I am a new home owner. Like many new home owners, I am both fascinated and repelled by the most terrifying show on television: Holmes on Homes. This show demonstrates a key aspect to understanding social life: normativity or what “should be.”
For those unfamiliar with the show, allow me to summarize the narrative arc of virtually every show. Mike Holmes is a general contractor. He arrives at a home as if he were arriving at the scene of the crime. Like Catherine on CSI, he takes a tour of the “scene.” The homeowners (usually a straight couple, about my age) regale him with the horrible story of their recent renovations, gone awry.
Mike clucks and mutters under his breath. He provides running commentary to the homeowners, assuring them that yes, their instincts were correct: their renovations were not “done right.” He then assures them that when his team arrives on the scene they will “make it right.”
The team duly arrives and as they peel back the layers of the house (the drywall, the floors, the ceiling, the insulation, the roof; Mike stops at nothing to uncover the truth), they discover how bad it actually is. About halfway through the show, Mike is stripped down to his crisp white tank top, with a pair of overalls. He is likely sweating. He is red-faced both with exertion and moral indignation.
“How can somebody do this to a family?” he asks. “They’re good people. They don’t deserve this.”
As the show progresses, Mike and his team make everything right. The magical closing moments of the show is the reveal: when the homeowners are invited back into their now-right home. They are typically overwhelmed. They gasp, whoop, and cry. They hug Mike Holmes. “This is how I get paid,” he tells the camera. The damage is un-done. Their home is now “right.”
If you are a homeowner, you know full well that your house will never be “right.” You have crumbling grout. You have an irritable furnace. Your kitchen faucet drips. Your livingroom window fogs up. You have any number of small or large malfunctions. Your home is “not right.”
What Holmes on Homes does is demonstrate to you what “right” look like. In other words, it demonstrates what sociologists call “normativity” or what “should” be. And you are not what you should be. Until Mike Holmes arrives, that is.
Mike Holmes plays the same role as Dr. Oz. He goes “underneath” the mere appearance of your home. In fact, houses that are well decorated are among Mike’s favourite targets because he can show how “looks can be deceiving.”
Dr. Oz does similar work when he takes blood from an audience member and shows her “the truth” about her blood sugar level, which is not readily apparent from her mere appearance.
Both Mike Holmes and Dr. Oz are showing us what “should” be. The truth is, none of us really notice if our electrical system is sub-par or if we are pre-diabetic. Our houses and our bodies are “asymptomatic” and we are quite happy with that state. Only through their expert intervention can you become “right.” This is what Michel Foucault talks about: experts and what they say in books and TV shows lead us to control ourselves.
Now granted, there may be homes or bodies that need significant intervention to survive. But we all too frequently raise the bar on what is “right.” Our homes are cleaner, drier, and more comfortable than they ever have been in history. Yet, we are continuously told that they are not “good enough.”
Mike Homes tells us what many marketers do: your home does not function properly. There is an entirely new universe of “properly” that you don’t even know existed. Instantly, there is anxiety about being “not right.” There is a compelling need to “make it right.”
Marketers and designers take heed. You may sell or design products based on what “should” be. You may subtly introduce anxiety in your customers without even realizing it. But you are not evoking good feelings or lifetime loyalty. You are scaring people. You are making them uncomfortable. You are making them feel inadequate. And before they met you (or Mike Holmes, or Dr. Oz) they felt perfectly fine.
Selling or designing based on normativity is also morally questionable. Advertising has a long history of selling anxiety, particularly to women. I exhort marketers and designers to eschew normative approaches, and instead, make people feel good about what they already have. Make them feel happy. And invite yourselves to that happy table.
I have mixed feelings about Mike Holmes. I thoroughly enjoy his ritualistic purification of people’s homes. I love it when what was so wrong is “made right.” It feels good to see that transformation. But now that I live in something that is “not right” and I do not have the limitless resources to “make it right,” I am in a constant state of dissatisfaction. I would have preferred to remain relatively ignorant of what “right” might be. I would likely be happier if I didn’t know how woefully inadequate my 60 amp panel is.
But my sociological lens helped me understand that Mike Holmes is just like my former doctor, who told me in one breath that I was very healthy and in the next told me to “lose weight.” Normativity is something we must recognize as just one view of “right.”