AQR Eyes Wide Open event: Human Packaging

The AQR’s Eyes Wide Open series brings together speakers from adjacent disciplines to examine a common theme. The most recent, on the evening of June 7th was on the subject of Human Packaging, asking the question what do we reveal by the way we present ourselves?

The evening left a marked impression on me. Partly because lineup was stellar; partly because the talks dovetailed so neatly, each supporting and strengthening each others’ themes; and partly because of the audience reaction and interaction. It’s hard to convey, but an engaged audience asking questions to generate a collective understanding is ephemeral, precious. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Photographer, documentarist and pioneer of participatory media Daniel Meadows started the evening. He spent a large part of 1973-4 driving around England, making a national portrait of the English. Years later he tracked his participants down to extend the project. His portraits somehow convey the unique spirit & personality of his participants. Accompanied by first person accounts of real, ordinary lives, they become ‘photography stories’ – moving, funny, and sad.

His work contains rare truth which I can’t quite put my finger on. “I’m interested in the felt life”, he said. “It’s about working with people, not ‘doing media’ to them”. Watch the video and I’m certain you’ll agree. 

Caryn Franklin’s talk came from a different angle, drawing together the evidence to enable all of us to reappraise fashion imagery. Image after image, a common trope emerged. Women were passive, subordinate to men. Insufficiently clothed, they are depicted as having low status, minimal agency or self-hood.

Her argument is both that society has become acculturated to this type of representation, and that unconscious social comparison has pernicious effects, especially on the young. Example after example built a visceral audience reaction. Everyone in the room could now decode the imagery. We all left thinking differently.

Dr Nick Gadsby examined impact of social media on how we present ourselves. His view: we used to live in an either/or era. The self used to be defined by you: it was private, internalised and authentic. Appearance was defined by social norms: it was public, external and constructed.

We are now in an era of and/also. Beauty doesn’t have to be something inherent, it is something we can all do. This is about bettering yourself. “The authentic resides in the journey. The self is about the journey to find oneself.” The and/also notion crystallises in the beauty transformation video (new to me I must confess) and is echoed by brands: AirBnB is home and away; Lululemon is athletic and leisure; Nak’d is healthy and tasty.

That left myself and Nikki Lavoie to riff on gender and clothing (I’ll follow up with the full deck). Our view? Identity is an ongoing & dynamic process: clothes have transformative power and people use them consciously and unconsciously to explore their identities.

Jobs which traditionally gave men masculine status have diminished steadily over the past 50 years. This masculinity gap has many consequences for how men feel, behave and dress. Several typologies become clear according to whether men express themselves either consciously (hyper masculinity) or unconsciously (ruggedness, competition and exploration).

Nikki focused on the feminine, particularly in relation to the workplace. Traits assumed to be feminine like empathy, sensitivity, and gentleness are seen to be make organisations perform better. Yet female leaders are often attacked if they are seen to abandon them (e.g. Clinton and Merkel). She explored how women have to navigate their clothing choices given femininity can be interpreted both as an asset and a flaw, exploring typologies like hyper femininity, the anti sex symbol and the tough gal.

A great evening. Thanks to Judy Taylor for curating and the AQR for organising.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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