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“All about us” – personal identity and identification systems
By: Jason Pridmore


May 22, 2007

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A few weeks ago I watched the 1950 movie “All About Eve.” It is a classic I am told, nominated for 14 academy awards and winner of the award for best picture. Mind you, in an age that emphasizes the role of experts, I do not claim to be a film critic, novice or otherwise, so I’ll leave it at that. I can say that I found the performances in the film to be compelling, something confirmed both by the DVD extras and a cursory web search which suggest this to be, in specific, Bettie Davis’ best performance. The film has its interesting plot twists and turns, clearly a film set against the backdrop of a bygone era, but with several themes that pervade into our lives today, namely the intricacies of social relationships, how much others know about us, and the potential for this knowledge to turn into manipulation.

In the film, the character “Eve” (whom we are to learn all about) sets out seemingly innocently to bathe in the glow of Davis’ character, the actress Margo Channing, but ultimately subverts this glow into her own personal limelight. The film begins at the end, as it were, with Eve Harrington receiving an award for an exceptional performance in a role we soon learn was taken from Channing. In the midst of this ceremony, a narrative voiceover mentions Eve directly:

Eve. Eve, the Golden Girl. The cover girl, the girl next door, the girl on the moon... Time has been good to Eve, Life goes where she goes – she's been profiled, covered, revealed, reported, what she eats and when and where, whom she knows and where she was and when and where she's going... ... Eve. You all know all about Eve... what can there be to know that you don't know?

Plenty, apparently, and the next hour and a half is a journey into the history of intricate relations between Eve, Margo and their group of friends. Despite the new found knowledge of Eve’s character in these relational histories, there is something to be said about Eve playing a part, following a scripted role. If in fact we had been able to read the accounts of her life mentioned in the voiceover, to see the profiles and her coverage in the media, we would know something about who she was and what she was like that the revelations of the remainder of the movie, however stark the contrast with mediated reports, would not have shown us. In the end, these would only augment to some extent our expectations of how Eve is to be understood.

I realise that by now I may have lost any number of you who have not seen nor care to see the film. But I use it here to suggest something about which I can claim at least some expertise – the relationship between our sense of identity and its inherent relationship to how we are identified by others. As Richard Jenkins (2000) points out, “we know who we are because, in the first place, others tell us.” Yet in our society, our understandings of self, our identity is increasingly related to how we exist under socially and technically created systems of identification that seemingly know “all about us.” To put it in the terms of the film, the way in which we are profiled, covered, revealed and reported affects our sense of who we are.

I wish I could say that my watching of classic film was inspired by a maturation of my entertainment tastes: an increasing desire to read classic literature and watch the great films of our age. I am afraid this would be less than honest. In fact, the motivation to watch this film was driven by my personal academic research. Andrew Smith and Leigh Sparks, British marketing researchers at the University of Nottingham and Stirling (respectively), entitled a 2004 article in the Journal of Marketing Management “All about Eve?” In the article they describe the purchasing habits of a woman they give the pseudonym “Eve.” Smith and Sparks were given access to two years worth of purchase data based on a particular retail store’s loyalty card program. With this data, they surmise the following things about Eve:

• She is overweight and very concerned about her appearance, especially her poor complexion
• She has long hair, usually wears contacts but wears glasses occasionally, and has numerous problems with her feet
• She has hay fever and struggles to overcome a common cold several times a year
• She has a boyfriend or partner she occasionally buys items for
• She is someone who plans holiday gifts and cards well in advance

These could be intimate details about a person’s life, and the authors readily admit to the fact that they could be wrong about any and all of these descriptions. However they (as am I) are reasonably sure that they know more than Eve herself would be comfortable with. They further recognize that without personally identifiable data or even aggregate sets of data that pertain to her (like geodemographic profiles), they know far less than what the retailer may in fact “know” about Eve.

What I want to suggest is that in a world in which, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman (1992), consumption has become the “cognitive and moral focus of life, the integrative bond of the society, and the focus of systematic management,” marketers do know much about us. In the midst of the increasingly desperate situation with Eve, Margo Channing states “so many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.” Ms. Channing can be assured that today marketers are keen to tell her exactly who she is. Based on her affinities with certain products, her past purchasing behaviours, the neighbourhood in which she lives, the relations she has with others, and far more information which is increasingly knowable, known and quantified, Channing could be situated as a consumer quite readily. We have become statistically significant sets of data (see Zwick and Dholakia 2004), something which affects both how we understand ourselves and how we are understood by consumer systems.

In many cases, we may be seen to “sort ourselves out” as Richard Burrows and Nicholas Gane’s recent article on geodemographics suggests (2006), specifically as a form of “commercial sociology” aids us in deciding the type of people we would like to live with – splitting up neighbourhoods into lifestyle clusters and reengineered class constituencies. On the other hand, loyalty programs, such as the ones Smith and Sparks discuss, are keen to use the data we have given over to “help us solve our problems.” These problems are of course indicative of who you are, your life stage, your income and career, your family, your personal appearance, your diet, etc. In return, they only ask and hope for more patronage, and of course, more data. How else would they be able to know who we are and meet our needs?

After several years of studying the means by which corporations monitor the current and potential customers and after several interviews with executives of loyalty programs, I am convinced that corporations know much about us. Ironically, though the film “All About Eve” suggests we will know all about her, it is the character Eve who in fact seems to know all about us. While we learn all about Eve’s rise to stardom, she does so by means of clever and subtle manipulation. I am reminded quite succinctly of the ways in which marketing practices remain covert and subtle. In one interview I conducted it was suggested to me that the loyalty program (read: data collection program) was meant to know all about you, not in a “big brother” like way, rather in a “best friend” sort of way – to target advertisements meant specifically for your situation, your context. This is never overt of course, both for fear of “getting it wrong” and for fear of appearing as a form of ominous surveillance, but these are clearly and specifically meant to connect with your personal life and I am convinced this has an affect on one’s self concept.

In the end, despite a concern for appearing ominous, it is consumer surveillance and it is ubiquitous. The personal knowledge surmised from the collection of consumer data may not always be right, but based on that information one may begin to experience life differently because of the way it serves to distribute certain resources and penalties (Jenkins 2000). Increasingly, our personal identity – our conception of self – is produced and reproduced in institutionalized contexts and as corporations gather and integrate more and more personal data, the potential for the expectations of this data to become lived out in the experiences of the lives to whom it correlates is high. While this may prove a particular advantage for upwardly mobile consumers, it likewise leaves a rather dismal future for those who may be seen as “collateral damage” for an economic system focused on particular types of consumers (Bauman 2007). Which is to say, knowing all about “us” applies to only a certain categories of people, like Eve, but even for her, what is known about her inevitably affects how she understands herself in the context of a society in which consumption is both a focus and a social bond…

Jason Pridmore is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at Queen's University.

References:

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1992. Intimations of Postmodernity. New York: Routledge.
—. 2007. “Collateral Casualties of Consumerism.” Journal of Consumer Culture 7 (1):25-56.
Burrows, Roger, and Nicholas Gane. 2006. “Geodemographics, Software and Class.”Sociology 40 (5):793-812.
Jenkins, Richard. 2000. “Categorization: Identity, Social Process and Epistemology.” Current Sociology 48 (3):7-25.
Smith, Andrew, and Leigh Sparks. 2004. “All about Eve?” Journal of Marketing Management 20 (3-4):363-385.
Zwick, Detlev, and Nikhilesh Dholakia. 2004. "Whose Identity Is It Anyway? Consumer Representation in the Age of Database Marketing." Journal of Macromarketing 24 (1):31-43.
 
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