I recently posted on Abercrombie’s soft porn catalog, and was somewhat critical of it. Now I want to backtrack firmly to the top of the fence.
I am not really down on advertising. In fact, I *enjoy* many ads when they are done well. Advertising is persuasion, but it is also art. If A&F decides they want to advertise by distributing glossy soft-core porn, I am all for that. My problem is really that consumers lack media literacy–in general, but especially when it comes to advertising. Lots of folks claim that 15-25 year-olds have grown up in a ad saturated world and are therefore sophisticated consumers of advertising. I’ve seen nothing to support this claim.
I *like* the spin VW puts on its cars, Barneys puts on its clothes, Coach puts on its bags. I buy from certain companies because I like their advertising–and I pay for that advertising. Some might criticize this as being shallow, but advertising and branding provide a modern aesthetic texture to our world. I have a feeling that kids are savvier than we give them credit for when they buy these things.
My problem is the lack of understanding: kids really think they are going to be considered one of the beautiful people if they buy A&F clothing. Now, let’s get this straight: they are. Just as VW or BMW drivers take on a particular expected aura, when you put on A&F clothing, you are saying “This is what I value as a lifestyle,” and others who value the same aesthetic are able to track you down. Clothing is the original Friendster.
The problem, especially as expressed in the article, is the author’s shock that it isn’t about the clothes. How is this shocking? We do not buy quality, we buy image. When you are buying image, it doesn’t make much difference if the clothing lasts: it is meant to be disposable.
I tend to buy clothing that is well made, will last a long time, and is comfortable. It’s also nice if it looks reasonably good. But then, I am in a particular place in society that uses other cues to determine whether you are worthy to be part of a group.
This certainly does not stop at clothing. Just because Harvard doesn’t (yet) advertise on TV with preppy white kids playing rugby on the lawn doesn’t mean that isn’t what is selling the school. There are better ways of getting an education. People go to Harvard because they aspire to be Harvard students and Harvard graduates, not because they have evaluated the quality of the education. If the education you seek is one that will lead to large incomes, or if it is an education that will lead to greater horizons, Harvard may not be the best choice. But I suspect most people who go to Harvard are there because they want to go to a school where people who go to Harvard go.
I’m not meaning to pick on Harvard here particularly. I think this applies to most institutions of higher learning, most vacation spots, most clothing lines. My concern is how anyone could have assumed that a catalog is really selling clothing. The author gives another example of what he seems to think of as a “real” catalog, J. Crew, I think. At first, you have to assume he is joking. No, they don’t talk about circle jerks, because that’s not something their customer base expects or wants. But they are very much selling a particular lifestyle. If you want to wear a rep tie, why not wear one from your prep school? Oh, because you didn’t attend a school with a school tie? That’s OK, neither did the others who shop here–we’re all on the same page. (If we had school ties, we would probably buy them elsewhere.)
I was always taken by the television and print advertising in Japan, which felt no loyalty whatsoever to the actual product, only to the feeling it elicited. As advertising inevitably becomes even more enmeshed with our entertainment and news, we need to come to terms with our relationship to it. My only hope is that people are mindful of what is being sold, and how it is being sold.