every ten minutes so Alexander could weed out those who'd just run out of cool points and throw them back in with the hoi polloi. My friend Joe, also too drunk for his own good, told a gorgeous African-American MC named Tequila Sunrise that all gay men secretly wish they were black women. She seemed bemused, if not outright unimpressed.

I vaguely remember a cab ride home; the next day my hangover raged well into late evening, so I missed Crobar's 13-year anniversary party. I can't believe I spent myself at Sonotheque for a freaking Scion party; of all the megaclubs in the city, Crobar's the one I can always count on for delicious debauchery and at least somewhat interesting people. Last time I was there, in mid-December, my friend knocked over a drink at a sports agent's table. Next thing we knew we were hitting the agent's magnum of Veuve with his consent, professional football players were hitting on me, and a guy in a black leather blazer kept asking if we had everything we needed.

I guess I like Crobar because even though my car is ten years old and I share a cheap apartment with a roommate and can rarely afford to eat out, with a football player at one hand and a glass of fancy champagne in the other, I can at least look like a member of the so-called ownership society. One fantastic thing about conspicuous consumption is no one has to know if you've paid for the stuff you're consuming.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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