The psychological process of identification is fascinating. Identifying with someone else is recognizing that they are like us and doing so creates a sense of connectedness and trust. Part of this process is conscious, as when we make evaluations based on someone’s appearance or background, but a surprisingly large part is instinctual, non-verbal and happens unconsciously.
Creating a sense of identification can be consciously manipulated. Sales people do this with a technique called “mirroring”. By adopting the speech and breathing patterns, posture and physical gestures of prospects, sales people are able to quickly establish identification and rapport. Customers put down their guard and trust they they are dealing with someone just like themselves.
Recognizing that someone is like us it the basis of identification. The process also works in reverse. Imitating the behavior of someone who’s success we wish to attain appears to be hardwired. As irrational as it is, dressing like, driving the same car as, and eating the same foods as those we wish to emulate is very common. We believe that by doing as they do we will become as they are and attain what they have.
This type of identification is what powers celebrity endorsements. For ages boxes of Wheaties have featured admired, well-known athletes. The implied promise is that if you eat what’s in the box, you’ll become what’s on the box. This really isn’t any different than the belief held by cannibals that by eating their enemies they will acquire their strengths and powers. Similarly, Catholics believe that they receive the body of Christ when they eat the host during the sacrament of Communion.
I’ve noticed an increase in the number of celebrity endorsements on food packaging, especially on items targeted at kids. Some of the celebrity/food pairs are quite peculiar. What does someone attain by eating Hannah Montana fruit dip?
In pre-YouTube days, teens stood before their bedroom mirrors singing into a hairbrush and imitating their idols. Like aspiring performers they honed their craft by practicing their moves and looks. Today, the mirror has been replaced by the computer monitor and webcam. Bedroom performances are not only rehearsed, they’re uploaded and shared. The private stardom of the bedroom has become a exhibitionist performance and a chance at internet fame.
Recently I saw Madonna’s video for “Give it to Me”. It opens with her stretching and posing in front of a dance studio mirror. It’s as if she is warming up her persona as well as her body. In some of the video’s many quick cuts she sings directly into the camera. At times the performance is less seduction and more flaunting, posing and fronting. The self-absorbed mannerisms transform the camera into a mirror. A mirror for the viewer. A mirror when gazed into reflects back Madonna’s image not your own. An image offered up for our identification and in doing so swallows us up.