Secrets and Ties:
Exploring the effects of PostSecret, To Write Love on Her Arms, and branding on civic life
By Chris Tokuhama
Setting the Scene
In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith released a single that capitalized on the latent frustration felt by a teenage audience; the song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” embodied a sense of youthful rebellion present in America and spoke to the differing perspectives that stood on either side of the Generation Gap. Although prior cohorts (e.g., The Lost Generation, the Silent Generation, etc.) had dissimilar experiences in their development, the 1960s marked a particular period of unrest as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations.
Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, occupied a rather unique place in history, maturing into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Upward social movement became possible for this generation who enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income.
Cultural observers quickly noticed the shifting trends and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight Macdonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product (Quart, 2003).
The development of the teenage market, and corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, continues to the present; seeds sown by Beatlemania have allowed the fervor for teen idols like Britney Spears in the late 1990s. Perhaps more disconcerting is the extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience using animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles. Youth-oriented marketing presents an interesting case for discussion as it affects individuals as they are in the process of forming their identities; adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.
The current cultural climate of consumerism and cult of celebrity can cause children to focus on their inadequacies, as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. Ultimately, however, brands provide all of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities.
A number of factors, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
The example of the branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a way to distinguish products. In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
A Two-Way Street
Although cultural analysis often makes a point of the negative effects inherent in youth advertising, the developed techniques are not—like most technology—inherently evil. In recent years, various social movements have begun to take notes from marketers and considered how they might apply time-honored strategies in order to increase youth participation and involvement. Branding provides a way for organizations to develop a unique identity; although most groups understand this concept on some level, some successful movements have been able to cultivate their brand in a way that allows it to connect with youth.
To Write Love on Her Arms
To Write Love on Her Arms began in 2006 as a social movement to address a single person’s struggle with depression but later expanded in an attempt to bridge the gap between traditional service providers and those who needed assistance. Through increased exposure, founders hoped to normalize the treatment process and to make the discussion of suicide (and related issues) more mainstream.
Perhaps due to the nature of its creators and its audience, To Write Love on Her Arms immediately aligned itself with popular currents in youth culture, primarily rock music. Musicians began to wear the organization’s logo t-shirts on stage and in photo shoots while representatives from the group set up booths at venues in order to increase awareness. Concurrently, however, the community blossomed online as more readers came across To Write Love on Her Arm’s MySpace page.
Social utilities, which now include a blog, online calendar, RSS feeds, videos, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, have allowed a culture to develop around this movement as participants come to believe in the power of the brand. Whether organizers have realized it or not, they have managed to make their mission a lifestyle—this is demonstrated marvelously by the groups motto: “Love is the Movement.” In this rather elegant statement, To Write Love on Her Arms has successfully incorporated a strong affective response with directionality and purpose.
Examining To Write Love on Her Arms as part of youth culture, it seems as though teenagers have begun to brand themselves as part of this movement (with the online merchandise store undoubtedly aiding this process); membership in the group informs others about an individual’s values or priorities and this activist group has become part of students’ senses of self in the same way that the traditional labels of “student,” “jock,” or “band geek.”
Taking a different path to popular culture activism than To Write Love on Her Arms, PostSecret started as a community art project in 2005 that simply asked people to submit an anonymous secret on a postcard with the idea that the submissions would be collected and published on the Internet or in books. No real guidelines were given to participants—they merely had to reveal something about themselves that they had never shared before. In comparison with To Write Love on Her Arms, one might argue that PostSecret has formed more organically, addressing the expressed needs of its members rather than imposing a predetermined goal. This, however, does not imply that one movement is necessarily more successful than the other, merely that they have grown out of different starting points.
Despite its humble beginnings, PostSecret has developed in a full-fledged community with over 300 million website visits (PostSecret, 2010), eventually resulting in a movement with an interest in suicide prevention in 2008. Although some members surely embrace this goal more than others, the director, Frank Warren, has occasionally mobilized the group in support of the Kristin Brooks Hope Center.
PostSecret also explores an interesting intersection between narrative, identity, and behavior. While this theme is present in many social movements, its manifestation in PostSecret is perhaps more visible. Behavioral Psychology, for example, might explore how identity and behavior can be showcased in the form of behavioral scripts; in this case, new behaviors can be incorporated into a script that results in the development of identity or vice versa. Information Processing Theory, might also suggest that identity affects the way that bits of information are encoded and recalled, which might affect future behavior.
The postcards in PostSecret also utilize narrative in order to establish or define what Herbert Clark refers to as “common ground”—according to Clark we use signals to make particular aspects of our shared knowledge relevant, thereby constructing a type of narrative structure (1996). Although the developed context does not always represent a traditional story, the recounting of events builds a loose descriptive structure that guides future interaction.
Stories and narrative help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of chaos. The first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of the world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be); although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that we crave an explanation for things that we do not readily understand. This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, often allows individuals to learn intricate lessons without any overt effort. Preachers, for example, might utilize a parable to illustrate a point, giving audiences something familiar to relate to while simultaneously introducing a new idea. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning. To put it another way, narrative allows us to string discrete facts together in a way that casts a spell that lingers (Kennedy, 1998). In this process it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.
The process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. Narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population and individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information” (Williams, 2001)—their ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s collective identity (Eyerman, 2004). Even our personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). These stories may be ones that we discover for ourselves or are told to us by others.
Stories, it seems, not only allow us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also afford us the ability to share our interpretations with others (Short, et al., 1994). Sharing, as an entity, represents an important component of storytelling as it facilitates the aforementioned sense of community. Indeed, author Stephen Greenblatt mentions that a sort of compulsiveness exists that is intrinsic to storytelling (1991).
Ultimately, the power of PostSecret is that it develops a sense of community through identity whose power can then be leveraged into action. While still a loose network of individuals, PostSecret has created an organization with low barriers to entry that still has the potential to develop strong affective ties between members.
Eyerman, R. (2004). The past in the present: Culture and the transmission of memory. Acta Sociologica , 47 (2), 159-169.
Greenblatt, S. (1991). Story-Telling. The Threepenny Review (44), 23.
Kennedy, D. (1998). The art of the tale: Story-Telling and history teaching. Reviews in American History , 26 (2), 462-473.
MacDonald, D. (1958, November 29). A Castle, a Culture, a Market. The New Yorker , p. 57.
PostSecret. (2010, February 15). Retrieved February 15, 2010, from PostSecret: http://postsecret.blogspot.com/
Quart, A. (2003, April 28). Plug the Band, Get the T-Shirt. Retrieved February 15, 2010, from The Times Online: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article870165.ece
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher , 34 (4), 14-22.
Williams, R. (2001). I'm a keeper of information: History-Telling and voice. The Oral History Review , 28 (1), 41-63.