It’s no secret that marketers are using an ever-growing array of techniques to get inside the minds of consumers. One of the most recent methods is known as neuromarketing, and literally involves peeking inside the brains of consumers using an M.R.I.
A number of artists, meanwhile, have found that it’s usually easier to look inside the purses, courier bags and backpacks of friends and strangers instead. It might offer a less direct route to consumer insight as compared with traditional approaches, but ethnographers and design researchers have plenty to learn from these more unconventional thinkers.
Jason Travis might be the best known of the stuff detectives. Or, at the very least, the person with the most perseverance. His “Persona” series, which began in 2007, now includes over 300 images on Flickr. Half of every image is a portrait, the other half an artfully arranged collection of the items each person carries around on a daily basis. A simple idea, elegant in execution, that conveys more about a person at a glance than an hour of focus group testing will ever accomplish. (Travis also has a book – called Personified – available through Blurb.com.)
A more recent iteration of this idea is Foster Huntington’s The Burning House. What began as a Tumblr experiment recently became a book as well. As Huntington explains in the book’s introduction, “By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.”
The Burning House is an equally simple idea, but the results are complex, representing a “conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental.” Where Persona is about the objects that make it easier for people to live their daily lives, The Burning House shows the objects people simply could not live without.
Artist Liu Chuang’s self-explanatory project “Buy Everything on You” takes the logic of Persona and The Burning House to an absurdist extreme. Instead of relying on careful curation and artful photography, Chuang offers a less artful but more complete inventory of a person’s possessions.
Taking a similar approach, Hans-Peter Feldmann also offers money to strangers so that he might peer inside their handbags and take photos of their contents. Both Chuang and Feldmann are pioneering a new form of paid consumer research. The main advantage to their ambush approach is that is allows them to capture the messy truth of our uncurated lives.
What’s missing in all of the above projects, however, is context. Where do the photographed objects normally live? In photographer Sannah Kvist’s series “All I Own,” she asked her twenty-something friends to pose with all their possessions, arranged into stuff sculptures. The project reminds us that many young people only possess a room full of things.
Artist Song Dong, in the series “Waste Not,” shows what happens when “All I Own” is extended across five decades. “Waste Not” is meant to be a commentary on the hoarding tendencies of Dong’s mother, along with the necessity of being frugal in China during difficult financial times. A giant room full of items is turned into a silent biography.
In general, the goals of these artists tend to be more subtle and less direct than those of marketers. The contents of a few purses isn’t sufficient research to guide a re-branding exercise. But by being attentive to the techniques that artists use to observe, catalogue and display objects, marketers can learn new ways to understand our customers and become better stuff detectives.