More on selling

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.

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3 Comments

  1. Barbara Mulvenna
    Posted 12/9/2003 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that you should choose Harvard as your example. According to this article in The Harvard Crimson, some students hate the school, but want the name on their degree.

  2. Posted 12/9/2003 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but is that why they went to Harvard? Did they say to themselves, “Harvard is going to suck bunnies, but I can work my way through it for four years because I want my diploma to say HARVARD”? I doubt it. They bought the advertising. C.f.:

    Sanzone, a physics concentrator in Kirkland House, remembers this discontent forming early in her undergraduate career. When the friendly veneer of her fellow first-years wore off shortly after Freshman Week, the socially inept masses bewildered her.

    A good college experience is about finding others who are your intellectual and social equals–who both challenge you and whom you challenge. That’s often a difficult thing to find. And I suspect you can find it more easily at Harvard or Yale (even more so at Princeton and Cornell, from what I hear), you can also find it at… gasp!… the UB or any other decently sized state university.

    The trick is deflating the hype and figuring out if what the college says they *do* attract is merely wishful thinking (or worse, an attempt to trick applicants).

    I guess that get’s at what I am trying to say. Advertising shouldn’t be about tricking the customer, and it sometimes isn’t.

  3. Posted 12/11/2003 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    You touched an important issue here. You say, “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 an ad saturated world and are therefore sophisticated consumers of advertising. I’ve seen nothing to support this claim.”

    I agree with you. Saying that is like because you’ve seen alot of Hollywood blockbusters, you’re a film critic. It doesn’t quite ring true.

    I agree that advertising has a lot in common with art and poetry–in fact, before I left my PhD program, that’s what my dissertation was to be on. Most art and poetry is comfortable to an audience because it is what we expect it to be, WHERE we expect it to be. Most advertising is the same way. The problem is that an ad’s main message–“buy me!”–isn’t something palatable to an audience, so when we see that message where we expect it and in the forms we expect it in, it makes us uncomfortable and we tune it out.

    In that way, advertising is more like a contact allergy: the more contact there is, the more abrasive it becomes, and the more we attempt to avoid it.

    That means that to truly get their message across, advertisers must get under the audience’s radar. That is, a “mindful” consumer is a bad consumer.

    Art that doesn’t come to us where we expect it or how we expect it makes us uncomfortable. Look at public reactions to avant-garde art in public spaces. Advertising that is effective is advertising we don’t recognize as such. Sometimes that also makes us very uncomfortable–like PETA’s and A&F’s contraversy mongering.

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