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Lesson 13: Advertising, Consumerism and Commodification

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1 Lesson 13: Advertising, Consumerism and Commodification
Robert Wonser

2 “It is useless to invent something that can’t be sold
“It is useless to invent something that can’t be sold.” – Thomas Edison Pop culture could not have become the default form of culture in a non-capitalist society. Shopping, advertising, and pop culture have developed such an intrinsic partnership that we no longer are able to separate them in our minds. Remember the Frankfurt School’s critique? Culture, art, religion, and philosophy are now “sold” and “packaged” in the same way as commercial products. “If mass communications blend together harmoniously, and often unnoticeably, art, politics, religion, and philosophy with commercials, they bring these realms of culture to their common denominator—the commodity form. The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship. Exchange value, not truth value, counts.” – Herbert Marcuse Many early children’s cartoons were program length commercials that promote action figures, dolls, and other figures the same name as the program.

3 Advertising Advertising as ubiquitous? Understatement..
The average American is exposed to 3,000 advertisements each day and watches 3 years worth of television commercials over the course of a lifetime Advertising is designed to influence attitudes and lifestyle behaviors by covertly suggesting how we can best satisfy our urges and aspirations.

4 Integrating with Pop Culture
The line between ad culture and pop culture is virtually nonexistent. Think hockey rinks with the boards covered by ads or nascar drivers as walking, or driving, billboards. Can you think of a place not covered with ads?

5 What have we allowed ourselves to become?

6 The integration of advertising and pop culture involves not only products but entire corporations.
Part of the mythology of childhood

7 Ad Culture Ads have become an intrinsic part of modern society. Although we may condemn its objectives, as an aesthetic experience we invariably enjoy advertising in the same way that we enjoy pop culture texts. Ads sway, please and seduce.  legislation against ads aimed at children; tobacco and alcohol

8 Co-optation Most effective strategy: not only to keep up with the times but to co-opt trends. 1960s co-opted the rebellion Ex: The Dodge Rebellion, Oldsmobile Youngmobile Coke’s stupid song; the Pepsi Generation These ads directly incorporated the rhetoric and symbolism of the counterculture youths, thus creating the illusion that the goals of the hippies and the soft drink manufacturers were the same. Rebellion through purchasing became the subliminal thread woven into ad campaigns. This is long gone though, right?

9 No Logo Modern day consumerist economic systems depend almost entirely on the partnership that has been conveniently forged among the previously autonomous worlds of business, media, and entertainment. The history of pop culture is intrinsically woven with the history of advertising. As McLuhan put it, advertising has become the “art of the modern world.”

10 Branding The technique of integrating products with pop culture is called branding. The intent: to tap into cultural tendencies that governs lifestyle, values and beliefs, turning the product into symbolic means for becoming part of those tendencies. “The most common marketing definition of a brand is that it is a promise—an unspoken pact between a company and a consumer to deliver a particular experience.” First act in branding process: Name your product Brand names imbue products with identities the same way that given names to human beings impart a distinct identity, allowing the bearer entry into a social reality. Don’t name it you’ll get attached! In branding; that is the point. Implicit law of the marketplace: trends in pop culture cross over to advertising and advertising styles mirror what is emerging in pop culture. Those silly role reversal texting, twittering facebooking parent ads As P.T. Barnum put it, consumerism can be fun, especially is advertised to be so.

11 The Golden Arches Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers and successfully marketed McDonald’s restaurants. Marketed to kids (our favorite clown) Kroc opened his first restaurant in 1955 coincided with the rise of youth culture in the 50s. To attract adults, and to continue to thrive, he branded McDonald’s as a place the family could go and eat Golden arches reflected the chain perfectly: Arches reverberate with mythic symbolism—they beckon good people to march through them in anticipation of reaching a world of cleanliness, friendliness, hospitality, and family values. Like a religion: from menu to uniforms, exacted and imposed standardization.

12 Placement Products placed into pop culture as props
Ads in Tony Hawk games oddly make it more realistic then if they weren’t there. Embedding can involve cooperation among brands. Ex: created a virtual McDonald’s and Lucky Charms. Pillsbury Doughboy and Sprint. Co-branding is another form of embedding. Starbucks inside of Barnes & Noble stores. What is the subtext here?

13 Fetishism Remember Marx from your readings?
Dolls (and toys in general) are fetishes, objects perceived to possess a life force. Powers can be so strong as to constitute an idol. Ex: Lucky penny

14 Consumerism “By the advent of the 80’s, Americans believed in consumption as salvation, as the only way they knew: shop ‘til you drop, spend ‘til the end, buy ‘til you die. Buying was the new time religion, and the shopping mall [or Wal-Mart] its cathedral of consumption.” – Kowinski 1993 Consumerism propels the insatiable belief that we need what we do not have A way of being in the world A fundamental frame of reference for relating to oneself, to others, to the environment as a whole The principle socializing force behind this way of being in the world is television and advertising

15 Our new drug of choice We find reward through purchasing power (the paycheck and salary) rather than labor power (the artistic ability to create and make, and the humanistic ability to contribute and serve) TV amplifies our confusion of reality Helps make our needs and wants ambiguous Advertising is it’s only true enduring program The primary role today of most media is to deliver advertisements As McLuhan put it, “the medium is the message”

16 Consuming = Identity Construction
What we acquire and own is tightly bound to our personal identity Competitive acquisition has long been an American institution. Comparisons we make are no longer restricted to those in our own general earnings category, today we are more likely to be making comparisons with or choose as our “reference group” people whose incomes are three, four, or five times his or her own.  upscale spending, the new consumerism. Advertising and the media have stretched our reference groups vertically, built on relentless ratcheting up of standards.

17 How Bad is it? 27% of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. Nearly 20% say they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life” In the k range, 39% and ⅓ feel this way respectively. Overall, half the nation’s richest country say they cannot afford everything they need! Which half are we talking about?

18 From Conspicuous Consumption to …
Veblen argued that in affluent societies spending becomes the vehicle through which people establish social position. This conspicuous display of wealth and leisure is the marker that reveals a man’s income to the outside world. (wives? Ornamental; used to display a man’s finest purchases…). Rich spent conspicuously as a personal advertisement, to secure a place in the social hierarchy. Everyone else stood below and watched and to the extent possible, emulated those in the class above. Consumption was a trickle down process.

19 Those damn Joneses… “keeping up with the Joneses” was the middle class equivalent. Rather than trying to best your neighbors you wanted simply to keep up with them. Consumer satisfaction, and dissatisfaction, depend less on what a person has in an absolute sense than on socially formed aspirations and expectations. “standard of living” suggests the point: the standard is a social norm. By the 1970s: in the workplace, most employees were exposed to the spending habits of people across a wider economic spectrum, particularly those who worked in white-collar settings. Daily exposure to economically diverse set of people is one reason Americans began engaging in more upward comparison. The other reason? Advertising. Result? New reference group, not those in our social class. People who share lifestyles… those who marketers target (clusters) The shift to individuality produced its own brand of localized conformity

20 Intensification of Competitive Consumption
At a minimum: average persons spending increased 30% between Economic trend: diverging income distribution. Sociological trend: upward shift in consumer aspirations and the vertical stretching out of reference groups. Growing income inequality yet more of us aspiring to ‘make it.’ In short, 4/5ths of Americans were relegated to earning even less than the people they looked up to, who were now earning and spending more.

21 Competitive Upscale Consumption
An accident? Nope… The escalating lifestyles of the most affluent and the need that many others felt to meet that standard, irrespective of their financial ability to maintain such a lifestyle. American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far more likely to attribute such a motive to others than to themselves. We have high levels of psychological denial about the connection between our buying habits and the social statements they make.

22 As the pressures on private spending have escalated, support for public goods, and for paying axes, has eroded. Also, personal financial pressures have also reduced many Americans’ willingness to support transfer programs to the poor and near-poor. Our national discourse is focused on market exchanges, not quality of life, or social health. GDP is an increasingly poor measure of well-being: it doesn’t factor in pollution, parental time with children, the strength of the nation’s social fabric, or the chance of being mugged while walking down the street. We’re getting uneasy with this trap… After drugs and crime, people see materialism as the most serious problem affecting American families. One 1990s study: college students reportedly relate far more to commercials and advertising culture than they do to history, literature or probably anything else.

23 Communicating with Commodities
Lack of desire, like desire, is a social construct. Traditionally consumer desires were prompted by exposure to the possessions and lifestyles of a reference group—a comparison group located nearby in the social hierarchy. We construct our personal identity in relation to these social groups, thereby creating a social identity. Even those of you who shun your associations with these identities can be fitted into a category of similar individualists. What people spend both reflects social inequalities and helps to reproduce and even create those distinctions.

24 Bourdieu and Habitus Bourdieu and cultural capital
Habitus is a habitual condition, set of social conditionings, or “open set of dispositions.” it is the mental schema that individuals use to process subjectively the objective world around them. Through the habitus, socially produced tastes become what we experience as natural, personal, and individualized (that is, just what we are). Consumption patterns and tastes are stratified by socioeconomic categories such as class, education, and occupation. They are source, as well as an indicator, of social differentiation.

25 Decoding Consumer Meanings
Material goods can be “read” by observers in a process known as decoding. The structure of use and ownership of products is therefore the underlying foundation of social meaning; class (and other) inequalities are at the foundation of the code. Can ads create their own association with products? Simmel’s fashion: ever-shifting process in which high-status individuals attempt to keep a step ahead of low-prestige imitators. Researchers have found what you wear, drive and own affect how others treat you. Delay at a green light you are less likely to be honked at if you are in a prestigious car. How you’re dressed? People more likely to return your accidentally left change in a phone booth. Salespeople?

26 When Spending Becomes You
Clothes, cars, watches, living room furniture, and lipsticks are well-known purveyors of social position. Furnaces, mattresses, bedroom curtains, foundation powders, and bank accounts are not. What’s the difference? We use the first list, visibly, the others we don’t. Competitive spending revolves around socially visible products.

27 When only the rich bought from designers, logos were unnecessary
When only the rich bought from designers, logos were unnecessary. The market was so small so participants could identify a designer clothing by style. When the market broadened, to get their moneys worth in terms of status, the middle-class purchaser needed to make sure that others knew what they had bought—hence, the visible logo. Logos indicate our status and our identity to those around us. We are what we buy.

28 Who spends for status? In cosmetics example, women with higher education levels and higher incomes did more status purchasing. Urban and suburban > rural Caucasian > African American or Hispanic Compulsive buyers are more status oriented People who are more materialistic value their possessions more highly. Those who score highly on materialism scales report lower personal well-being, unfulfilled psychological needs, insecurity, fragile self-worth, and poor relationships than those who don’t score highly on materialism scales.

29 Personal Identity While most experience these tastes as just being themselves, they are actually being a lot like everyone else. Personal identity does not exist prior to the social world, it comes into being with it. Ex: higher the status of a brand, the more closely people associated their self image with it. It is when traditional markers of identity and position begin to break down that spending comes to the fore as a more powerful determinant of social status. Worth noting: a significant number of branded and highly advertised products, there are no quality differences discernable to consumers with the labels removed; and Variation in prices typically exceeds variation in quality, with the difference being in part a status premium.

30 Ah, plastic… Debtors pay an average of $1,000 a year in interest fees alone. Credit card link is Pavlovian: Adding the MC logo causes people to spend more. Credit card tips tend to be higher than cash tips.

31 See-want-borrow-and-buy
See-want-borrow-and-buy is a comparative process; desire is structured by what we see around us. Our reference group. Where you stand relative to those with whom you compare yourself has a significant impact on your spending. Americans have a psychological resistance to admitting and recognizing the extent to which they follow the lead of others. The further away from those better off than you the more you save! (almost 3k a year). The millionaires next door? How do they do it? They never change their reference group! The more education a person has, the less they save! Whatever your income level, your comparative position has a major effect on your saving.


33 Our old friend TV The more TV a person watches the more they spend.
Likely explanation? What we see on TV inflates our sense of what’s normal. The lifestyles depicted on TV are far different from what the average American’s: with few exceptions, TV characters are upper middle-class or rich. Studies show the more TV a person watches the more likely they are to think American households have tennis courts, private planes, convertibles, maids and swimming pools, the proportion who are millionaires, have had cosmetic surgery, belong to a private gym, suffer from dandruff, bladder control problems, gingivitis, athlete’s foot and hemorrhoids. The inflated sense of consumer norms promulgated by the media raises people’s aspirations and leads them to buy more. Correlation between debt and excessive TV: Merck Family Fund poll, those who reported that they “watch too much TV” rose steadily with indebtedness. 56% “heavily” in debt also said they watched too much TV.

34 Tv… When TV was introduced it led to an increase in a particular crime; larceny. In one study: each additional hour of TV watched led to spend an extra $208 a year. TV and social pressure in one’s daily life are interchangeable sources of consumer upscaling.

35 A Denial We live in denial of our spending habits.
1992’s actual $182 billion in debt was thought to be a mere $710 billion. Not paying attention is also common. Denial also helps navigate the moral conflicts associated with consumption.

36 Wow… Americans give their children more in pocket money than the world’s half billion poorest adults earn each year. The Emulation process never ends: Growth is the goal in our economy and our economy is built on consumer spending. Beneath—indeed driving—our system of competitive consumption are deep class inequalities. Not everyone became (or still is) middle class. The standard answer to the amount of money a family of four need to live in “reasonable comfort” has been $1,000 – 2,000 more than whatever the median family income happens to be. Luxuries of yesterday have become necessities today (cable TV, cell phone, computer, internet).

37 Irrationality of it All
If we measure our satisfaction by how well we are doing compared to others, general increases in affluence do not raise our personal satisfaction (as mounting evidence shows). Why do we participate then? Psychological factors, and both social and economic forces keep us in the system. Technology – how fast does it improve? With widespread adoption it becomes a necessity even if we forgo it. New products promise freedom but often feel enslaving. The “built environment” demands a car. “consumer choice” is subject to social, infrastructural, and market constraints. Earning to buy turns into buying to keep earning. Have you ever noticed how much you want it before you have it but once you have it it means very little to you?

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