Bad Metaphors On a Journey

The selling of prepackaged experiences as self-discovery

BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the rest here.

A YouTube spot for the meal subscription service HelloFresh features a woman proudly declaring, “We’ve been on our HelloFresh journey for about two and a half years now” — a journey of “discovering” the world’s cuisines, a colonial adventure rendered through laminated, full-color recipe cards. A Korean beauty box, Pink Seoul, promises to guide the purchaser on their “K-Beauty journey,” while a subscription to Pink Fortitude’s “Member Box,” filled with health related items, promises to “catapult your wellness journey.” The term “journey” conjures up adventure and discovery, which is just what these companies promise: Their boxes are full of surprises, items that the consumer may never have known they needed. Consumed in order, they guide the purchaser through a prescribed set of experiences meant to feel like a process of becoming: a healthier, more beautiful you; a competent, cosmopolitan home cook.

The metaphor of “being on a journey” proliferates in advertising copy, as well as across social media. There are more than 30 million Instagram posts tagged #weightlossjourney, along with hundreds of thousands for #debtfreejourney, #yogajourney, #ketojourney, and other logs of self-improvement. A search of the “infertility journey” hashtag reveals nearly 162,000 Instagram posts, some featuring inspirational taglines, others vaguely menacing: infants lying on circular blankets surrounded by syringes, as if to create the vague appearance of a halo — the child is posed as a gift from the gods, while surrounded by the medical technologies that made their existence possible. #Plannerjourney documents the practice of “decorative planning” by sprucing up your dayplanner with decals and color headings — a form of taking control of, and rationally managing, what we can least control or manage: the flow of time and history.

These “journeys” are often mediated by a relationship to a consumer product or service: diet programs like Weight Watchers, workout gear, juice cleanses, subscription boxes. Fertility is big business, with chain fertility clinics pitching egg freezing to 20-somethings and imploring them to “keep their options open.” One such line of clinics, Prelude Fertility, proclaims that “Fertility is a winding journey,” and purports to allow its clients to “take control,” while also “taking the pressure off” — your body will not be fertile forever, but leave now on your journey to motherhood and the clinic will be your guide.

“Journey” is an insider term. It makes consumerism feel like the fulfillment of destiny

These examples are only recent iterations of companies marketing prepackaged experiences as personal odysseys. The “magic” behind Disneyland is that it is carefully designed to provide you with a sense of discovery and adventure that feels unique and individual. The pathways at Ikea work similarly; so does the grocery store beginning with the produce and ending with impulse-buy candy bars, magazines, and single serve drinks; not to mention the adventure ride behind Niagara Falls. These “journeys” happen through physical spaces, but today, marketing journeys are often more internally focused. As HelloFresh’s VP of Marketing, Matt Fitzgerald, puts it, “we’re living in the ‘golden age of being at home.’”

The journeys framed on social media are often not geographical, as in ancient myths, but technological — they involve the consumption of a product or service that promises to help the user become what they were “meant” to be. The metaphor conjures ancient narratives wherein the hero forges an identity through mastery of unruly phenomena. But the unruly forces of “nature” include one’s own physicality, and the term applies just as effectively to some endeavor of bodily change: weight loss, fitness, diet, skincare, pregnancy and birth. “Journey,” in this copy, carries the same associations of ultimate triumph over the elements.

Contemporary concepts of the journey are structured by capitalism: an individual’s “journey” is facilitated by a service or product offering the experience of discovery, and shaped by social media platforms that offer the promise of an audience for the efforts we make at constructing a coherent self against an unpredictable world. “Journey” is an insider term as well: Customer journey mapping is a marketing technique that outlines the steps a company will take to move someone from potential customer to “convert.” Whether we advertise it on our social media, and whether we like it or not, we are all on many “journeys” with many brands toward conversion and retention — long-lasting relationships with consumer brands without a clear end-point. While they claim to lead us on a path of self-discovery and liberation, these brands mediate and circumscribe our lives’ possibilities.

The journey metaphor makes consumerism feel like the fulfillment of destiny: a self-development technique designed to help us realize our potential, and bring us more in line with the person we believe we really are — through the right products, we liberate the tiny body hiding beneath our layers of fat, or become the spontaneous and exciting people hiding behind our sad desk lunches. The journey is a convenient metaphor for metamorphosis, but our consumption habits don’t take us anywhere. What is presented as a “journey” from the outside is, in fact, a carefully constructed experience designed to make us feel liberated while we are brought under ever more control. However personal they seem, these journeys are not ours at all — they’re imposed upon us by marketing techniques and social media algorithms, like the gods determining our fates.

Rochelle DuFord is starting as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Hartford in Fall 2019. Her work is driven by a critical concern with the development of political, ethical, and social life under contemporary conditions of globalization, late capitalism, and liberalism. She is currently completing her first book project, which concerns the application of feminist and democratic theories of solidarity in contemporary political and economic conditions.