is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte
The idea of challenging taboos and breaking free from the shackles of moral norms is becoming rampant in advertising. But while the commercialisation of identities may be good for the bottom line, it messes people up.
A new advert in the UK for John Lewis home insurance offers compelling evidence that transgenderism has become the sacred cause of the woke establishment.
Titled ‘Let Life Happen’, it features a narcissistic-looking young boy running riot and thrashing his home. However, according to the message signalled by the ad, all is forgiven because he is wearing his mom’s frock and lipstick.
According to the current woke ethos, little boys expressing themselves through cross-dressing are inevitably labelled as ‘brave’, and unlike their straight-laced mates are capable of expressing themselves through transgressing.
In this ad, John Lewis isn’t just simply selling insurance; it is also celebrating a lifestyle. This lifestyle promotes transgression and the ethos of transgenderism.
As I pointed out in my book, ‘Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries’, the invention of new normalities and the devaluation of the old has become a central theme in the contemporary consumer culture of capitalism. Just look at the poster below promoting a boring bank like HSBC. It shows a cool-looking trans person under the headline, ‘Gender’s just too fluid for borders’. Given HSBC’s alleged association with money laundering, its commitment to ignoring borders is not surprising.
When it comes to defining neoliberalism, HSBC’s marketing department continue to make the rest of us look like amateurs pic.twitter.com/Pw6AWdm8gv
— Dan Hitchens (@ddhitchens) October 11, 2021
But it seems that for big business, trans culture means big bucks. Playing at transgressing has also become a constant theme in consumer culture. Advertisers often promote their products by appealing to potential customers to ‘dare to be different’. A Europe-wide sales campaign for Honda “outlines a path that pushes the boundaries of a Honda Civic driver.” A voiceover instructs would-be drivers to go “where different takes you.”
This message of ‘dare to be different’ has become a theme that is constantly promoted by the advertising industry. The idea of breaking boundaries has also been used by Land Rover in advertisements. NatWest bank’s ‘cricket has no boundaries’ campaign boasts it was designed “to showcase and celebrate the diversity of modern cricket in the UK.”
Even the manufacturer of Barbie dolls plays the transgression card. Mattel’s sales pitch for its range of ‘Shero’ dolls leads with the statement that, “Barbie honors global role models from diverse backgrounds and fields who are breaking boundaries to inspire the next generation of girls.”
As far as the advertising industry is concerned, ‘breaking taboos’ and ‘breaking boundaries’ are the markers of creativity. In June 2018, a ‘boundary breaking ad’ by the sanitary product brand Libresse won the Glass Lion for Change Prix at Cannes, awarded for ‘culture-shifting creativity’. The advertisement shows us, “scenes of young women clutching themselves in pain from cramps, others having sex on their cycle and, perhaps most notably, plenty of blood – blood running down a leg in the shower and even realistic red liquid on a pad.”
According to the maker, this was intended to change the conversation around the topic more than ever before. The breaking of the boundary of the intimate is thus celebrated in an advertisement that ‘dares’ to display red liquid on a sanitary pad, rather than the customary blue.
Evidently, transgressive behaviour does not involve the violation of powerful, widely-sanctioned moral and social boundaries.
In the domain of sexual identity in the Western world, transgression has become emptied of meaning with the possible exception of paedophilia. Individuals can brag about their transgressive sexual identities without incurring stigma. That is why a report directed at the advertising industry urges its members to “push the boundaries of gender stereotyping” and “help” consumers “break free from the shackles of identity norms.”
The celebration of breaking taboos, and the call to help people ‘break free from the shackles of identity norms’, implicitly communicates the conviction that the regime of moral norms to which people are subjected in their everyday life constitutes a serious barrier to the development of their potential. Breaking free from the ‘shackles of identity norms’ constitutes an invitation to adopt a consumerist orientation towards identity.
The little boy wearing mommy’s skirt and lipstick personifies the ‘no boundaries’ and ‘no limits’ of consumer culture. This is a culture that incites children to question their identity on the ground that ‘they can be anything that they want’.
Peddling identities may be good for the bottom line. However, the commercialisation of identities messes people up. It complicates the task of finding your place in the world, which is why the crisis of identity has become the permanent condition of our time.
Despite its title, John Lewis’s ‘Let Life Happen’ ad is attempting to impose its transgressive vision of freedom on the rest of us. The advertising industry is not only breaking boundaries but also imposing its vision on society.
Unless we challenge adverts like this, it is only a matter of time before the act of criticising transgenderism itself becomes a taboo.