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Many years ago I was stuck in an elevator with my boss. Not wanting to waste precious company time, my boss took the moment to offer me some practical advice: “You need to perfect your elevator pitch,” he announced.
That day I was to learn the meaning of an ‘elevator pitch’ – a 30-second spiel about myself that I would rehearse and then broadcast to complete strangers. A good elevator pitch, my boss impressed upon me, could titillate a stranger from the time it takes an elevator to rocket from ground floor to level 30. “Practice it now,” he said, seizing the moment. “Give it to me.”
Magazine articles are rife with rapid-fire introductions of people, much like the elevator pitch. It might go something like: “Lara is a journalist, television presenter, author, ambassador, celebrity, public figure, charity worker, public speaker, and wonderful mum”. The list of nouns used to introduce everyday folk has proliferated, somehow implying that the more nouns you sport in life, the more impressive you are.
But the thought of describing myself in 30 seconds fills me with a feeling of horror. It has all the hallmarks of a 30-second radio advertisement except, rather than selling insurance or home mortgages, this time the advertisement is about me. So when did I become a product to sell?
In the latest manifestation of consumerism, we are witness to a disturbing development: ‘the self as product’, much like foot deodorant and garbage bags. An example, perhaps, is the rise of the memoir, where people package up and sell their memories in book form for others to read, effectively trading their life stories on the market for cash. And in a time when sensationalism sells – when tall stories flog more copies on the market than the more humble, honest accounts of life – today’s bookshelves of memoirs are replete with violence, depression, sickness, grief, and other manifestations of life’s ills, whether based on fact or stretched for shock value.
When the self becomes a product it undergoes an interesting metamorphosis. The self takes on the presence of the garden gnome, those terracotta figurines used as ornaments in garden beds and front lawns. Remember the prank when in the dead of night a garden gnome was pinched from the front lawn and whizzed away on an adventure, only months later to pop up in front of the Eiffel Tower and the next moment alongside “billionaire Bob” in his private jet? Well, those in the business of selling themselves are in the habit of popping up too, and nothing sells better than novel and unexpected locations. It’s why these ‘people products’, or we may call them ‘celebrities’ or ‘public figures’ or whichever noun you wish to select in the ever-growing list, are typically spotted cradling refugee children one moment and buying French vineyards the next.
Suffice to say, I quit that job. The human condition cannot be summed up in 30 seconds. Sorry Sir, but my self is not for sale.
Artwork by Nom Kinnear King, featured in Womankind #5 ‘ialtóg’ (bat).