Alternate reality: how vanlife combines “freedom” and marketability

You log onto Instagram, and see a photo featuring what’s now a familiar scene of a van driving down an idyllic, country road; pine trees border the thin stripe of pavement, it’s close to sunset, and the vintage vehicle is making its way to another secluded spot to spend the night.

#vanlife is so ubiquitous, at the same time commonplace and extraordinary, that while everyone knows about the concept, it seems that only a few lucky people can actually achieve the lifestyle.

Most of us who consider ourselves part of the outdoor community probably have at least one friend at the moment fixing up, considering purchasing, or in the middle of living in a van. These are friends who, 5 years ago, would have sneered at the idea of living in their vehicle.

So where did the popularity of van life come from? The New Yorker takes an in-depth look at the cultural phenomenon, following thirty-somethings Emily King and Corey Smith on their personal journey to full-on vanlife, as well as the trajectory of the concept in popular culture.

When you search “#vanlife” on Instagram, 1,311,652 posts come up. As The New Yorker points out, the trend is pretty homogenized: white, heterosexual couples in their thirties dominate the hashtag.

Picturesque scenes of yoga in the woods, lounging in bed by the beach, or just exploring the “unknown” are what comprise the hashtag – oh, that and all of the sponsored posts that have come to dominate the lifestyle.

Because what’s the point in living in a van, escaping the realities of everyday life, unless you can make money from it?

The commodification and marketing of a lifestyle isn’t a new concept, nor is the idea of celebrity endorsements. The proliferation of both in terms of vanlife speaks only to its increasing value for advertisers, marketers, and individuals looking to escape the drudgery of the typical 9-to-5.

According to The New Yorker’s article, “One study estimated that the social-media-influencer market was worth five hundred million dollars in 2015; the market is expected to increase to at least five billion dollars by 2020.” That’s a lot of dollars to chase, to put it lightly.

The idea of vanlife making it into mainstream society speaks to the power of social media, the power of brands, and the power of suggestion.

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