Stomping on Individualism

REEBOKS are just shoes. Unless you believe the new Reebok ad campaign which depicts them as symbols for American society.

The campaign slogan is "Reeboks let U.B.U". (In case you didn't get it, they let you be you). The ads feature quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorting, "Who so would be a man would be a nonconformist" or "Insist on yourself, never imitate."

There is something a bit smarmy about Reeboks even without the agressively hip ad campaign. Maybe it started when celebrities like Cybill Shepherd started wearing them with formal wear. Granted, they are better for your feet, but people who make a show of their health regimen invariably seem self-involved. The wearing of the shoe becomes an emblem, a statement.

The new ads attempt to transcend the image of Reebok as just an exercise shoe. In quoting Emerson, the ads exploit a key aspect of American society. We thrive on thinking of ourselves as original, as rebels. What the Reebok ads deftly obscure is the fact that buying Reeboks is not an act of individualism but an act of conformity. The U.B.U. ads conflate being a good shopper with self-reliance. They speak to Yuppies.

"Yuppie" is admittedly an overused term. In this case, it refers to a generation of obsessively discerning consumers. Yuppies are people who can define themselves and categorize other people according to what they buy. They prize Taste above all--taste in food, in friends, in cars and, yes, in shoes.

Reebok, with particularily canny marketing genius has pinpointed precisely this exacting clientele. In many ways, Reebok is the ultimate conformist shoe. But Reebok is exploiting the notion that we can distinguish ourselves as individuals according to what is in our closet, on our shelves or in our refrigerator or garage. Buy these shoes, the ads tell us, if you really know what you want.

VISUALLY, the ads are arresting and unique, slightly surreal, almost random. They feature very bright, vivid images that are usually accelerated or in some other way distorted. The voiceover sounds like an old radio announcer and the music is a tango played by violin and piano. The ads use light in a unique way so that shadows and bright spots seem connected to nothing.

An example is a shot photographed from an extremely low angle of the lawn in front of a typical suburban house. There's rug lying on the lawn and a young girl, dressed in a tutu is simultaneously doing a pliee and vacuuming the carpet. The colors are bright and the girl's motion is jerky, bizarre. The voiceover intones, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

The postmodern randomness of the the quintessential American philosopher, Reebok is trying to address not only our need to buy any particular brand of ads is meant to stress individuality and uniqueness, as does Emerson's philosophy. But the ads distort that philosophy by implying that Emersonian self reliance can be found in, of all things, sneakers.

What is ominous is that Reebok ads are remarkably successful at achieving what all advertising attempts to do, namely associating a product with an identity. It's the old ploy--eat Wheaties and you'll be as bouncy and healthy as Mary Lou Retton--but it has an added twist. The U.B.U. ad campaigns refers not just to appearance or to health or to product quality. It refers to how we see ourselves as Americans. And by using sneaker. The campaign emphasized the crucially American dialectic of individual versus community. We can all wear the same sneakers, the ads tell us, but we will each wear them in a different way.

The problem is that the ads, which are certainly among the most striking on television, are based on a duplicitous premise. The Reebok Corporation undoubtedly pictures a nation full of Reebok wearers, all believing in the indivduality of their choice, all oblivous to the fact the U.B.U. really means you can only strive to be just like everyone else.