The Normcore Letters — Anxiety as a Generative Force

That guy from finance with all the ideas? Somebody’s been talking to him about snackwave and witchcraft. Huh. Didn’t see that one coming.

Re: Trend assignment

From: Kahling,Eric,Finance,KANSASCITY

Sent: January 13, 2015

To: Peterson,Bill,Marketing,DALLAS



Eric from Finance here. We need to connect with a new target audience, Millennials. I know you’ve probably been waiting for the day you could do a little refresh around the marketing department—that day has come! Here’s what you need to know.

  1. They love pizza. They knew the whole low-fat thing we grew up with was going out the window—they’re trendsetters, after all. So these kids are eating pizza at least once a day. If only we were working in consumer packaged goods! Not only are they eating it, they’re sending pictures of it to their friends on Instagram and this other app called Snapchat (Keith in IT knows how it works, ask him). Facebook is done now, by the way. Anyways, Google “snackwave” to see what I mean. Be sure to check out the selfies of super hot chicks eating pizza in bikinis.
  2. They’re bringing 90s fashion back. Think Lee jeans, big sweatshirts, Adidas sandals. But this time it’s just to fit in and ride a “chill wave,” man. It’s what you wear while you’re eating pizza. I’ve got a bunch of VHS tapes at home, filled with Seinfeld episodes. I’ll bring them in for you to watch. I’d say start there, actually—there are probably a lot of other clues to what’s next with this new demographic. Google “normcore” and see how many flip phones you can spot. I just sold my 4 GB iPod classic on eBay for $300!
  3. They hold the key to the future of exercise—especially Millennial women. It’s like they can already wear black stretch pants to work, so why not just take it to the next level? Sweating is cool now—even if you’re a wimp, apparently. They’re making those memes about it, they kind of remind me of that Danzig guy. Remember him? It’s like if he shopped at Lululemon. Google “health goth” and see what comes up. There’s some really crazy fashion stuff in there, but it’s also weird because every time I go to the gym everyone’s wearing all black now. So this must be a trend for us to stay close to. Have we settled on colors for our 2019 lines yet?

Bill, as you draw up the marketing plan, also remember that digital anxiety has become a salient theme within our relationship to the marketplace. Five years ago I read a Pew report that said “the Millennial generation will lead society into a new world of personal disclosure and information-sharing using new media.” The scary part of this disclosure, as a University of Wisconsin mathematician noted, is not that usage of this information will become profoundly accurate too quickly for our sensibilities. Rather, that it will persist as a sort of dull instrument for some time. Remember when Target sent coupons for diapers and baby clothes to a pregnant teenage girl, only to be discovered by her father? More of that to come.

It also warrants mentioning that a number of social psychologists were quick to observe the anxieties these digital enhancements produced, such as the partial loss of our ability to forget, the fear of insignificance one may feel as the performative nature of social interaction intensifies; or the contradiction in family life of being “alone together,” with our phones eclipsing in-person interaction. Essentially, media produce this digital anxiety, and you marketers rely on media in all kinds of ways. I read another Pew report last year that said people are nearly as scared of folks like you as they are of the hackers out there.

Sorry for the long email, Bill! Looking back through my notes, there’s maybe cause for some deeper commentary on notions of identity, the body, community, and consumption that could be read into all of these trends.

But now that I think about it, their tone indicates that exactly the opposite should be done, invoking what anthropologist Michael Taussig calls the most powerful form of social knowledge, knowing what not to know. If the intention is that we read into the messages of these trends, it’s like it’s only so we can back out of them immediately. Like we ourselves would be engaging in a form of strategic ignorance that has new value in today’s media environment or something.



Re: re: RE: Re: re: Re: Trend assignment

From: Kahling,Eric,KANSASCITY,Finance

Sent: January 27, 2015

To: Peterson,Bill,DALLAS,Marketing

Cc: Davis,Shelly,KANSASCITY,Finance


I wanted to share my notes from the presentation that the anthropologist/Digital Prophet guy gave us yesterday—that was some wild stuff!

  1. Strategic ignorance is, as Taussig and many other anthropologists have documented, a primary means of coping with a threat or source of anxiety beyond our control. When writ large, these anxiety-inducing forces are often called witchcraft, the occult, or something similar. It appears among African tribes as a colonial coping mechanism in the twentieth century; in the contemporary Caribbean as a response to economic stresses brought on by World Trade Organization sanctions; in Salem, Mass. under the Puritanical mission; in the form of the Wicked Witch of the West as a threat to the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth century; and more abstractly, manifest in Cold War America as alien invasion. It produces all sorts of folklore, ceremonies and rituals, totems and tools, ways of speaking or conducting oneself in public, and more. Sometime it is a ruse designed to evade a witch, like not answering to your name when called by a voice you do not recognize; sometime it’s merely an exercise in catharsis through self-deception, like a Go Away Evil aerosol spray.
  2. When we consider the ruse of these “paradoxical” trends, we shouldn’t lean into any single one so much as pay attention to the commonality among all three: a conspicuous dialogue intended to deceive. We should start to let go of the Gladwellian idea that trends grow in a linear fashion, beginning from a nascent group of early adopters who signal the essential cues for in-group belonging. We should employ marketing concepts like engagement and brand affinity, implemented to tease out the “organic” values that provide coherence for the group, with caution and restraint. That’s because these paradoxical trends don’t offer cues for belonging—they offer a form of plausible deniability.
  3. The stakes seem pretty high. Consider, for example, what Gap did on the heels of normcore’s ascent. Their “Dress Normal” campaign appropriated the newfound spin on normalcy, using their cultural cache as an unassuming clothier with an extensive archive of 1990s credibility. A central component of the “Dress Normal” campaign was a video series by David Fincher, who directed the cult classic Fight Club. What’s the number one rule of Fight Club? You don’t talk about Fight Club.

How could normcore be so misinterpreted? Gap’s “Dress Normal” campaign failed because normcore—like snackwave and healthgoth—are not trends, at least not in the sense that you marketers might have considered them previously. At best, they are fake trends, an exercise in an era that demands a heightened sensibility for what we might call hoax, fake magic. Still, the expressions should be taken as genuine in that they are ultimately intended to realize a certain effect through media.

That effect is not culture jamming, ad-busting, or brand bullying per se—it’s more like adaptation by those Millennials. They’re digital natives, after all! Just as witchcraft has been in the past, digital anxiety is a generative force today.

So before we kick our fiscal ‘19 plan into gear, let’s show others in marketing that we’ve considered how the intent behind these paradoxical trends is to develop a new sort of narrative about life with the Web. I just want to make sure we’re not acting out these same gestures that produce digital anxiety through media.

Appreciate your work, Bill! Speaking of which, I noticed that your boy Kevin shut his Tumblr down. Has he finished high school yet? Does he want a job in our marketing department?



P.S. Again, apologies for these long emails!

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