The Irish Times Reader Offer Catalogue: Design, lifestyle and product

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Product catalogues provide a remarkably transparent means of determining the supposed needs and concerns of consumers. Within the pages of the Argos, Maplin or Irish Times catalogues are the commodities of the current era. Each speaks to a different audience. Each contains a varied range of products, positioned to attract differing demographics.

And these are available both on-line and in print form. The reasons for the dual format are self-evident. While on-line sales are increasing there remains a large group who remain averse to selecting, ordering and purchasing goods over the internet. The solidity of the printed page, or in the case of Argos many hundreds of printed pages, offers the sense of familiarity and reliability. Indeed one of the most interesting features of an Argos store is the way in which they sell high-discounted items from bargain bins and small shelves close to check-outs. The rationale being to increase sales, but also to create the sense that this is indeed a ‘shop’, where one might pick up and examine an object before deciding upon purchasing it, rather than the front-end of a warehouse selling pre-selected goods.

Of course the Argos and Maplin catalogues are slightly different from the Irish Times. They are available in-store and in that respect demand at least some interest on the part of the consumer. Simply put, one is unlikely to take a catalogue home unless one has the intention of using it. One could argue that in the case of Maplin, being concerned with consumer and specialist electronic products, there is a more narrow and defined customer base which is – at least in part – technically adept. If you are looking for an OEM 7200RPM IDE Hard Drive it is probable that you are able to install it yourself. Whatever the actual technicalities of the procedures involved – and they are not disproportionately difficult – that in itself tends to mean that those purchasing such goods are a self-selecting group.

Yet it is the Irish Times which provides the most intriguing insight into design, lifestyle and product. On a regular basis a 32 page catalogue will be printed with the Saturday edition of the newspaper. Full colour throughout this contains a range of household and small electrical and electronic consumer goods. And what’s particularly interesting about it is the design of these products and goods.

Take the furniture. This is promoted as being ‘traditional’ in a ‘beautifully veneered’ finish with ‘warm, honey-coloured’ and ‘lovely rustic’ tones. It is this emphasis on the ‘traditional’ which is most striking. In the catalogue there is only one overtly ‘contemporary’ piece of furniture – a wooden veneered filing cabinet which in truth has a faintly 1940s style. As an alternative there is a traditional filing cabinet which it is promised ‘will lend your home office an air of gravitas’. To enhance this air of ‘gravitas’ the cabinet is ‘designed with brassed handles, brassed label carriers and is available in a choice of two veneers, mahogany tone or light oak tone.

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Other products are equally revealing. There is the ‘elegant and reusable’ clear glass wasp trap, the ‘elegant’ shower-resistant fabric gazebo, the ‘anatomically designed leather pet bed, crafted to last like fine furniture’. And there is also the clear implication that the demographic this catalogue seeks to attract is one that is affluent, middle class, in their 30s or older and keen to use products which combine an understated rather traditional design styling combined with an evident utility. How else to explain products such as the ‘Big Button TM” Universal remote control which assures the reader that they can ‘forget about squinting at the numbers on our remote control or pushing two buttons when you meant to push one’, or the ‘charming’ ‘French-style’ wooden clock with a ‘wild flower motif [that] subtly decorates a delightful addition to any kitchen or bedroom’ or the ‘quality’ golf umbrella with the ‘clever’ extending handle for fast and easy ball retrieval. And utility is important here. There are ‘best-selling’ column CD and DVD storage cases which double as pedestals, ‘space-saving’ corner television units and so on. These are also designed for aspirant apartment dwellers.

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In terms of the age demographic one of the most revealing series of products are two record players that can automatically record vinyl records to hard drive or CD-player. Clearly these are directed at a generation which is in the process of digitising record collections built up over decades. But the design of these record players is also telling. One is partially finished in wood veneer while the accompanying speakers are ‘classically styled’. The other is a ‘retro’, for which read streamline 1950s car-styled player. There is even a chrome finished ‘Classic’ logo on the front above a radio player with a dial while the volume and settings knobs have neon stylings. Certain societal concerns intrude. One can purchase reusable cleaning cloths that ‘shine without chemicals’, or alternatively energy-saving lightbulbs along with a ‘home-recycler unit’.

The lifestyles these products promote are self-evident. And this is reinforced by the photographs which accompany the descriptions. A small number artfully include out of focus models seated within pastel domestic interiors languidly sipping coffee as they inspect the new furniture. These depictions of a studied relaxation are entirely artificial. Does one really grin at one’s CD collection? Where is the evidence of other people, of newspapers, dirty carpets or scuffed staircases? The detritus of actual life is entirely absent from these photographs. The significations are of order, cleanliness, light and a curious emptiness. They are no more ‘real’ than the hoardings advertising the Belmayne complex are a true reflection of life in those apartments. But they are distinct from the Belmayne images in that the careful anonymity of the interiors is established in order that the spectator can project themselves into the domestic space provided without feeling that it is beyond actual reach. Belmayne sells aspiration as irony, this catalogue sells it as realisable goal.

And in purely visual design terms it is curious to see that the overall format is one derived from modernism. Sans serif typefaces proliferate. The words ‘FREE’ and ‘NEW’ are printed in capitals in a bold face in red, even against dark backgrounds – because it doesn’t really matter whether the product is ‘new’ or whether if one buys four one will get one ‘free’. The object of the exercise is to sell the product and the accompanying lifestyle, not the actual monetary value of the products.

Reading Nigel Whiteley and Design for Society at this remove it is difficult not agree when he argues that:

Cultural habits are as difficult to change as an economic system because they are, in part, formed by that system. The marketing-led design boom in the 1980s placed an exaggerated emphasis on design both because a desiner lifestyle was presented as if it were the ultimate stae of psycho-physical being and because it was thought to be the panacea for society’s economic problems.

However he continues:

During the same period, the cracks in the edifice of marketing led design became increasingly visible, and critiques were developed which exposed the values and ideology of our consumerist society

Looking at the Readers Offer it is hard to see any serious rupture in the continuation of marketing led design. The particular genius of contemporary capitalism is in its ability to appropriate almost all oppositional discourses. In this instance we see the glancing impact of environmentalism, but the essential values remain almost unchanging.

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