The term Capitalist Realism was conceived by Michael Schudson (1986) to describe the function of, and techniques employed in, contemporary advertising in order to sell consumer goods.
By comparing the Soviet Union’s utilisation of art for promoting Communist ideals between 1920 – 1960 with the way in which consumption is promoted today, Schudson suggests that advertising agencies practise techniques which are similar to the Socialist Realism style, effectively creating a form of capitalist propaganda (220). This essay demonstrates how a television commercial promotes consumption by creating a fictitious, sexually charged world which is facilitated by modern technology. Techniques identified in this essay include the utilisation of mobile technology to mediate sexual encounters; the inclusion of ethnicity to reach a wide demographic; Western society’s adoption of net-based language; the depiction of individuals as epitomes of larger social categories; the promotion of lifestyles which encourage consumerism at the expense of other values; the simplification of the human psyche and emotion; and the empowerment of women onscreen.
Socialist Realism vs. Capitalist Realism
The core of Schudson’s argument is what he views as the simplification and typification of the world around us in American advertising. In Socialist Realism, simplification and typification were relied upon to communicate clear principles effectively to the masses, and whilst representative of the everyday, it depicted an aspirational life, not a mundane one nor the status quo. Perpetually optimistic, Soviet Communist principles demonstrated overall social significance in lieu of individualist views, and the social struggles which emerged from communism were portrayed as progressive. In Schudson’s own words, it was the duty of Social Realism to “focus on contemporary life, creating pleasing images of new social phenomena, revealing and endorsing new features of society and thus aiding the masses in assimilating them” – which also summarises the intention and function of advertising today. Schudson suggests that American advertising agencies are united in presenting an ideal world; not one that is in any way realistic but rather a destination the viewer/consumer can move towards, one purchase at a time (215).
The Selected Text
To illustrate the concept of Capitalist Realism, this essay analyses a video advertisement released in July 2015 by the Calvin Klein fashion brand to promote its Autumn collection. Produced by American advertising agency Mother New York, the campaign was created to release in 27 different markets, making it truly international. Named in anticipation of going viral, the #mycalvins campaign is a mix of both static and digital content including billboards, LED displays and in-app advertising (Adweek). The static texts were released first to introduce the brand’s characters and their use of ‘sexting’—sexual texts and photos sent in short messages over the Internet—to organise intimate encounters. The selected video text, ‘The Full Story’, was later released to provide further details of how the characters met, the nature of their relationships, and to convey the swift pace of their sexually-charged lifestyles (Adweek). In an effort to make the characters convincing, the adverts state that they are “raw texts, real stories” but host the disclaimer that they were “inspired by actual events and people”. This follows the advice of Tony Schwartz that advertising agencies should create pleasurable experiences instead of making potentially inaccurate claims (qtd. in Jhally 92).
Speaking to an audience of smartphone users, the advert draws on the popularity of partner-finding apps such as Tindr and Grindr where geo-location enables participants to find partners on demand and in close proximity. Introducing the concept in the opening frames is the commonly understood representation of a smartphone notification: “new message; slide to reply”. A wide-shot of a semi-dressed heterosexual couple on a bed is revealed, and a phone notification is audible. The man has his back to the camera as the woman interrupts the intimate moment to reach out for her phone. Despite not seeing the phone, we know she is reading the message: we see a close-up of her face with a blue colour-cast and flickering light effect, as if we are looking back at her through her phone’s digital display. A male’s voice states “Been staring at your profile all night … can’t get you out of my head” and the sexual message exchange is overlaid for us to read. Timestamps on the messages show it is 8.41am: this constructs a non-stop world of sexual provocation, details the rapid frequency of the exchange, and identifies time as a critical factor for an on-demand generation. This is reiterated when the woman states that she will meet the man in an hour, once her current lover has left. Comparable to Socialist Realism, contemporary life is presented in an uncomplicated and alluring way; the social phenomena of smartphone-aided dating is the easy solution to partner-finding, and the characters’ behaviour is not questionable because it is presented as the social norm of the generation – no matter how unrealistic it is in real life.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene One: 00:00:08
Gender & Ethnicity
As the woman heads off to her rendezvous, we are introduced to a group of young, beautiful, and ethnically diverse women sitting on the staircase outside of a party, reviewing their smartphone messages. On the typification, simplification and representation of women in advertising, Schudson states that “the age range from twenty-six to thirty-five corresponds not so much to a physical type as to a presumed social type with predictable consumer patterns” and is specifically a “demographic grouping used for market research” (212). Here it is true that the ages of the women are not easily definable. Similarly, Schudson draws attention to the fact that “black people are still largely invisible in advertising” (220). The selected text represents a range of ethnicities, utilising diversity to position the brand as progressive and inclusive. In line with Socialist Realism, the actors were cast to be representative of a modern, progressive archetype, or a demographic category, while Capitalist Realism acts to define the model’s aesthetics as those consumers should aspire to.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Two: 00:00:16
Sexting is the universal and generational-specific language used in the advertisement, further characterising the brand’s youthful and fashionable audience. Schudson defined a key function of Socialist Realism as “revealing and endorsing new features of society” in order for the populace to incorporate them (215), and with this intention, Calvin Klein is educating the masses on the semantics of sexting whilst positioning itself as a trend-setter or early-adopter. Focused on the women sitting on the stairs, the blue-cast camera technique is repeated and messages containing heart emoticons, loose grammar and abbreviations are overlaid. The characters do not speak to the camera; instead we hear their internal dialogue which is direct, plain and confident. We are informed that the way the community verbally speaks is different from the sexting shorthand in use. These are not uneducated people, but rather fashion role-models who use sexting jargon to closely identify with their young target market.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Two: 00:00:17
Socialist Realism favoured social compositions over individual ones, and Schudson believes that Capitalist Realism follows this ideal by only showing individuals when they are “incarnations of larger social categories” (215). Alternating to a male perspective, a man working late in an office propositions another man online. The camera frames the man as he waits for a response, providing the only one-person shot in the advertisement, with the sexual message exchange again overlaid. Audio overlay communicates that the man’s thoughts are preoccupied with his potential meeting and we get a glimpse of his intentions with a montage of two men together before the shot refocuses on the man. Again, the partner’s face is not revealed to the viewer, simplifying the scene. The late-night office environment implies that the character is successful, professional, and hard-working. Instead of a harsh and glaring light, the glow of a computer screen accentuates the actor’s etiolated beauty. Schudson suggests that while many commercials seek realism, an aesthetic surrealism is often used to illustrate fantasy and desire (140). This is a highly stylised environment, and as an epitome of a homosexual man, the character is stylish, creative and sexually voracious.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Three: 00:00:29
Consumption Before Values
Whereas Socialist Realism endorsed wider social gain at the expense of individual achievement, Schudson quotes a 1980 UNESCO report to define Capitalist Realism as promoting “attitudes and lifestyles which extol acquisition and consumption at the expense of other values” (210). The fourth scene switches to a heterosexual couple entwined on a couch. The woman pushes the man away so that she can respond to an incoming message from a female friend. The woman takes a photo of the man with her phone and sends it to her friend, proposing that she join them. The friend confirms via message that she “can do that”, certifying his attractiveness. This is the third instance where women are in control of events. The scene then cuts to the couple and another woman forming a threesome in the apartment. Whilst progressive in its representation of heterosexual, homosexual, and polyamorous relations, the advertisement promotes physical aesthetics before character, and instant gratification before emotional connection.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Four: 00:00:44
The simplification of what many of us would consider to be a complex and emotional situation continues when two lovers send sexting messages to each other while with different partners. Erving Goffman reminds us that “in life, people are stuck with a considerable amount of dull footage” and that onscreen this is edited down into a “purely ritualised social ideal” (qtd. in Schudson 138). Therefore heartbreak and lovers’ quarrels have been omitted from the narrative; these are beautiful people who have only sexual satisfaction on their minds. The scene utilises simplification to reduce the human psyche to an animalistic state where emotion is disconnected.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Six: 00:00:54
Empowerment & Objectification
Complementary to Socialist Realism, women are optimistically portrayed as strong and empowered in all scenes. When the male asks, “Why do we even do this?” she responds, slightly mockingly, “Because it’s fun, and you love it”, confirming that it is women who are driving these events. Additionally, by positioning women as the power-holders, it caters to the male fantasy that woman are as sexually rapacious as men. Schudson however reminds us that this isn’t the standard in advertising, where women are generally depicted as “subordinate to men, childlike in both their charm and their dependence” (220). Reversing this norm, Calvin Klein utilises gender perception in order to position the brand as progressive, even if its reversal is that men are objectified and passive though not entirely unhappy with the situation.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Six: 00:00:57
Idealizing the Consumer
It is not until the end frame of the advertisement that we are informed that this is a campaign for Calvin Klein. Offering a possible explanation as to why the brand’s clothing is not obvious, Schudson believes that whereas Socialist Realism “idealized the produce, contemporary advertising idealizes the consumer” (220). In the essay ‘Advertising as Religion’, Sut Jhally takes the position that “the real function of advertising is not to give people information but to make them feel good” (92), and therefore by creating a window with this advert, Calvin Klein is indulging the viewer’s voyeurism whilst simultaneously instilling the messages of its brand. Jhally also questions if it is coincidental that advertising now focuses on desires, the personal and small-group lifestyles instead of on a product’s physical function; it opts to illustrate rather than tell viewers directly what consumer choices they should make, taking the subconscious route to their buying decisions (93).
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. Scene Six: 00:00:46
True to Schudson’s concept of Capitalist Realism, this essay demonstrates that advertising agencies employ similar techniques to that of the Socialist Realists in order to promote the consumption of consumer goods. Calvin Klein and Mother New York have constructed a simplified and typified world for their #mycalvins campaign where everyone is blessed with model looks, sexual desire is satisfied on demand, and there are no emotional consequences. By taking ownership of the sexting phenomenon and reversing advertising norms, the brand represents varying ethnicities, sexual orientations and preferences, and depicts women as dominant in order to speak to their progressive and youthful target demographic. Ultimately, the brand’s propaganda suggests that this highly sexualized world is accessible if your dare to enter, or buy your way into, the Calvin Klein world.
Screenshot from #mycalvins 2015 Campaign. End Frame: 00:01:00
Calvin Klein Jeans Fall 2015 – The Full Story by Calvin Klein. Advertisement. YouTube. 29 July. 2015.
Jhally, Sut. “Advertising as Religion.” The Spectacle of Accumulation. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 85 – 97.
Schudson, Michael. “Advertising as Capitalist Realism.” Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion. New York: Basic Books, 1986. 209 – 233.
Nudd, Tim. Calvin Klein Embraces Sexting and Tinder in Racy Campaign About Digital Dating – Conversation Through Provocation. Adweek. 30 July. 2015.