Popcorn Report by Faith Popcorn, Doubleday, 226 pages
America is a consumer culture, and when we change what we buy—and how we buy it—we’ll change who we are.
Someday (soon) children will be able to communicate through their Nintendos to other children all over the planet. Kids will convince their peers to join the crusade . . . to save the planet.
– Faith Popcorn, 1991
For professional “trend-watcher” and now published author Faith Popcorn, American life is a lot like a super-detailed Nintendo game. As in Nintendo, where through the manipulation of a control device strangely known as a “joystick,” the catatonic viewer/player acts out serial violence and/or frenetic flight from phantasmagoric creatures, so it is in the America of cognitive abnegation described in The Popcorn Report. Economic survival is physically taxing, the world is dangerous, life is dull. We require ever more sophisticated means of escape, and Popcorn presents her book as a guide for those who wish to profit from this groundswell of discontent.
The literature of self improvement, a peculiar product of hard-bitten Protestantism and the pioneer spirit, has long held Americans in thrall. But now that instrumental rationality and the consumerist ethic have utterly colonized the American personality, the genre has shifted its emphasis from the virtues of hard work and industry to strategies of self-presentation. This development points to a profound rift in the soul of Corporate Man, and it accounts for the prevalence of the two cardinal obsessions of self-help literature in late imperial America—interpersonal competitiveness and psychological well-being. Struggling businessmen of the late twentieth-century quite commonly subject themselves on the one hand to the ranting exhortations of seminar circuit can-do charlatans, and to seek absolution, on the other, in the pseudopsychology of glib positive thinkers. All of which is absurd, because they have little hope of achieving either the self-possession or the moral self-righteousness of their entrepreneurial forbears. If this crisis of subjectivity makes moral choices difficult, it makes consumer choices difficult as well. Or so Faith Popcorn would have us believe, describing in The Popcorn Report an elaborate scenario of consumer discontent and cautioning purveyors of commodities to take heed. Her contribution to business literature takes the great American genre one step further than its predecessors: we are not to overcome our society’s problems—we are to profit from them.
Unfortunately, Popcorn is no more useful as counsel to manufacturers than she is as a sociologist. Marketers will find nothing profound in the book, as her postulates are impressionistic and singularly unburdened by hard demographic evidence. But these shortcomings are unimportant in the end, because the book’s real audience is the middlebrow book buyer, the consumer of such stuff as Newsweek and “Entertainment Tonight,” the slack gazer into the mirror of self-referential infotainment. The book’s prose style is by turns sentimentally ingratiating and condescending. Popcorn invites us to stare into the crystal ball of her expertise, and what will we see? We will see Faith the consumer’s mentor. Faith our older sister. She will tell us what is cool. She will wink at our peccadillos. She will assuage our anxieties. She will help us get the stuff we want from the grownups.
Getting stuff is really what it’s all about, and Popcorn is not ashamed to say so. Having been the darlings of the Reagan-era consumer orgy, Popcorn and her consulting firm, which goes under the cutely elided moniker BrainReserve, now pride themselves on the claim to have diagnosed an improbable new consumer dysfunction. Apparently people are just too frightened these days to venture from their cocoons, too tired to watch TV, too health-anxious to consume their favorite foods. America, the land of regeneration, is discouraged. We need new thinking, new attitudes, new ads, and above all new products. As our self-appointed Newness Czar, Popcorn is boldly pointing the way to a new dispensation of Optimism, and she has coined the neologisms to prove it. She has been monitoring the ConsumerSpeak of DOBYs and MOBYs, PUPPYs and WOOFs, GlobalKids, SurvivorKids, and TrophyKids. There’s a socioquoke coming (you know, that “coming, total transformation of mainstream America”), and Faith has news for corporate WhiteMen who think it’s going to be business as usual. The demographic masses are gaining cohort consciousness, and they’ve got ConsumerStruggle on their minds. So you had better be down with Faith’s generation, or else you can forget about moving your merchandise. Ever the defiant contrarian, Faith has dared to dub the ’nineties the “Decency Decade,” the time when the rapacious, status obsessed consumers of the ’eighties will surrender the vanguard to the “vigilante consumers”—savvy, sensitive, globally aware activists. To survive, multinational corporations will have to discover the value of “soul.” “Culture is back in the hands of the people.”
Horkheimer, Adorno, Popcorn.
Getting stuff is really what it’s all about, and Popcorn is not ashamed to say so.
Faith Popcorn, trend oracle, was once Faith Plotkin, ad woman. One can imagine the epiphanic moment of TrendVision, the ecstatic BrainJam, that inspired the transformation. For those who cannot, Popcorn fills in the details. When she started in the advertising business, times were simpler. She was drawn to the profession in large part by the romanticized representations of it in movies. She loved the fabulously creative people with whom she worked. In time, though, the inherent cynicism of the business conflicted with Faith’s “pure and noble” aspirations, and her flight to BrainReserve is the result.
Don’t be fooled; nothing important has changed in the business of public manipulation. Popcorn is still on the make, armed with a new angle for exploiting consumer insecurities and fears. She understands that as a result of sophisticated public relations campaigns carried out by environmental and consumer interest groups, many large companies have serious image problems. The Popcorn Report is her attempt to capture a niche, to present herself as the credible intermediary between these industries and socially conscious consumers. Popcorn proposes an improbable new orientation for the advertising industry: instead of hyping products for companies, agencies should work in “partnership” with consumers. Flying in the face of past experience, advertisers in the future will be paid—by corporate clients—to give disinterested, objective accounts of a product’s quality to buyers. She gives no details about how such a relationship could ever evolve or work, but she helpfully suggests that such a future agency might have “someone like Ralph Nader as CEO.” She calls it “Truth in Advertising,” she says it’s gonna happen.
Underlying the Popcorn project is a profound cultural neurosis. Almost all the trends Faith discusses are consumption shifts in the entertainment or cash-and-carry businesses, and for good reason. Though she may not realize it, most of the important trends she describes are motivated by irrational fear, boredom, and infantile narcissism. “Happiness used to be part of our birthright,” she writes of her angst-wracked generation. This is the generation “that pushed beyond want to deserve.” In Popcorn’s narrative, the desires and preoccupations of adults and children are strangely inverted. Grown-ups that are not worrying about job security are bored and alienated, needful of tonic self-indulgence and escape. Kids, on the other hand, when not immersed in consumption themselves, seem to have assumed the concern and responsibility assumed by adults in other generations. The ’nineties, Faith assures us, “will introduce the Children’s Crusade: little ones reshaping our foreign policy, changing our views on education, and saving our environment.” Faith exhorts us to accept kids as international peace arbitrators and on the boards of directors of major corporations. All of this is suggested, apparently unironically, in a chapter entitled, “Cashing in on the Children’s Crusade.” But that is Faith all over—she’s talking out of her ass, but somehow it sounds so right.Popcorn’s faculties of self promotion are enviable. She is famous for sending executives TrendPacks, collections of popcultural detritus supposed to be packed with revelatory significance, in return for which she is paid handsomely. If the trends she sketches in the Report are any indication of her work, her clients would do just as well to peek into their neighbors’ garbage cans. (On the other hand, one can understand how a bemused corporate captain might, for a few thousand bucks out of the company kitty, willingly indulge himself in the frisson of random detached signifiers). Faith does have one blue chip gimmick which is apparently responsible for her credibility: she applies cute names to time-honored behavioral patterns and calls them trends. Popcorn came to national prominence by coining the expression “cocooning,” which refers to that heretofore unremarked “need to protect oneself from the harsh realities of the outside world.” Now that TrendFans are adjusting to the idea that a lot of people hole up at home to watch TV, Faith has delineated a host of subspecies of the trend: “armored” cocooning (lots of people are buying guns and alarm systems), “wandering” cocooning (Winnebago sales are brisk), “socialized” cocooning (or, what is catchier, “saloning and salooning,” the concept that people like to go to their friends’ houses sometimes or sometimes go to bars with their friends). A canny businesswoman, Faith hedges her TrendBets and is always on the lookout for CounterTrending. For example, this may be the Decency Decade, with people Folking, Claiming, and DownAging, but keep your eyes peeled for the New Decadence, a possible “Trend-In-Progress.”
Faith is right about one very basic thing: something’s gone terribly wrong with the American way of life. We just aren’t happy defining ourselves by the constant purchase of new goods. Consumerism is sapping our will to produce, threatening our environment, and destroying our culture. But don’t look to Faith Popcorn for any permanent solutions. She is Capital’s woman, and for her this malaise is paydirt, another demographic wave to ride, an exciting public whim around which to construct new ad campaigns, new products. Dissatisfaction with the present is, after all, the generalized emotion advertisers love to capitalize on, and as long as Faith and her pals can keep one step ahead of the endlessly gullible public, can keep us from effectively articulating our inchoate awareness of emptiness, they can transform our discontent with consumerism into a new lease on consumerism’s life. And that’s what the commercialization of dissent is all about.
Writing for a public mesmerized by the stars, Popcorn hopes to become a star herself. Banal, trite, and self-absorbed, she possesses all the ingredients for PR success in America today. And like other celebrities, her primary function is to help business keep us glued to the tube, enthralled with the malls, and banal, stupid, and utterly superficial forever. Meanwhile she couches the entire project in the therapeutic language so commonplace in AdTalk: “We’re a small, caring clinic for future thinking,” coos Popcorn. Pass the Crisco.