Insignificant Objects

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend PSKF’s annual conference in New York. PSFK’s blog is one of only a handful that I unreservedly recommend friends, family and colleagues to religiously read. The breadth of speakers they invite to their conferences and events are as eclectic as the subject matter their blog covers, and after leaving last year’s NY conference with a head full of ideas and a more-than impending sense of my own utter mediocrity, I was excited to again be making the short trip down to battery park for another day of inspiration

The day and line-up definitely lived up to expectation. Graffiti artists, anthropologists, technology pioneers and graphic designers all shared the stage and were followed by an exclusive pre-release screening of Banksy’s film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop?’

I thought I would scribble down a few thoughts about one of the speakers that got me head-scratching and pondering… and being about as concise as an elephant is inconspicuous, I’ll probably write rather a lot once I get going. Sorry in advance.

Rob Walker spoke about his project, Significant Objects, which seeks to examine the relationship between objects and value, analyzing the intangible reasons for the value we imbue items with.

He went about buying low value knickknacks from thrift stores across the country- and then asked authors to invent curious and fantastical stories about the lives and significance of these objects- before reselling them on ebay with their accompanying narrative (where they sold for vastly greater sums than their original price).

Storytelling is undoubtedly key to what we do as marketers. Indeed it is often by imbuing products with an additional meaning beyond their physical properties or functional capabilities that we are able to connect with consumers and propel our brands to triumph over competitors.

But there is no reason why this kind of storytelling should live exclusively in the world of products and the domain of marketers.

The other night I was at a great restaurant in Nolita for a friend’s birthday. Each dish was described to us with an unfathomable precision. Beautiful and elaborate articulations of every ingredient were punctuated, naturally, with words none of us had ever heard of. They could have been made up for all I knew, but as they poured out of the mouth of our sultry French waitress, each dish sounded increasingly irresistible.

I wont go on about each delicious morsel or this will turn into some kind of food porn. This was never my intention. It’s just that as I lay in bed that night, uncomfortably full, I realized that the food probably tasted better as a result of those descriptions and the context bestowed each ingredient. This was not purely psychological. It was physiological. Knowing what farm the cows were reared on, and who grew the Kale genuinely heightened the experience of tasting each dish.

Why aren’t more objects I buy and foods I eat bestowed with such rich? Everything has one. It just needs to be teased out and presented in the right way Clothes would feel more comfortable; films would make us laugh louder, and we might just be willing to pay more for them…

As Rob Walker pointed out in his speech, and I think we all probably know deep down, when the hurricane comes and you only have a minute to grab a few essential possessions, they will almost certainly not be those that cost the most, but instead that mean the most.

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2 responses to “Insignificant Objects

  1. Agreed. I think Significant Objects is a genius idea, and the whole issue of narrative-as-value is something I’d be happy to mull over all day.

    It’s tricky, though. I think from a marketing perspective, the funny thing is that while you do want your possessions invested with story, you want it to be YOUR story. You want it to be collaborative, or at least something you can happily integrate into your own sense of who-you-are.

    Case in point: a house in Sydney, the scene of a highly publicised murder case, couldn’t be sold for anything close to its expected market value. http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/mystery-buyer-pays-720000-for-gonzales-murder-house/2005/11/11/1131578240729.html. No-one wants to buy such a lurid story, let alone live in it…

    Anyway, more aforementioned mulling recorded here: http://mindsurgery.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/210/.

    Love to hear your thoughts.

    And awesome blog, btw.

    cheers, deb

    • Thanks for the comment Deb. Interesting thought. I certainly agree that we feel particularly connected to items imbued with our own stories and narratives. That said, I think there is actually something more mysterious and compelling about items whose stories represent ideas, characters and world’s removed from our own. We buy vintage because we want to buy into that slice of the past. Perhaps we then overlay and create our own stories to add to the context it already has…

      Looking forward to checking out your blog.

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