"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Way New Fetishism


[Jeep Boom Box]

Social activists may rally

tirelessly for equal rights, the

preservation of the earth, and

freedom of speech online, but

there's always that vague,

unyielding suspicion that their

cries will register a few

decibels below the voice of the

man with the Mont Blanc pen and

checkbook in his hand. So,

eventually, many social

activists turn their energies

towards causes with more

immediately tangible rewards -

namely, higher quality CD

players and lighter, fluffier



[Catch The Wave]

The late '80s saw the shift of

emphasis in the phrase "consumer

activism" go from the second

word to the first. That was when

the campaign to condemn New

Coke got more attention than the

Coke boycott for its operations

in South Africa, and when the

rallying cry of "What do you

want?" was most commonly

answered by "I want my MTV." Not

that even watered-down tactics

such as these always produce

results - if they did, a handful

of Pizza Hut waiters must be

fired on a daily basis, thanks

to cruel feedback cards scrawled

by seven-year olds.


[Urban Decay]

Consumer activism has become more

virulent these days, as more and

more people want something new

to rally behind and something

new to buy, but with a lot less

shouting into bullhorns or at

customer service reps. The new

consumer activists are highly

suggestable. They want new

stuff, stuff that no one else

has. They are novelty activists.


[What Is A Happy Mutant?]

Leaving behind the ready-to-wear

of mall shoppers, this new breed

of consumers seeks out novelty

items and micro styles

heretofore unseen by the masses.

The noveltyists advocate not

consumer rights, but the right

to consume - to boldly blow cash

where no consumer has blown

before. Spending, they say, is

more than just a way to

rationalize that office job,

more than just a pastime.

Spending is a cause, and they

are doing what they can to

ensure that this time around,

the revolution will

be merchandized.


[Sea Monkey Worship]

For many upper-middle class

shoppers in the 80s, consumption

was guided by the religion of

quality. They came home with

Armani, Braun, Bang & Olufsen,

Joan & David, and Gary Fisher

because these were the Right

Purchases. But the noveltyists

follow the basic tenets of

purchasing as philosophy - they

come home with Sea Monkeys,

vintage evening gowns, Dr. Seuss

books, strobe lights, and BMX

dirt bikes because these are the

Other Purchases. The noveltyists

feel they've moved beyond

accumulating products as status

symbols; instead, each item

contributes to the creation of a

worldview and an identity.


And by purchasing items which

fall outside of mass markets,

noveltyists fancy themselves as

taking a stand against mass

marketing itself. They feel they

are countering the

counterculture, and see their

purchases as a "criticism" of

mainstream consumerism.


[Martin Denny]

Each product is an artifact,

seemingly genuine because it

can't be found in a mall. Maybe

it looks like an antique. Or

it's handmade - a candle, a knit

rug, a pair of dyed Levis -

lending a craftsy, inventive air

to the consumer, even as it

obviates the need to waste time

on crafts. Or it was popular 20

years ago, which makes it

somehow more real than anything

created today. Unlike the newest

brightly-colored clothes or toys

or housewares basking in the

neon glow of department stores

and mall shops, novelty items

have character - a character

that they lend all those who are

discerning enough to buy them.


But, like waiting for batiks to

dry, scouring thrift stores and

yard sales for neat things can

get horribly tiresome -

especially when someone with

even better taste than you could

do that dirty work for you.

Isn't that what America's all



[Silly Putty]

Urban Outfitters, then, is as

American as Hostess Snack Cakes.

Their housewares section

represents a collection of all

the things noveltyists look for:

wrought-iron candleholders,

journals with cork covers,

scratched blue glass vases,

rubber-ducky-on-a-chain drain

plugs, Silly Putty, hand-knit

rugs, weird astrology books.

These are the bread and butter,

the basics, the "found art" of

the noveltyists' lair - only in

this case, they're "found" all

in one place, marked up about

300 percent.


[Project: Denny's]

Of course, the Web can also be an

invaluable resource for

discovering new niche items to

purchase - and to celebrate.

Never before has

obsessive-compulsive behavior

been lauded as it is in the

digital world, when visiting

every Denny's in the country or

collecting all of the Star Wars

Action Figures no longer

represent charming

quirks, but causes to rally




Both an anti-mass-marketing slant

and a kind of gleeful advocacy

are readily apparent on such

sites: "Are we better than

Wal-Mart? You can bet your

bleep-bleeep (R2, is that you?)

we are... We love Star Wars and

hope you do, too!" This is

revolution via consumption -

these aren't just consumer

choices, they're the basis for

subcultural rebellion, ways for

members to distinguish

themselves from the mainstream.


[The Happy Mutant Handbook]

The self-proclaimed center of the

noveltyist movement can be found

in The Happy Mutant Handbook

(found both online and at an

Urban Outfitters near you),

which, along with some

instructions on hacking and

pranks, extols a direct line to

"entertaining weirdness" through

the purchase of cool toys,

comix, and other novelties. The

ability to "mutate," as defined

in the book, assures one

distance from the Normals, who,

purportedly, "fear authority"

and "have gas from overeating at

the Sizzler."


And, much like the fashion

runways in Paris, the "weirder"

stuff noveltyists can find, the

more certain they can be that

they're, as the Happy Mutants

put it, "free from the cess-pit

that is commercial retail

merchandising." Because shopping

is more than just a hobby, it's

a therapeutic process. While

others sigh heavily in $200

therapy sessions, noveltyists

spend $200 on the chaise longue

that even the strictest

Freudians probably gave up years



[Custom Star Trek Figures]

In a consumer society, you're

pretty much soaking in it,

regardless, so why complain?

Better to define your identity

through an eclectic combination

of Star Trek collectibles, old

Barry Manilow albums, hand-blown

wine glasses, and leisure suits,

than through the year and make

of a luxury car.


[Pepsi Boycott]

To put it another way,

we've got two words for

Pepsi Co. execs who

might be worried about the

boycott in support of Burma:

New Pepsi.

courtesy of Polly Esther