Wonder Bread Ascendant: Praise for Brands and Buying

Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism , by James B. Twitchell. Columbia University Press, 310 pages, $24.95.

Ten years ago, James B. Twitchell–a middle-aged, reedy father of two and professor of English at the University of Florida–veered wildly against type, and bought himself a red Mazda Miata sportscar. Equipped with this totem of the yuppie Other, he became “one of them.” He confesses, with equal parts rue and glee: He had been seduced–willingly, mind you–by a glossy magazine advertisement.

The purchase was meaningful not only because prosperous academics tend to choose drab, safe Swedish sedans over flashy convertibles, but also because Mr. Twitchell, author most famously of Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture (and less famously of treatises on incest and vampires), believes that brand names are the single most important way in which Americans today define themselves. Brands signal to others our ability to provide, our place in the rat race, our success at keeping up with the Joneses. Brands reassure us as to our identity, character, amour propre , etc. The big issues.

Impressed? That little red Miata sums up this professor and his new book pretty well: bright, colorful, cutesy perhaps to the point of being annoying. And, to its credit, easily distinguishable from most other cars on the road.

Academic scrutiny of material culture, or what is often derisively termed the study of shopping–imagine them running up outrageous Visa bills, rushing through university halls, their arms laden with gaily wrapped parcels–is particularly popular right now. Anthropologists like Oxford’s Daniel Miller, author of A Theory of Shopping ; economists like Harvard’s Juliet Schor, who wrote both The Overworked American and The Overspent American ; and enough gender studies professors to stock Routledge Press’ backlist for generations–have all recently shared in the spoils. Businessy types from outside the academy like Paco Underhill ( Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping ) have helped themselves to a slice of the pie; so, too, have the oft-profiled “cool-scouting” Sputnik clique, self-styled urban field experts who sell their findings to companies rather than to impressionable undergraduates.

But Mr. Twitchell is an animal of a different stripe. While many of the above make a compelling case (intentionally or not) that consumers are oppressed by massive corporate marketing efforts, and that the resultant materialism is banal and soulless, our Miata man is someone who thinks products are holy, even magical . He compares brands to graven images, likens the current hold of advertising to the Roman Catholic Church, and anoints the Jolly Green Giant a descendant of Zeus. He sees the American populace as willing worshipers. “We are not too materialistic,” he argues; indeed, “we are not materialistic enough.” We hoard indiscriminately because we fail to pay objects their proper due. Spiritualism? That’s just a way to mark time when objects are scarce (never mind that it’s produced some of the greatest music and art of our age).

Mr. Twitchell is strongest when he’s making a case for the joy of shopping and explaining why it’s fun, “a predictable and bounded experience filled with ‘May I help you?’ and small successes.” Shopping enthusiasts, awash in bliss, savor “a safe spot filled with things to look at where they are treated deferentially” (unless they’re at Barneys, that is).

But Lead Us Into Temptation is a big, sprawling mall of a book (in this respect more stretch limo than Miata), examining Prell, Victorian kleptomania, pop art, subliminal advertising, waffles and Tommy Hilfiger in no particular order. It could’ve used a better floor plan. All the more so because Mr. Twitchell happens to be an English teacher, an expert on the sublime in Romantic poetry and painting. (He also teaches advertising as a separate subject.) As an English teacher, he is hyperattuned to rhetoric, to rhythms and patterns, to the metaphor and metonymy of commercial speech.

Unfortunately, the repetitiveness, the cheap persistence and casualness of that speech seem to have seeped into his own writing (“Kmart Khaos”, etc.). Lead Us Into Temptation tends to mix the dumb persuasion of commercial patter (Mr. Twitchell exhorts the reader to just “think about it” twice on page 19 alone) with the smug patois of a chummy professor who wants to establish that while he’s well aware of trendily obtuse jargon, he certainly doesn’t need to use it himself. “Polysemous cultural resources (aargh!),” he scoffs. Or this: “as my colleagues might say … nostalgic onanism.” O.K., we get it! Even though you’re a fancy professor, you’re just as plain-talkin’ as the rest of us. He takes a potshot at the high-flying Thorstein Veblen, who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”: Veblen was a “desperate academic … extremely hard to get along with.” Since when is a pleasant personality a prerequisite for good scholarship? Perhaps Mr. Twitchell hears the venerable Veblen’s ghost laughing at his candy-colored wheels.

Our author is conflicted. He loathes the guilty NPR liberals who coined the term “affluenza” (he prefers “mallaise” or “mal de mall”–a sensation one occasionally experiences when prowling his prose), and yet PBS, The New York Times and The New Yorker are among his favorite referents (though Seinfeld , with its constant foregrounding of brands like Snapple, trumps them all). He mocks the voluntary simplicity movement, which he casts as “female asceticism,” and yet he just goes nuts at Christmas–the sensory overload is too much, even for this merry elf. He clearly believes women’s studies majors are airheads (he accuses them, for example, of studying fashion merely because they need to drum up “texts”), and yet his riff on Wonder bread is as flaky as they come: “The white bread went in the maw of the Toastmaster, “Mr. Twitchell writes, recalling his All-American youth, “it was lowered automatically, we waited, then the bell sounded, the toast sprang up. Was there ever a more powerful image of American technology than this? Each day we observed the transformation of unformed and weak sponge bread into the firm, hard, oven-tough wafer of what? American manhood, perhaps. We watched, like the Magi, the scent of a golden future wafting before us.” We did? (Not to join the ranks of Mr. Twitchell’s scorned P.C., but his constant assumption of a WASPy “we” is a little wearying.)

Our author is a lively thinker, but when his thoughts (and again, they are rather scattered thoughts) turn to youth culture, he begins to sound like a grumpy fussbudget: “The swagger of the street … is cool, chillingly cool,” he writes. He is happiest strolling down aisles stocked with white bread. He’s a passionate apologist for the plastic McDonald’s, the cheesy game show, the bright and airy supermarket (“just like watching television, except that your feet are the remote control clicker”), where he enjoys “the free coffee and the nice ladies passing out free samples.” Tattoos frighten him. Don’t get him started on black nail polish.

All this said, James Twitchell deserves praise for treating with zest a topic often dismissed as frivolous. His vigor shows no sign of flagging: “Now I’m wondering about a Jaguar,” he muses, guiltlessly, in his conclusion. (Stanley Fish, dean of deconstructionists, has one; he even wrote an essay called “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos.”) Mr. Twitchell has his eye on “something from the early 80′s, not too ostentatious but still flashy, if you know what I mean.” How could we not?