this post made by elves as I slept

elves II.bmp

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, my girlfriend and I used to walk home at night past a jewelry story that had a little note pinned in the window: “all our jewelry made by elves as we sleep.” The store was dark but at the very back was a little lamp burning.

If you stared long and hard enough, as my girl friend and I sometimes did, you could begin to see the elves at work. I remember saying to Jane, “is this not the very best way to sell jewelry?” to which her silent reply was, I believe, “so buy me some.” This was my introduction (post childhood) to the power of mystery as sales technique.

Yesterday, I noted how Minus 8 vinegar creates scarcity. Today, I want to show how it creates mystery.

Minus 8 vinegar is made by a couple who work hard to protect their anonymity. (The CBC is waiting to see if they are willing to participate in the story.) Not quite elves creating jewelry but something close.

This anonymity, and the obscure and secret details of Minus 8 production, help create a sense of specialness about the brand. Consumers want it more, not less, because it is so produced.

This marks a movement away from the traditional bargain created by capitalism. Boomer readers will remember those charming (and endless) documentaries that showed footage of the production line. Companies staged factory visits. “Look,” was the message, “nothing to hide! We want you to see where the product come from and the pains we take to make production immaculate.”

Now, we say, “how dreary.” We want things from sources secret and mysterious. Jewelry and even vinegar.

The deeper trend is clear. We are no longer enamored of our once vaunted rationalism and its promise that darkness, confusion, uncertainty would be burned away by the clear light of reason. We declared war, in fact, on mystery. Mystery was the locus of mischief, confusion or evil.

With reason installed (relatively speaking) as the great feature of a modernist society, we began to pine for the old days. Those superstitions and fairy tales, now scorned, were remembered and revived. New age practices became popular. (I still remember a relatively intelligent woman from the Midwest telling me that my balding pattern was proof of my descent from the Pharaohs.) In sum, we made the world a kinder, gentler place by readmitting mystery and magic and folk beliefs. (As I say in Transformation, no one ever seems to discover that they are the reincarnates of a stupid, cruel, tubercular char women living with 5 kids in the grinding poverty of an 18th century slum. Better to think of ourselves as Pharaohs.)

Capitalism will respond to this as it responds to the scarcity challenge. This is a cultural meaning it can and will invest in our consumer goods. It will be a challenge of course. Most marketers do not rely on elves to help out around the office. But if consumers want a “reenchantment of the world,” that’s exactly what they’ll get.


There is an early post that is germane here. If you’re interested, have a look for the one called “Tag, we’re it.”

6 thoughts on “this post made by elves as I slept

  1. Grant

    Well said, as always. The entire New Age thing presumes that science and reason will supply the infrastructure of our lives…so that we may be free to imagine a world without it. I think we need to file this one under “civilization and its discontents,” subcategory: hypocrisy. On the other hand, to supply a little anthropological balance, the regime of reason and science can be a little shy on the imagination side. So we don’t want to judge the enterprise too hastily, perhaps. It may be true that science depends on the science fiction of new age, as surely as the new age does upon it. Thanks for the corrective view! Best, Grant

  2. gary

    I remember saying to Jane, “is this not the very best way to sell
    jewelry?” to which her silent reply was, I believe, “so buy me some.”
    This was my introduction (post childhood) to the power of mystery as
    sales technique.

    Heh.  Not to mention the power of the woman/jewelry nexus.

  3. Grant

    Gary, it is a great and terrible nexus, forming and when necessary reforming whole civilizations (and their discontents)! Grant

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  5. steve

    I recall the old Keebler cookies jingle: “They’re baked by little elves in a hollow tree. And what do you think makes them taste so yummy? They’re baked in magic ovens and there’s no factory–hey!”

    Interestingly, the beer business went through this in the 1990s with the rise of microbrews, those obscure and scarce brands that could only be accessed by the lucky or determined. Personally, I was charmed by the major brewer who countered with TV ads saying “It’s time for a good old macrobrew…Brewed in vats…the size of Rhode Island” along with pictures of the industrial beer making process playing over martial music. Perhaps vineagar will go through a similar cycle.

  6. Grant

    Steve, why do I have the envious feeling that your memory is like one of the classical loci models where there is a place for everything and recall is instantaneous? It’s not entirely fair for those of us who are struggling to remember whether we have, as my father used to say, “buttoned our trousers.”

    Good point on the microbrewery (and yes at some point we just very much want people to just “get real”).

    The microbreweries then faced the interesting problem of scaling up (if they could)to something national. This took new kinds of scale in production and distribution, but it also took new kinds of scale in meaning management.

    How do you keep your mystery when you are producing with vats the size of Rhode Island and is it anything, then, more than puffery?

    I think we have seen Nike struggling to micro manage the message, not for mystery (though the “hide and seek” ads by Weiden and Kennedy were pretty splendid as were the ones showing the girl who walks to school without every touching the ground). But they are working on a version of this problem, keeping things particular when almost everything about the logic of capitalism takes you, with scale, to banality.

    This is why, I think, the department stores had to turn over their space to boutiques. Only they could do the micro management necessary to speak to the new consumer. Anyhow, thanks! Grant

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