Tag Archives: consumption

Sentimental Consumerism, the Apple Way

Screenshot_4This is the second post in a four part series. Start at the beginning with: Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain.

In a recent post on the Apple brand and its cultural significance, I drew on my study with Gabriela Hybel of over 200 Apple television commercials aired between 1984 and the present to argue that Apple excels at what branding experts refer to as “emotional branding.” I pointed out that Apple commercials cultivate happiness through whimsical depictions of products and their users. In this post I focus on another key finding from this research, which is the prominence of sentimentality in Apple commercials. Both of these things — whimsicality and sentimentality — are key parts of the promise that Apple makes to its customers.

To this end, an important part of the promise that Apple makes to its customers is that using their products will strengthen the customer’s relationships with loved ones, and that the customer will experience positive emotions because of this. This trend, like playfulness, can be traced back to a commercial for the iMac and iMovie that aired in 2000:

Sentimentality features heavily in commercials for iPads and iPhones that have aired over the last few years. In the “I’ll be home for Christmas” ad for the iPad and iPad Mini, which aired in 2012, Apple technology provides the platform for the development of a seemingly long-distance relationship between a young girl and her grandfather:

A commercial that debuted just a month ago drips of sentimentality as it illustrates how Apple products strengthen our relationships with loved ones, near and far. But, also, and importantly, the commercial emphasizes the experiential aspect of the brand in a way that appeals to our desire to feel positive emotions:

With its subtly slowed motion, time and experience are stretched out in this commercial.  Regarding the company signature that appears on products, the narrator states, “You may rarely look at it, but you’ll always feel it. This is our signature. And it means everything” (emphasis added).

Apple product users are living in the moment, soaking up all the sentimental experiences of pleasure, love, satisfaction, and jubilation that the brand promises, and that the products appear to deliver upon. This promise is what sells Apple products. It shows us what we can have if we make the purchase, and in doing so, convinces us to turn a blind eye to the labor and environmental abuses in the company’s Chinese supply chain.

Next:  Be Young, Be Cool, Be Happy…as an Apple Consumer.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain

The Trouble with Apple

Suicide at Foxconn. Poisoned workers. Colluding to inflate the price of e-books. Tax evasion (albeit, legal). Shady suppliers who can’t toe the line of labor or environmental laws in China. Apple’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years. Or, so it seems it should have. But, despite the fact that news reports on the company’s behavior and supplier relationships have been more negative than positive since 2012, Apple’s revenue has continued to climb and break records.

In fact, while the press has illuminated terrible labor conditions in the supply chains for iPhones and iPads (with the most recent revelations coming via China Labor Watch’s report on Pegatron sites where the “cheap iPhone” is in the works), sales of these products in particular have soared, and now account for the majority of the company’s revenue. Apple has jockeyed with ExxonMobil for the world’s most valuable company over the last few years, and currently stands second to the oil giant with $413.9 billion. Remarkably, Apple amassed $156 billion in revenue in 2012 without being the industry leader in any of its product sectors (in terms of unit sales), due to the very high profit margins on iPhones and iPads.

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How does Apple maintain this economic dominance in light of negative press that should be bad for its bottom line? How do we, the highly educated consumer base of the company, remain invested in Apple products when work conditions in China and the clever skirting of tax liability grate against our progressive sensibilities? As a sociologist who focuses on consumer culture, I suspect that it is Apple’s brand power that keeps us eating its fruit, and the company afloat. With its iconic logo, sleek aesthetic, and promise of creativity, excitement, and greatness embedded in its products and message, Apple successfully obscures its bad behavior with its powerful brand.

“Emotional Branding”

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Marketing and branding experts describe a brand as a vision, a vocabulary, a story, and most importantly, a promise. A brand is infused throughout all facets of a corporation, its products, and services, and is the ethos upon which corporate culture, language, and communication are crafted. A brand connects the corporation to the outside world and the consumer, yet it’s intangible: it exists only in our minds, and results from experiences with ads and products.

To understand Apple’s brand and its significance in our contemporary world, I have embarked on a study of the company’s marketing campaigns. I started with a content analysis of television commercials, and with the help of Gabriela Hybel have analyzed over 200 unique television spots that have aired in the U.S. between 1984 and the present. One of the key findings to emerge is that Apple, and the ad firms it contracts with, are exceptionally talented at what the marketing industry calls emotional branding.

In his book named for this approach, Marc Gobé argues that understanding emotional needs and desires, particularly the desire for emotional fulfillment, is imperative for corporate success in today’s world. After studying Apple commercials, one thing that jumps out about them is their overwhelmingly positive nature. They inspire feelings of happiness and excitement with playful and whimsical depictions of products and their users. This trend can be traced to the early days of the iMac, as seen in this commercial from 1998.

An iPod Nano commercial that aired in 2008 takes a similar approach to combining playful imagery and song:

In a more recent commercial, actor and singer Zooey Deschanel, known for her “quirky” demeanor, performs a playful spin on the utility of Siri, the voice activated assistant that was introduced with the iPhone 4S in 2011.

Commercials like these — playful, whimsical, and backed by upbeat music — associate these same feelings with Apple products. They suggest that Apple products are connected to happiness, enjoyment, and a carefree approach to life. To tip the sociological hat to George Ritzer, one could say that these commercials “enchant a disenchanted world.” While Ritzer coined this phrase to refer to sites of consumption like theme parks and shopping malls, I see a similar form of enchantment offered by these ads. They open up a happy, carefree, playful world for us, removed from the troubles of our lives and the implications of our consumer choices.

Importantly, for Apple, the enchanting nature of these ads and the brand image cultivated by them act as a Marxian fetish: they obscure the social and economic relations, and the conditions of production that bring consumer goods to us. Now more than ever, Apple depends on the strength of its brand power to eclipse the mistreatment and exploitation of workers in its supply chain, and the injustice it has done to the American public by skirting the majority of its corporate taxes.

Next: Sentimental Consumerism, the Apple Way.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

What Was in the 1941 College Woman’s Closet?

Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

The New York Public Library posted a page from the first issue (September 1941) of Design for Living: The Magazine for Young Moderns that I thought was sorta neat for bringing some perspective to the increase in the amount and variety of clothing we take as normal today–but also, to my relief, the acceptance of a more casual style of dress. The magazine conducted a poll of women at a number of colleges throughout the U.S. about how many of various articles of clothing they owned. Here’s a visual showing the school where women reported the highest and lowest averages (the top item is a dickey, not a shirt):

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Overall the women reported spending an average of $240.33 per year on clothing.

Hats for women were apparently well on their way out of fashion:

Can you imagine a magazine aimed at college women today implying that you might be able to get away with only three or four pairs of shoes, even if that’s what women reported?

At the end of the article they bring readers’ attention to the fact that they used a sample:

I can’t help but find it rather charming that a popular magazine would even bother to clarify anything about their polling methods. So…earnest!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Wall St. to the Middle Class: “You’ve Got It Made!”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed this week by Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry claiming that things are great for the middle class.  Here’s why:

No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years — a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950.

Yes, but.  If life-expectancy is the all-important measure of well-being, then we Americans are less well off than are people in many other countries, including Cuba.

The authors also claim that we’re better off because things are cheaper:

…spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics” — food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities — fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

Globalization probably has much to do with these lower costs.  But when I reread the list of “basics,” I noticed that a couple of items were missing, items less likely to be imported or outsourced, like housing and health care.  So, we’re spending less on food and clothes, but more on health care and houses. Take housing.  The median home values for childless couples increased by 26% between just 1984 and 2001 (inflation-adjusted); for married couples with children, who are competing to get into good school districts, median home value ballooned by 78% (source).

The authors also make the argument that technology reduces the consuming gap between the rich and the middle class.  There’s not much difference between the iPhone that I can buy and the one that Mitt Romney has.  True, but it says only that products filter down through the economic strata just as they always have.  The first ball-point pens cost as much as dinner for two in a fine restaurant.  But if we look forward, not back, we know that tomorrow the wealthy will be playing with some new toy most of us cannot afford. Then, in a few years, prices will come down, everyone will have one, and by that time the wealthy will have moved on to something else for us to envy.

The readers and editors of the Wall Street Journal may find comfort in hearing Boudreaux and Perry’s good news about the middle class.  Middle-class people themselves, however, may be a bit skeptical on being told that they’ve never had it so good (source).

Some of the people in the Gallup sample are not middle class, and they may contribute disproportionately to the pessimistic side.  But Boudreaux and Perry do not specify who they include as middle class.  But it’s the trend in the lines that is important.  Despite the iPhones, airline tickets, laptops and other consumer goods the authors mention, fewer people feel that they have enough money to live comfortably.

Boudreaux and Perry insist that the middle-class stagnation is a myth, though they also say that

The average hourly wage in real dollars has remained largely unchanged from at least 1964—when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started reporting it.

Apparently“largely unchanged” is completely different from “stagnation.”  But, as even the mainstream media have reported, some incomes have changed quite a bit (source).

The top 10% and especially the top 1% have done well in this century.  The 90%, not so much. You don’t have to be too much of a Marxist to think that maybe the Wall Street Journal crowd has some ulterior motive in telling the middle class that all is well and getting better all the time.

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Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University.  You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The Balancing Act of Being Female; Or, Why We Have So Many Clothes

@bfwriter tweeted us a link to a college design student’s photograph that has gone viral.  Rosea Lake posted the image to her tumblr and it struck a chord.

What I like about the image is the way it very clearly illustrates two things.  First, it reveals that doing femininity doesn’t mean obeying a single, simple rule. Instead, it’s about occupying and traveling within a certain space.  In this case, usually between “proper” and “flirty.”  Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be.  Too flirty at work mean’s you won’t be taken seriously; too proper at the bar and you’re invisible.  Under the right circumstances (e.g., Halloween, a funeral), you can do “cheeky” or “old fashioned.”

The second thing I like about this image is the way it shows that there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong.  It’s not just a faux pas.  Once you’re “‘asking for it,” you could be a target. And, once you’re reached “prudish,” you’ve become socially irrelevant.  Both violence and social marginalization are serious consequences.

And, of course, all women are going to get it wrong sometimes because the boundaries are moving targets and in the eye of the beholder. What’s cheeky in one setting or to one person is flirty in or to another.  So women constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone.  So the consequences are always floating out there, worrying us, and sending us to the mall.

Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes!  We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty… at the very least… and all in casual, business, and formal.   And we need heels to go with each (stilettos = provocative, high heels = flirty, low heels  = proper, etc, plus we need flats for the picnics and beach weddings etc).  And we need pants that are hemmed to the right length for each of these pairs of shoes.  You can’t wear black shoes with navy pants, so you’ll need to double up on all these things if you want any variety in your wardrobe. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas”: 1994 vs 2011

This is one of our favorite Christmas-themed posts from the archive.  We hope you don’t mind the re-post!

Stressing remarkable differences between the two, Rachel and Lucy sent in the music videos for the original Mariah Carey version of “All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994) and the re-make (2011).  They suggested that the comparison reveals two trends: the rising emphasis placed on consumption and the new hyper-sexualization.  I figured, “yeah, I’ll bet they’re onto something there.”  And boy were they.

The first video involves Mariah mostly bounding around in the snow in a snow suit. Often acting pretty darn goofy, with dogs and Santa.

She spends part of the video inside with kids, a Christmas tree, presents, and more animals.  She’s usually wearing a sweater.

She spends less than (I’m guessing) 10 seconds of the video in a sexy Mrs. Claus outfit and, when she’s wearing it, it looks like she’s got long johns on her legs.

The new video, featuring Justin Bieber, is wildly different. Instead of a snowy field or an intimate home, the video takes place in a shopping mall.  It centrally features a Nintendo product.

Likewise, instead of bounding around in the snow like a goof, she spends the entire video up against a wall in super high heels and the sexy Mrs. Claus outfit (except this one doesn’t have sleeves or a midriff).

At one point she runs her hand down her body, touching her breast and moving down to her crotch; at another she just leans against the wall with her back to us and swings her butt back and forth.

So there’s one data point, for what it’s worth, but in line with emerging research on and plenty of anecdotal evidence of the “pornification” of American culture.

“All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994):

“All I Want for Christmas is You” (2011):

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Teaching Infant and Toddler Girls to Beautify

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

I’d love to draw your attention to The Alpha Parent, a blogger who has collected a stunningly large number of toys for infants that socialize girls into preening.

Some of the toys are purses/handbags that include pretend lipsticks, compacts, and related-items.  My Pretty Learning Purse includes a toy lipstick and a mirror; the Gund Sesame Street Abbey Purse Playset includes a compact and powder brush; the Lilliputiens Liz Handbag includes an eye shadow compact complete with three shades and an eye shadow applicator.

In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.

It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play.  Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:

Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:

The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits.  I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:

The latter reverses into a nurse’s uniform.

The Alpha Parent concludes:

Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.

They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys.  Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.

It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism.  Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later.  Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Household Spending by Class (UPDATE)

NPR’s Planet Money blog posted an interesting image of differences in how we allocate income based on how much we make. The image looks at three income groups and shows what percent of their  household income budget they spend various categories, using Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey data:

As we see, the largest expense for every group is housing; for the low-income group, 40% of their income goes just to paying for a place to live. They also use more of their income to cover basic necessities — utilities, food eaten at home, transportation.The high-income group, on the other hand,  spends quite a bit more on education.

Look at that last row: saving for retirement (which includes Social Security contributions). This is a particularly striking difference. The affluent are able to put away a significant portion of their income for retirement; for those living just above the poverty line, it’s much, much less than the amount financial planners would recommend (even the middle-income group is saving about the minimum amount generally recommended to prepare for retirement). When so much of your income goes to simply meeting day-to-day needs, saving for the future is a luxury many just cannot afford.

UPDATE: NPR has updated their post, saying the image they had up initially incorrectly. They posted a new image, with notably lower spending on housing:

Eagle-eyed reader David C. pointed this out to me. The revised numbers seem surprisingly low to both of us.Looking at the NPR post again, I think I misunderstood what they were representing; I think this isn’t the percent of total income, but rather % of the household budget, which may not be identical. That said, I looked at some Consumer Expenditure Survey data (here and here) and can’t get the numbers to work out to what they’re showing in the updated image. If someone can, please send us a note at socimages(at)thesocietypages.org and we’ll do another update. Thanks!