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At a market value of $68 billion (Yahoo), Nike Inc is the largest maker of athletic shoes and apparel both in the United States and in the world. As a brand, Nike’s history began in the early 1970s with the name change from Blue Ribbon Sports and the adoption of the iconic swoosh / wing logo. By the end of the decade, the company controlled 50% of the U.S. athletic footwear market. Now, Nike competes with other major athletic and general apparel brands for larger segments of the rapidly growing women’s athletic apparel market. Last year in 2012, Nike made $4 billion in sales from women’s products. Nike expects to increase that number to $7 billion by 2017. (BizJournal) Altogether, women’s products represent almost 25% of Nike’s business. And with the men’s market already highly saturated, that proportion will only be increasing.

In examining Nike, I have decided to focus on Nike Women as a sub-brand of Nike’s larger male-centric brand. As all branding serves a strategic purpose, I have identified the aim of the Nike Women brand as the creation, attraction, and retention of female consumers for the purpose of selling Nike products and increasing the value of Nike Inc shareholders. To this end, I argue that the Nike Women brand constructs itself as a feminist lifestyle of self-empowerment through fitness, which consumers buy into and adopt as their own.

To test this argument, I will be analyzing the tactics of the Nike Women brand, its advertising, its community engineering, and the organic, creative, and productive responses of women who consume Nike products and Nike’s brand message.

ADVERTISING

In her book Authentic, Sarah Banet-Weiser explains brands as “a story told to the consumer”. These brand stories are supposed to inform or affect the “way we understand who we are, how we organize ourselves in the world, what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” (Banet-Weiser 4-5). In this capacity, branding tactics are supposed to create an effect in the consumer: some change in perspective, opinion, thought. Banet-Weiser also explains that branding “entails the making and selling of immaterial things —feelings and affects, personalities and values—rather than actual goods”. So for instance, a women’s skin cream advertisement extolling the benefits of having good-looking skin likely affects a viewer’s understanding of what women are expected to consume, may elicit a feeling of desire or want, form values about what makes an attractive woman, and the social acceptability of clear skin.

Simultaneously, branding tactics are supposed to create an understanding in the consumer about the brand itself. Adam Arvidsson explains this in his essay “Brands: A Critical Perspective” as being part of the brand manager’s role in establishing the meaning of the brand. While he identifies one main aspect of brand management as the “selective appropriation” of consumers’ ideas and interactions with the brand product (which he calls innovation), the other main aspect is to ensure that “consumers’ use of branded goods serve to reproduce the forms of life that the brand embodies” (Arvidsson 244). This is the conservation side of brand management, which defines on the part of the brand the “contours of what the brand can mean” (245). To continue with the women’s skin cream example, the content of the advertisement will play heavily in pre-structuring consumers’ understanding of the skin cream brand. Whether the advert subject is singular or with a man, what the age of the subject is (if in her teens or her forties), and the adjectives used to describe the product (“luxurious”, “natural”, “easy to use”) all help establish boundaries of meaning for the brand.

To all of these ends, telling stories, imparting values, and establishing a brand’s meaning, advertising plays a key part in Nike’s branding. It is through advertising that the majority of people are first exposed to a brand, and as narratives they can form lasting impressions on what meanings are attached to a brand. The central story of the Nike Women brand is that of female empowerment through fitness and individual accomplishment, and it is a story that fits well into a strategy of commodity feminism. Identified as a form of commodity activism by Banet-Weiser, she describes it as the attachment of feminist values such as empowerment and gender equality to products as a selling point (Banet-Weiser 19).

MAKE YOURSELF

This is certainly the case in the “Make Yourself” advertisement campaign for Nike Women that ran in 2010. The campaign was centered on a minute-long commercial featuring three female  athletes (a track runner, skier, and dancer) talking about some of their views and mantras on exercise and fitness. The commercial also featured footage of the athletes exercising, and during that footage sentences were superimposed on top beginning with the text “I’m making myself…” in a solid typeface and ending with a word such as “proud”, “shine”, and “hot” in a handwritten typeface.

(“Make Yourself” commercial)

The print and visual advertisements of that campaign were in a similar style, featuring a singular woman, usually exercising or in exercise apparel, superimposed with text in the same vein as the video commercial. A small difference worth noting however is that in the commercial the text always began with the declaration “I’m making myself”; in the print advertisements, the superimposed text will sometimes begin with the command “make yourself”.

(poster from “Make Yourself” feat. Sofia Boutella, source)

The story-telling content of this advertisement campaign presents the narrative of successful women athletes succinctly imparting their own values upon the viewer. In examining the language of their messages, we see how this campaign defines the Nike brand as one of self-empowerment, much like the defining of contours regarding the brand’s meaning as explained by Arvidsson. “Rain or shine, I push myself to the limit everyday”, says a smiling Julia Mancuso. Allyson Felix also says praisingly that there is “no better feeling than knowing that you gave a hundred percent”. A more serious Sofia Boutella says that she doesn’t believe in shortcuts because “you don’t earn anything. You have to earn it.” Combined with the graphic text that these athletes are making themselves “proud”, “shine”, and “hot”, the commercial is connecting these values of personal improvement and hard work with accomplishment, even sexual attractiveness / power.

The commercial also draws attention to the viewer’s perspective of herself by utilizing the word “you” in both the athletes’ statements and the concluding text saying “what are you doing to make yourself?” In this way, the advertisement forces the viewer to relate the values being presented by the commercial of personal improvement back to herself. This language also isolates the viewer as a singular person, and in omitting any plurality, fits well into Banet-Weiser’s concept of commodity activism. Like other activist messages, this commercial promotes empowerment (in particular through self-improvement). What separates commodity activism as different from other forms of activism, however, is that “the empowerment aimed for is most often personal and individual, not one that emerges from collective struggle or civic participation” (16). This is certainly the case in the “Make Yourself” campaign, and is even more pronounced  when considering that commodity activism positions the individual as “a flexible commodity that can be packaged, made, and remade…that gains value through self-empowerment” (17). Indeed, the message that you become “hot” by exercising and “earning it” implies the individual is indeed flexible, can be remade, and gains value through self-empowerment, fitting well into the structure of commodity activism.

VOICES

Another commercial made recently by Nike in 2012 for Nike Women was called “Voices”. In it there were featured a number of young girls and renowned women athletes speaking about their athletic dreams and the barriers that stood in their way, often in the form of male prejudice and discrimination. The video presented the girls and athletes speaking the same lines, and would show the young girls speaking while playing back the audio of the older athletes’ voices.

(“Voices” commercial)

The video is very much focused on the struggles women athletes had to (and in the presentation of young girls, continue to) overcome in order to be accepted in the arena of sports and athletics. From the very beginning, it poses the women athletes in opposition to the social dominance of men. “ Girls just didn’t run in public.“Nobody on my all boys team would pass to me.” “Dad told me I couldn’t be a boxer; he told me I was too small.” The commercial simultaneously reflects back on and draws familiar tropes and scenarios from a culturally shared history of sexism in the U.S. It’s an example of inter-textual links being used as Arvidsson described to again define the meaning of the brand. In this case, the commercial presents itself as embodying the value of gender equality, which is also a cultural material that the commercial is simultaneously appropriating. In setting a context of gender inequality and discrimination, Nike Women produces a platform “that enable[s] the production of particular immaterial use-values: an experience, a shared emotion, a sense of community” (Arvidsson 245).

Nike Women positions itself as a supporter of these women athletes, and in doing so appropriates feminist ideals of gender equality, transgressing traditional gender boundaries, and the full and equal participation of women as actors in society. The main context for Nike products as well, namely sports and athletics, is highlighted as a site of feminist struggle.

Users on the social network Reddit’s r/feminism sub forum saw this advertisement as well, and it was received with largely positive feedback. It’s evident that Nike’s intent of associating their brand with female empowerment was working; one user said “I love Nike”, and another wrote “I love Nike’s attitude toward women”. Of course, there were also some dissenters in this community. One comment which received a substantial amount of both support and opposition (in the form of votes) warned “don’t let this crap fool you”, showing that not all consumers are swayed into accepting Nike’s portrayal as a company empowering women.

EMPATHY

One of the earliest ads Nike produced aimed specifically for women was its 8-page print advertisement “Empathy.” Launched in the spring of 1991, the advertisement spanned the life of a woman from childhood to middle age. The very first page begins in bold “You were born a daughter”, and for the first several pages continues to be a series of statements all beginning with “you”, putting the the woman viewer in relation to a person, feeling, or event. Usually a statement would be followed by a similar statement with a different relationship:  “You were picked last for the team. You were the best one on the team. You refused to be on the team.” “You wouldn’t wear a bra. You couldn’t wait to wear a bra. You couldn’t fit into a bra.” Entire spectrums of adolescent and young adult emotions are passed through, until it cycles to the expected romance: “You really fell in love. You became a steady girlfriend. You became a significant other.” And then on the second to last page, with a single line of copy, came the truly empowering message: “You became significant to yourself.”

(selections from “Empathy”, source)

Interspersed between the copy on each page were images of shoes (the products) and photographs of women in action: jogging, rowing, jumping, dancing. The advertisement presented the often subordinated experience of women and girls in society and offered empowerment through fitness and rejection of traditional messages. It was a bold advertisement for a company that had little to no experience with women consumers, and hadn’t been supported by extensive market research. This first advertisement incorporating values of feminism into Nike’s brand message to women set a precedent reflected in all their subsequent women-directed ads.

In learning more about this particular campaign online, I encountered multiple blogs written by women discussing the significant impact of this advertisement on their lives. One blogger (Keka) described it as “the glossy Nike fold out magazine ad that completely changed my life.” In her blog post, she relates the stories of other women who had called Nike and the ad agency offering their support for the ad, and women who continue to “dig through boxes in their attics to find it and hand it on to their pre-pubescent daughters with tears of hope in their eyes.” Something which she herself did. A different blogger (HeyRay) also testifies to having torn out the advertisement when she first saw it and holding onto it as a keepsake.

This shared experience in the form of an advertisement in itself created a brand community of women around Nike, all experiencing shared emotions – of inclusion, of understanding, of empowerment, and of relief. As HeyRay put it, “it successfully appealed to the deep motivational pit in the souls of women across America, from teenager to middle age.”

COMMUNITY

The “Empathy” ad campaign demonstrates the ability of the brand (and indeed, the self-preserving obligation of the brand) to create a brand community of consumers. Muniz and O’Guinn define brand community in their article “Brand Community” as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of the brand” (Muniz, O’Guinn 412). The network of bloggers admiring and reminiscing on the “Empathy” advertisement is indicative of just such a community. They are common admirers of Nike, and are not bound to a particular geography (just wherever the ad happens to go), exemplifying the “imagined” aspect of the brand community. By sharing their brand stories, the bloggers are performing an important process in creating brand community by reinforcing “consciousness of kind between brand members” that “contributes to imagined communities” (Muniz, O’Guinn 423).

One activity that women Nike consumers bond around is the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, which has been held in Washington DC and San Francisco. There were multiple meet-up groups set up for organizing runners on MeetUp.com, which are all natural sites for community building. These Nike runners also formed their communities on Reddit and Facebook, where threads and groups were formed respectively for the purpose of organizing fellow runners. The Facebook page for the Nike Women’s Marathon has over 130 thousand “Likes”.

On the photo-sharing social network Instagram, Nike Women not only has a significant official presence on its own, but here is where contemporary members of the modern Nike Women community seem to convene. Many women will take photos of themselves exercising or relaxing in Nike fitness apparel, and tag themselves as #nikewomen. Generally these women take photos as part of what they call “fitspiration”, the creation, sharing, and admiring of images that inspire fitness – hence the portmanteau between fitness and inspiration. Sometimes this will be abbreviated as “fitspo”. Some of them can be seen here:

nikewomen Instagram

ameliachai Instagram

iamjaymali Instagram

ash1y24 Instagram

morgonkaffe Instagram

caitmariebee Instagram

 

CONCLUSION

The Nike brand represents a lifestyle of fitness and sport, and Nike has effectively extended this brand to incorporate women consumers. It began as an all-male brand in the 70s that has since grown and sustained what I view to be a mostly healthy relationship with women, based primarily on the notion of individual female empowerment. The brand has been adopted by women that have fused Nike into their own expressions of “fitspiration”, a consumer community that Nike was built for and actively seeks to reproduce. In so far as these are true, I believe that the Nike Women brand constructs itself as a feminist lifestyle of self-empowerment through fitness, which consumers buy into and adopt as their own.

Arvidsson, Adam. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5 (2005): 244-48.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York UP, 2012. 

Muniz, Jr., Albert M., and Thomas C. O’Guinn. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27.4 (2001): 412-32. Print.

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So for my haul project, I’ve decided to analyze Apple’s Mac App Store as a site of both consumption and production. Everyday, over fifty million apps are downloaded from the Mac App Store, and over its lifetime a total of  fifty billion plus apps have been download. The App Store is also distinct from most brick-and-mortar stores in that it easily enables new sellers to bring their product online (though often with a substantial cut of the profits for Apple). However, Apple also serves as a barrier between many would-be apps and the market, effectively constraining what consumers have access to consume. Despite this, there are thousands of various apps catered to a wide range of consumers and lifestyles. And consumers have an outlet for production and the creation of collective intelligence in their reviews, feedback, and consumption of products, which ultimately have an impact on the product’s position in the store.

Categories of the App Store

One of the key determinants of consumption is, obviously, what consumer products are being offered for consumption. In the Mac App Store, all apps are categorized into either one or more of 21 different categories. We can see from this screen shot the different sorts of categories available on the store: business, finance, productivity, utilities, etc.

There are multiple products that, like tools in a hardware store, empower consumers as producers. This includes apps in categories such as developer tools, entertainment, graphics & design, lifestyle, music, photography, productivity, utilities, and video.

However, I noticed that most of these empowerment tools involved largely cultural and informational production: photo editing apps, writing apps, etc. For photographers, graphic designers, and musicians especially, there are a large range of specialized apps and tools. But there are no specialized apps for plumbing, for instance, or agriculture. Clearly this store is not meant for certain segments of consumers.

These are also tools that are especially useful for workers in the new service-information industry, making themselves differentiated with résumés, portfolios, organizational skills, etc. The self-finance, productivity, and utility tools also harken to the modern rise of self-employment, and the 24/7 laborer for whom work does not end with their shift.

In contrast to sections on business and finance, there is no section on politics, community organizing, and other such collective endeavors. Admittedly, many tools from other categories can be implemented in the pursuit of collective action, but it’s still an omission which has implications in how people think about their apps. Many people would never consider using graphic design skills to print flyers calling for a boycott of sweatshop products, or a personal organizer to help organize their local unions.

Top Paid Apps

Here we have the page for the Top Paid, Top Free, and (not shown in the image) Top Grossing apps on the market. A feature of many online stores, this is a site where consumers in their consumption are simultaneously involved in production. The list of bestsellers, highest rated apps, and these top lists are the direct result of consumer activity – and it forms a key component of the store.

This is a democratization of digital store fronts happening all across the internet, and less so in brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers collectively determine with their feedback and purchases what apps and products deserve to be highlighted and recognized, and which deserve to be forgotten and ignored.

Reviews of the Things To-Do App

This is the product page of a to-do app called Things, and specifically, this is the customer ratings and customer reviews section. It is here that most of the consumers’ production is made, in the writing of reviews and the assigning of ratings. In addition, particular reviews can be assessed by readers as either helpful or unhelpful, and the store automatically brings to the top those reviews that have been marked as most helpful.

Together, the aggregate consumer opinion serves as its own cultural intermediary between the product and other would-be consumers. The rise of the Mac App Store is similar to how Featherstone described the rise of new institutions for the recording, preserving, and analyzing of cultural products, along with an increase in the number of cultural intermediaries.

And eschewing the typical view of cultural intermediaries, the new aggregate intermediary doesn’t require substantial economic capital, nor any form of credentialed cultural capital in order to evaluate products. However, that is not to say the Mac App Store has no hierarchical intermediaries. Indeed, as can be seen from the categories, Apple plays a significant role as a mediator between consumer and product.

Editors’ Choice Page

Here is a prime example of traditional cultural intermediaries: the Editors’ Choice Page. Apple’s app store editors maintain this page, a curated list of Editors’ Choice apps, and in doing so serve as a cultural intermediary – determining that these apps are the “the most innovative and entertaining” and “the best debuts” amongst the latest releases. As Apple employees (and also being a permanent special page featured on the App Store), they also have a type of credentialed cultural capital as described by Holt.

Personally, I don’t find this page particularly helpful, especially in the absence of any commentary (on the store, anyway) as to why the particular app was chosen as an editors’ choice. However, many people probably place much weight in the evaluations of Apple’s representatives, and thus traffic will be diverted from competitor apps to these editors’ choices.

Editors’ choice apps are also frequently featured on the main banner scroll in the App Store’s home page (not viewed here), ensuring substantial amounts of views and a larger advertisement than most other apps are afforded.

Big Name Games Page

This is another special page designed specifically for “big name games,” and it demonstrates the power that major brands wield. Almost all of the apps featured are major brand names – BioShock, Lego, Lord of the Rings, Total War, Batman, Angry Birds, Star Wars, Grand Theft Auto, Sid Meier, Roller Coaster Tycoon, etc. Although brands are already invested with much power, this page essentially solidifies their dominance.

The loyalty of customers to their video game titles is also highlighted in the customer reviews. Several titles have over a hundred reviews, with some larger names (such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) with more than a thousand reviews – and all the while maintaining average ratings of 4/5 or higher.

Game Center Page

This special page features the Game Center, one of Apple’s projects to create a social experience around their gaming apps. Although perhaps not their most successful endeavor, it is nonetheless an attempt to create a new element of habitus for their consumers. The aim is to make gaming a social experience, so whenever you play a game on an Apple product, ideally it will be connected to the game center. This is a considerable shift in most habits of traditional gamers, though it may be more amenable to the new wave of social network gamers (see: Farmville).

It is also an integration of what is described in Lury’s work as sociality: the creation (or at least attempted creation) of relations between people through their consumer products (in particular, their Apple-approved games). Related to this is the idea of the imagined community, which these multiplayer gamers will certainly be a part of when interacting with one another via the Game Center.

Better Together Page

Another effort to push Apple’s own features, services, and products, the Better Together special page highlights applications which sync with both the Mac and Apple’s mobile products: the iPhone and iPad. The use of apps that operate seamlessly across the Apple line of products creates what some call an “ecosystem” of Apple products and applications. There are similar ecosystems for Android and Google products, and Windows. So in a way, this page is an effort to push Apple’s own brand of ecosystem, and demonstrate to shoppers the opportunities they have with Apple’s other products.

In pushing for an ecosystem of products and apps, however, Apple is also attempting to build a branded habitus for its customers. Our preferences in phone, tablet, computer, and applications all form our habitus: what Bourdieu describes as our set of tastes, habits, and knowledge which determine our supposedly internally produced preferences. But as this page demonstrates, brands like Apple, Google, and Windows are constantly competing to influence the habitus of consumers.

Get Stuff Done Page

Finally, I include here an example of a special page which caters to a particular lifestyle. In this case, the page features “apps for productive people” – singled out here as a particular base of consumers (though, evidently large enough to warrant a special page). There are many such special pages (such as the few shown below), catering to groups of consumers such as photographers, designers, developers, and students. Here, there are multiple different productivity apps featured, with several of them competing against one another. But what matters here isn’t which particular app is consumed, but that the consumer puts the app to productive purposes: prioritizing, organizing, etc; the markers of this particular lifestyle-class.

These lifestyle pages also capitalize on certain imagined communities, for instance, the imagined community of photographers. These lifestyle communities aren’t given much of a forum in the app store – that’s mostly relegated to communities around individual apps – but are nonetheless united in their common consumption of particular apps, their occupations, education, etc.

 

This is dawn of the spectacle society. The self-constructed lifestyle. The person-as-brand. In a world where symbolism and representation triumph above all, clothes no longer have use, exchange, even material value – their sole purpose is to create an image, evoke a style. Of course, not all clothes serve this purpose. Discount t-shirts, socks in bulk, the clothes lining the wholesale warehouses – often times, clothes are all about use and exchange value – how expensive something is important to whether or not a person will consume, and a good’s durability is valued higher than its aesthetic beauty.

But not for this haul video by Youtube user JoeyGraceffa. With barely contained excitement and a high definition camera, Joey leads his viewers (of which he happens to have a million subscribers to his channel) on a romp through his latest shopping spree, displaying new purchases at Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, and Topman. Sadly for Joey, he didn’t manage to go to All Saints. But all of these stores are nearer the upper end of the market in terms of price.

This is worth noting, because throughout his whole video, he never once mentions the actual amount of money he spent on his clothes. This is interesting, since what then is the audience expected to receive? Perhaps commentary on the clothes’ quality? But that, too, goes unmentioned. Fabric, materials, stitching – all aspects of the manufacture of the clothes are omitted. As is the clothes’ economic costs.

instead, Joey decides to focus on the appearance of his newfound clothes. He talks about how the clothes look on him, how he ‘feels’ about the clothes – and his affinity for stripes. In this haul video, and most likely in his life, clothes are about casting an impression – painting a portrait. Whether they were manufactured in the U.S. under stringent labor laws or a Bangladeshi factory which has recently collapsed is irrelevant. And the omission of the clothes’ prices leads one to think that perhaps Joey simply assumes everyone can relate to a shopping spree through a largely upscale series of stores.

It’s interesting to note that about halfway through the video, Joey says he feels “stupid” making the video, but he enthusiastically continues anyway. It’s difficult to discern, however, why he thinks making the video is stupid. He does mention that he has never done a haul video before, and is uncertain what to do – implying there is some correct form of haul video, and perhaps betraying that he has little capital in the haul video culture.

Of course, that doesn’t deter him. In the fashion of many other vloggers and Youtube celebrities, he cuts the video frequently and overlays his voice onto other footage (mostly of him posing and flexing his muscles) to – what I can only assume – capture people’s rapidly diminishing attention span. His personality is quite lively, and he has quirks and habits of speaking that appear to be hallmarks of his channel, his personal brand – possibly even his lifestyle.

Perhaps it’s his exuberant personality, the quality of the camera, and the muscles Joey makes – but I have to wonder, in the absence of any content in this haul video about the clothes (other than how they fit and appear on Joey), why nearly 300,000 people have watched this video.

dictatorshipoftheconsumer

I was reading Madeline’s post about the power of user-generated production, and something in the post struck a chord with me: users today are more powerful than ever. Like Yelp, a great deal of this century’s largest websites and services – Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Reddit, Wikipedia, etc. – depend on a process of collective production, wherein the services and web content are produced live by users, their interactions with one another, and the aggregation thereof. Even services whose content are not produced by users often integrate elements of user feedback, such as reviews and comments in online marketplaces and newspapers. In many cases, it is the user provided information on a website (such as Amazon) which will dictate what item, restaurant, or article appears highlighted to the reader.

This gives consumers – or rather, consumers in aggregate – considerable sway over what is considered part of the popular culture, what is considered a good or bad product, worth paying attention to or not, overpriced or cheap, so on and so forth. We evaluate quality by numbers, and we vote with clicks – views, likes, shares, retweets, upvotes, and stars. What trends on Twitter, Youtube, and Reddit now becomes the opening segment on cable news. The collective evaluations on Yelp shift the flow of money from 1-starred to 5-starred establishments. And the toilsome labor of countless editors – both anonymous and user-named – produces the great public work that is Wikipedia – a product of users, by users, for users.

The argument is brought up, however, that these collective expressions by the consumers are really the tools of businesses to advance their own agenda. Every application nowadays insists that you grant it permission to rent your Facebook profile as an advertisement for itself, and websites (especially news sites) have made their content increasingly share-able across various social networks to garner as many valuable page views as they can. To “Like” a page on Facebook is akin to subscribing for a series of ads. And of course, Yelp, IMDB, and other review and rating aggregation sites put out of work otherwise professional critics and provide no compensation for the free labor provided by the user-reviewers.

But who did the critics really work for, other than a small set of media elite and their consideration of whose tastes and preferences were worth rubber stamping with a critic’s column? Now the process of determining which movies and restaurants are “the best” is conducted democratically by the aggregation of the people’s  opinions – being informed by one’s cultural equals, rather than one’s cultural superiors. Meanwhile on the social networks, businesses will certainly make their own Pages and Twitter accounts to promote their brand. But the concept of social media is so wound up with marketing campaigns aimed by businesses at consumers, it’s easy to forget that social media is also being leveraged to great effect for customer service, and accommodating the demands of consumers. And while customer feedback on Facebook Pages and Twitter Feeds may superficially appear to be free market analysis for businesses, there’s a substantial difference between collecting the results of a prepared survey to assess (often ineffectively) customer “satisfaction” or  market trends, and reacting to the fiery Tweet of a scorned airline passenger whose words are rapidly gaining traction with other would-be customers.

Indeed, the direction of human culture has never more been held in the hands of the consumer. Where once consumers sought to assimilate into a prescribed television culture, television now seeks to emulate  consumers’ user-created digital culture. The power of people in numbers has carried over onto crowdsourcing platforms such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, where consumers control entirely whether a new product, business, service, or project will even launch. Consumer attitudes have forced manufacturers and businesses into offering healthier, more environmentally friendly products; and even plays a political role in influencing businesses’ stances on issues such as gay marriage (as in the case of General Mills and others). And as mentioned before, news agendas are more and more informed by what’s generating attention on social media – the hub of consumer cultural production.

But while it may be comforting to think of culture as becoming more and more democratic, and consumers as attaining more and more self-determination, it’s important to remember that the large group is always outmaneuvered by the small. The very breadth and diversity of consumer culture – which used to be held at bay by cultural boundaries designated by the elite – threatens to render consumers impotent, while the narrow and directed will of industry lobbyists claim the most policy changes in Washington. In order to achieve substantial, long-lasting improvements – such as reducing carbon emissions and global warming – consumers need to speak with one voice, act as one body. One person compelling himself to recycle alone will accomplish nothing to combat climate change, but a large association of people agitating for recycling at an institutional (even societal) level can accomplish a much greater change.

To truly establish a dictatorship of the consumer, it is first necessary for consumers to be organized and trained to quickly react and push back against the movements of producers, manufacturers, and business owners. And the most effective way for this to be done is to have a committee of men and women, representing various consumer interests, to helm a larger effort at organizing the masses of consumers into one, united movement. But alas, that is a subject for another time.

We are taught by Lury, perhaps rightly so, that there is no one all-encompassing theory about consumption. Consumer culture is not entirely the result of changes in the organization of production and exchange of goods. And it doesn’t need to feed perpetually into a system where one class dominates the rest and social inequalities abound. That, at least, is the premise of concepts like “the active consumer” and “prosumption” – ways to bring power and meaning-making to the mass of people on the receiving end of capitalist production. But is that really such a good lesson? Perhaps choice, appropriation, and empowerment are like what Lury describes as a belief in the spirit of things – “a collective self-deception, a false representation, masking the effects of exchange and legitimizing the inequalities of our social order”.

The origins of the active consumer began with a practice described as “positional consumption”. A precursor to the idea of “prosumption”, it was how the leisure class of the early 20th century established their dominant social status as having good taste through the consumption of material goods they saw as “refined” or “cultivated”, and the rejection of other goods that were deemed “cheap” or “vulgar”. This created iniquitous social boundaries that perpetuated themselves with the self-reinforcing tastes of their captives. As time went on, however, more and more people outside the walls of the leisure class began their own material status posturing – what Hirsch described as the “democratization” of positional consumption.

Distressingly, Hirsch thought that “if goods function primarily as symbols, and all groups of individuals use them to establish distinctions between themselves and others groups… then there are, in principle, no limits to consumer demand.” Essentially, people will seek to differentiate themselves from others by purchasing material goods – and with the goods a symbolic position of status. There can be as many goods demanded as there are differences between people – which are many. And of course, much of the consumption will be in effort to emulate the refined or dominant classes. The possibility is also raised by Campbell that in addition to being motivated by status and envy, people are motivated to consume by pleasure. Yet he still ends with the same conclusion of never ending consumption.

He says that this is because in a modern consumer culture, where hedonism is a prime motivator, people experience a longing for “those pleasures created or enjoyed in imagination, a longing which results in the ceaseless consumption of novelty.” There are few sorts of people in this country that are held in higher esteem than inventors and entrepreneurs. The pursuit of novelty is the same as the pursuit of imagination, and the producers are constantly innovating new goods and services to sell. People consume these products and in the process are disillusioned – the actual consumption fails to live up to the imagined fantasy, the expected pleasure (often stoked by seductive advertisements). Thus the modern quest for ever greater pleasure to consume is never ending.

It should be obvious for whom an unsatisfiable demand is an advantage. The prospect of perpetual consumption brings with it the prospect of perpetual profits, the principal aim of capitalist society. But on the obverse side of riches acquired in the sale of ever newer and ever more consumer goods are the negative externalities which are often ignored. We pursue an agenda of infinite growth in a world constrained by finite resources. If the modern consumer culture is allowed to persist without some fundamental change to the use of petroleum which forms its heart, arteries, and veins, it will eventually collapse – bringing the rest of society down with it.

For all the good that being a dandy – the modern heroic consumer – may be, however creative or progressive or non-conformist your Macbook may seem, however you may interpret or appropriate the meaning of your laptop – none of that changes the fact that the rare minerals in your laptop (and mine) fuel the civil war in the Congo and enrich a company whose factory workers in China have repeatedly attempted suicide due to poor working conditions. So consider carefully those who tell you that consumption is what keeps the wheels turning – the people who tell you the best way to support your fellow man is to go shopping. We must not confuse true heroism with the heroized consumer.

iPhone5

This is my iPhone 5. I carry it with me wherever I go. Its name is Lusitania – because it “sinks” with my computer (whose hard drive is appropriately named the Titanic). It is encased in a Mophie Juice Pack Air, which provides it with extended battery life, and I’ve given it a wallpaper of a photo I took myself. It contains within it my music, photos, videos, audiobooks, and apps, along with an AT&T SIM card. Apart from my fingerprints, those are the features which combined distinguish my Lusitania from the millions (upon millions) of other iPhones just like it.

So what does the Lusitania say about me? Well, not much apart from what’s said about most other iPhone 5 owners around the planet. I am capable of using the iPhone 5, I have the money to purchase Apple products, I choose to ignore similarly priced and comparable smart phones available to me, and I am in a place where there’s sufficient wireless coverage to support the iPhone. Those assumptions will be pretty much consistent wherever one goes – unless, of course, the people making the assumptions don’t know anything about smart phones or wireless coverage or status.

In places where smart phone use has become more commonplace, however, the implications of owning an iPhone 5 in particular become more nuanced. For instance, in America, the landline users call you young, the flip-phone owners (and a few hypocritical iPhone 4 owners) call you rich, the Android users call you sheep, and Blackberry users just don’t exist.

But to really understand the meaning which the Lusitania has for me, you need to look at the apps, the music, the data stored within the flash memory drive. You need to see what I use: the audiobooks I’ve downloaded, tasks I’ve written down, journal entries I’ve made, radio stations listened to, food I’ve had delivered. Like my DNA, the memory stored on my phone makes up only a tiny portion of the phone itself. Like my DNA, it is also coded in the same building blocks that everybody else’s is. And like my DNA, it is the tiny portion of the whole that makes me who I am, that lends the architecture to my life.