Thursday, August 09, 2007

Brands and cultural redistribution

Richard Chappell notes: “Advertising makes us want stuff.” He’s right. So what?

The most obvious thought is to see it as a bad thing: marketing manipulates our preferences, effectively brainwashing us into wanting things that don't necessarily cohere with our most deeply-held values. On the other hand, it might be argued that advertising "creates value" by increasing the satisfaction we get from advertised products. …
Marketing aims to shape the cultural meaning of a brand. If someone wants to associate themselves with a particular lifestyle, buying an appropriately advertised label may be an easy way for them to send the desired signal. Advertised consumer goods thus serve people who want to brand themselves, perhaps to affirm their cultural identity or to gain status. Does this make advertising worthwhile after all?

But no. Richard thinks that even if we grant that branding helps to create the kind of cultural meaning that people value, “there's no reason to think that this meaning is best shaped by advertisers. A far more attractive alternative would be for such meanings to emerge from the distributed contributions of cultural citizens… We don't need advertisers to impose cultural meanings from On High.”

I agree, but there’s more to say. Let’s accept that advertising (of the cultural/lifestyle aspiration branding type rather than the ‘Smith’s Sprockets are guaranteed to last ten years’ type) does generate more opportunities for consumers to acquire cultural meaning along with their sprockets.

You still have to buy the damned stuff to get the real cultural value out of it. And you need money for that. So the lifestyle branding of products and services redistributes cultural value from poor to rich. It takes people’s material poverty (or wealth) and connects it more strongly to social poverty (or wealth).

You doubt me? Then ask yourself this: if someone uses supermarket own-brand shampoo, are they really ‘worth it’? Would you trust someone wearing unbranded trainers to ‘just do’ anything?

(But don’t worry. Eventually consumer capitalism will overreach itself and make resistance culturally attractive. Then the system will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and ultimate victory will go to the downtrodden workers, or at least to the advertisers who are best at branding their tat as anti-consumerist. Ah… Oh well. All together now: The people’s flag is a lifestyle choice/ Buying it means I don’t need a voice…)


Liam Murray said...

I take your point but isn't it undermined a little by the fact that the most obsessive engagement with branding (certainly of the cultural / lifestyle sort) is to be found in the socioeconomic groups least able to afford it?

Discounting the Beckam / Hilton types the vast majority of brand-aware consumers aren't particularly wealthy which suggests there may be something to the idea of advertising providing some sort of service, a means to self-definition.

The middle-classes may crow judgementally from the sidelines (you've no idea how hard it was to write this comment without using the word 'chav' - oops) but that doesn't mean there's no value in what they do.

Tom Freeman said...

advertising providing some sort of service, a means to self-definition

There's probably something in that, but isn't it preferable for people to carve out their own space in society without having their definitions propelled by the mass media? Anyway, if I follow that point I might start burbling about false consciousness and the like, and nobody wants that to happen.

the most obsessive engagement with branding (certainly of the cultural / lifestyle sort) is to be found in the socioeconomic groups least able to afford it

I don't have too much personal contact with either the very rich or the very poor, but I'd guess you're right on balance.

(I'd also guess branding-susceptibility is linked to education, which is also related to socioeconomic group.)

But the fact that someone on a sink council estate is more likely to be drawn to some brand doesn't mean that their life is going to be more enriched by their being so drawn. Knowing all about the latest make of trainers is a rotten substitute for being able to afford them.