Starter Packs: What Over-Analyzing a Meme Can Reveal About Consumer Culture
The other day, I went out to brunch in the Second Arrondissement with my friend Lizzy. In our search for real Brunch with a capital B, we ended up at Echo, which basically looks like it dropped straight out of Brooklyn or L.A, decked out with light wood fixtures and a menu with titles in English and food descriptions in French (don’t try to read it with a hangover, you’ll get a headache.) Before we even sat, I wasn’t shocked to hear that particular high, flat pitch of American voices. It turns out that Echo is actually known as "Echo, Café californien", as in owned and operated by Americans.
So, we’re there, and we’re seated in front of another table of American girls. The waitress either personally knows them, or has just made friends with them, in that particularly way of Americans abroad. As I’m watching, I’m struck by how much these girls look like me - one of them is even wearing the exact same sandals as I am. Now, I’ve been in France for three years, I like to think I’ve adapted a lot to the local culture - including sartorially. I also have a few reasons to believe that these girls are just visiting (it’s a sixth sense you can develop.) And yet here we are, a group of young American women in a hipster brunch spot, and we’re all like little clones of each other - all straight-leg jeans and peasant blouses and Madewell sandals. We all ordered the pancakes, and a cappuccino, since those are Okay in Europe if it’s the morning. One of us is sipping a LaCroix.
If you spend a lot of time on The Internet, you know already what I’m thinking.
It’s the “Twenty-something American Girl in Paris” Starter Pack.
Starter Packs - or Starter Kits - have been my favorite meme since their inception a few years ago. According to Know Your Meme, they date back to early 2014 Twitter, where they got their start as photosets. Like most memes, they’ve strayed from their roots, but basically, they’re a loose collage of items on a white background, and a title that’s funnier the more specific it is. A “Basic White Girl” Starter Pack isn’t that interesting, while “Kid who asks the teacher if there’s homework” is funny enough to have launched the whole format.
Excluding the weird/meta/ironic versions, there are essentially three kinds of Starter Packs; starting with the super-obvious-but-still-kind-of-funny ones, like the “American High School in 2018” Starter Pack, or the okay-kind-of-stereotypical-but-I-get-it type, like “Midwestern American Family Taco Night.” Then there are the really good ones, the uncanny ones that feel so realistic you can’t help but feel incredulous that another person Like Them exists in this world, much less enough of them that 12,000 people upvoted a meme made in their likeness.
These are the true masters of the craft - like “That One Girl in Your Elementary School that’s Obsessed with Horses” or “28 Year Old UPS Guy” or “60 Something American Tourist Visiting Ireland for the First Time” or “Slovakian Girl on a Train” or any other number of packs that feel like they’re about people you know, personally. I mean, yeah that’s the joke, right? But how does that happen?
At the end of the day, there are few to no words in a decent Starter Pack - most of the story is told via objects, clothing, and hairstyles. It’s right there in the name, a “starter pack” for anything in real life is most often the kit of essential objects and information needed to become or begin the process of becoming something; whether that’s “a player of this video game” or “a professional painter.” So in that way, Starter Packs are like little windows into a Bourdieuian dystopia, eerie little reminders of how much our consumer behaviors can reveal about us, all while showing how terribly unoriginal we really are.
I’m interesting in exploring the mechanism behind that. How exactly does it happen that every elementary school had a Horse Girl with waist-length hair and a fantasy novel she never left home without?
Some of the more obvious Starter Packs are obvious, in a disappointing way - I recently opened “Badass Lithuanian Teenager” Starter Pack and I was dismayed to find an iPhone X, Adidas Superstars, and a tracksuit. It’s not really surprising to anyone that a teenager, anywhere in the world, in 2018, would be attracted by some of the largest brands in the world. Internet culture - and Instagram in particular - have lead to a kind of global “sameness” in fashion and particularly in teen culture; it’s a path we’ve been on since blue jeans were invented and Gap took over the world in the 90’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it lacks the specificity that makes a Starter Pack good; everyone knows a person like this because everyone is a person like this.
Sometimes, mid-tier Starter Packs feel like proof that market research is doing its job and doing it well; I’m sure some execs out there would be super pleased to confirm that white girls aged 18-24 whose parents earn a median income of $75,000 a year and live in the suburbs surrounding a mid-sized city enjoy Chipotle, Yeti Coolers, Instagram, strappy sandals, and tend to wear their hair long and favor heavier makeup looks.
Mass consumer culture has always favored a certain shift towards the center, but a social culture that rewards sameness or just-different-enoughness with likes tends to exacerbate these messages. As brand stories and identities get more dynamic and complex, so increases companies’ ability to send particularly well-targeted messages that speak to their target audiences in the right language. In other words, the better we get at making brands feel human, the more consumers are likely to relate to those stories and experiences; the greater the role of the brand in the consumer’s construction of identity.
But that’s just the mid-tiers, right, let’s talk about the really weird ones - how, how, how is it possible that every horse girl in elementary school had super long hair, and a weirdly-long jean skirt, and the sensible blue Trapper Keeper; especially given that kids don’t necessarily make all of their purchase decisions at that age? Or why, for example, does the “Works in Accounts Receivable for a Moderately Successful Company” feel so accurate, an early-50’s women named Kimberly with bleach-dyed hair who loves wine and home decor involving wine and Splenda?
And I think this is where it’s important to remember that no consumer decision is ever made in a vacuum, which is to say that beyond Market Research and Big Data and Targeted Advertising and all that stuff that’s designed to take advantage of this, we’re all just a sum of our circumstances. While it’s no longer reasonable to say that the Housewife Aged 25-50 exists as a single person or demographic, it is safe to say that someone who grew up in a certain class in a certain area at a certain time and within a certain culture might have certain consumer habits that are easier to predict.
Put simply: if branding and advertising messages work by speaking a coded visual language that their targets can understand, that’s because, somewhere, there’s a common experience that makes that those symbols decodable; that makes that language intelligible to a certain number of people.
If Starter Packs feel so uncanny, it’s because there’s actually a pretty narrow window of possibilities for any given identity.
Kimberly, for example, has the same name as a million other women born in the late 60’s and early 70’s; she avoids sugar in favor of sugar-substitutes because that was the major Diet Gospel when she came of age in the mid-late 80’s. She’s into wine, because first of all who isn’t, and because it’s a drink that’s “for women” in an alcohol culture that was probably mostly targeted towards men. The bleached tips are a call-back to the 80’s. Accounts Receivable is a good job, the kind of place an earlier generation of working moms had to work hard to end up.
Or horse girl, for example. The person who made these meme is probably between 15-30 years old themselves, and there’s not a widely differing set of hairstyles available to elementary-aged girls over the past 25 years. Jessica’s long, straight hair made her look serious and conservative in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, but she won’t look the same in 20 years. Her long hair might symbolize something differently entirely. She wouldn’t look the same, for example, in Europe - if she even exists. In America, she probably comes from a relatively conservative family that discourages interest in pop stars or fashion but values traditional femininity, hence the long hair and conservative jean skirt. But that itself is a reflection of American political culture and family values in the past two decades.
For the record, I have made and shared exactly one Starter Pack. It’s called the Rich French Dude Starter Pack, and I would classify it as a mere mid-tier in terms of its uncanniness. There’s the hunting dog, the apartment in the 16th or Neuilly, the Rich Guy Hair, and a colorful cashmere sweater tossed over a collared shirt. It’s not especially different from the Rich Guy Starter Pack for a lot of countries, maybe save for the cigarettes and the fact that living on the 5th floor is bragging rights. Like all the other Packs, there’s no Rich Guy Hivemind to be gleaned behind it - he’s a function of his history and his social setting and his own personality, every bit of him a symbol for something else, like the Signet ring on his left ring finger.
Personally, I have chosen to embrace my “20 something American Girl in Paris” starter pack, the one that has me dressing a little more tomboy rough than your average French girl, since a lot of us in my generation were raised in a culture that gave girls a lot of positive attention for not acting like them; the one that makes Cool Girl and Tomboy synonymous.
We’re the ones that are all about natural fabrics and vegan lattes and avocado toast, having come of age in an economy that taught us to question McDonald’s culture so hard that we came back around and commodified it all again. We’re college educated and we idealize Europe and Europeanness, bolstered by our roots in a certain class that probably let us take a trip or two to other side of the pond in high school, or at least left us dreaming about one.
We all bought the Madewell Boardwalk sandals at least 4-7 days after our first contact with them on social media, most likely Instagram.