In addition to this, there is a second, less-discussed, consumer trend that may also be playing into the mix: customisation. It is sometimes said that the second half of the 20th century produced the “me” generation, or a time when people started to assume that the world revolved around them, rather than the other way around. Now, however, advances in digital technology have given the “me” generation a new twist: today, we not only presume that we are at the centre of our world, we also want to customise it to our individual tastes.
Think about it. Fifty years ago, when people bought music, it came in prepackaged record albums. Today we have personal music playlists. Once, we bought newspapers with preselected news and consumed programmed TV and radio. Now we create personalised news hubs, stream our own choice of TV whenever we want to and download the podcasts that appeal to us. We customise our meals and drinks; just think of all the options Schultz has offered at Starbucks. The same goes for our clothes, identities and online friendship circles.
At first glance, this customisation trend — or pick ‘n’ mix culture — may not have much in common with politics. But the key point is that during most of our living memory, politics in the west has been presented to consumers (ie voters) just like a music album, namely in preselected packages known as political parties. In some senses, this pattern still rules around the world: the Democrats and Republicans and the UK’s Conservative and Labour parties, for example, still predominate. But many “consumers” are rebelling and taking their taste for customisation from the consumer world into politics.
What tends to incite passions these days, particularly among younger voters, are single issues such as immigration, the environment, equal rights, nationalism or Brexit. What voters really seem to like are celebrity politicians who transcend prepackaged party lines. It is no accident, perhaps, that Emmanuel Macron swept to power in France by creating his own party (En Marche) nor that Trump — and Winfrey and Schultz — cannot be easily pigeonholed. In many cases, personal brands transcend party platforms right now — not least because voters can project whatever they fancy on to them.
So after I saw that Oprah 2020 T-shirt, I bought it — for $14.99. No, I do not plan to wear it, let alone champion her; nor do I really expect her to run. But, if nothing else, that T-shirt is a good souvenir of a world in flux — expressed via an eye-catching brand.