A most obstinate fact that faces any would-be critic of modern Western society is that social changes over the last half-century that constitute the so-called "consumer society" have been accompanied by a considerable levelling of social (and to lesser extent economic) barriers between classes. We live in a more demotic culture than ever before: MPs and television presenters sport regional accents; air travel is no longer the preserve of the upper classes; a wide swathe of social classes aspire to consume luxury goods and services once the preserve of an elite (fuelled until recently by cheap credit). Deference toward social hierarchies and institutions has been vastly reduced. This is a real effect, not mere smokescreen, even if it hasn't so far been accompanied by equivalent reform to democratic institutions.
There's been a corresponding increase in snobberies of various sorts whose purpose is to maintain signs of social superiority in the face of this levelling down. Perhaps the most obvious one concerns food - contrasting those wretches who shovel down "junk food" with one's own consumption of scarce and organically-grown products. Wine snobbery (both against beer consumers, and in terms of superior wine knowledge) is another. Air travel has its own snobbery, that unseemly craving for an "upgrade", the disparaging jokes about "turning right" at the doorway. But one that really fascinates me, as a keen photographer, is that surrounding cameras.
It's considered naff in many photographic circles to use point-and-shoot digital cameras because the great unwashed use them, because they work so well and so easily that they de-skill an arcane art, and because of the unattractive stance they provoke - holding the camera away from the body and gawking at the LCD rather than peering intently through a viewfinder like a pro. The alternative is the single-lens reflex DSLR used by almost all professionals, which thereby aquires a certain cachet. These are large, heavy, expensive and complicated, but those very properties begin to undermine them as status symbols: learning to use one demands time and patience, a nerdish enthusiasm that's very unwelcome in cool circles. This poses a dilemma, but one which Olympus has now brilliantly attacked with its TV and cinema ad campaign for the new digital E-P1 Pen model.
This camera is almost as small as a point-and-shoot compact but has interchangeable lenses like a DSLR. It's easy to use and to carry but most important it has a cool retro look redolent of San Tropez in the '60s. Kevin Spacey is the chosen presenter, and the slogan is.... "Don't be a tourist!"
This slogan plays off yet another of the new snobberies, that about travel. So many people can afford to visit so many places around the world that it's essential to distinguish oneself from them: they are tourists, I'm a traveller, out to broaden my mind. Olympus's agency cleverly piggy-backs on this snobbery to sell a camera that's otherwise rather unremarkable. Carrying one will soon be compulsory on the smart beaches, replacing the pastel-coloured Canon Ixus on a neck-string...