During the 1960s, a sudden upsurge in anti-consumerist rebellion threatened the profits of the world’s big corporations. The solution to the problem turned out to be packaging the counter-culture and selling the concept of rebellion back to a receptive youth audience.
How has this become possible? Salon has an excellent book review that discusses how brands are no longer simple trade marks but have become socially meaningful to the point where consumers know enough about the symbolism to be able to communicate complex messages through what we buy.
The book under review is Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker which aims to uncover the psychology and anthropology of social consumerism.
This only makes sense if you argue, as Walker does, that commodities can have real significance. Some objects — trophies, wedding rings, souvenirs from trips — patently do stand for important aspects of our lives. (They have what Walker calls “authentic” meaning.) Most people, however, don’t want to admit that they believe meaning can also be bought, that Converse sneakers make you a cool outsider or that a MacBook demonstrates one’s creativity and unconventionality. Walker thinks we should acknowledge that the things we buy do carry meaning, as long as we also recognize that we’re the ones who gave it to them. A wedding ring, for example, only represents the relationship between two people because those two people (along with the society around them) agree that it does. We are the ones who invest these objects with symbolic power, and, furthermore, to do so is a universal human activity. Kidding ourselves that we relate to the objects and products in our lives in a purely rational way (something scientists have disproved over and over again) leaves us open to unconscious manipulation by advertisers.
In other words, advertising is not solely about selling products but is concerned with constructing meaning around a product so it can be used in the language of social communication.
I was fascinated by a recent psychology study that found that one crucial aspect of ‘communication’ in the language of social consumerism is to avoid symbolism associated with social groups that are perceived as particularly contrary to a person’s self-image.
This is from the Science Blog write-up:
‚ÄúAlthough past research has confirmed that consumers often choose products and brands that represent who they are, the current research suggests that consumers also choose products in ways that demonstrate who they are not,‚Äù explain Katherine White (University of Calgary) and Darren W. Dahl (University of British Columbia).
Through a series of studies, the researchers found that people are only motivated to avoid products related to ‚Äúdisassociative reference groups‚Äù ‚Äì that is, groups with which the consumer seeks to avoid association. However, this avoidance tendency did not occur in response to products associated with an ‚Äúoutgroup,‚Äù or, a group in which the consumer does not belong, but is also not particularly motivated to avoid. For example, the baby boomer who avoids geriatric shoes might not be a basketball fan, but may be neutral about basketball in general and gladly wear basketball shoes.
The Salon book review is well-worth reading on its own and contains many fascinating points, but I’ll be interesting to track down a copy of the book myself as if it’s supported by good research it could be a fascinating look into one of our most implicit but pressurised methods of social communication.