Tag Archives: globalization

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.

What’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

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.

What’s Happening to the Middle Class?

Our favorite economist, Martin Hart-Landsberg, has written a detailed account of what is causing the rise of income inequality around the world.  Here I’d like to highlight just one of his really interesting observations.

While we usually think that rising income inequality is caused by the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, a more complex picture is emerging.  The graph below plots the hourly wages of the 90th percentile (Americans who make more than 89% of the population) relative to the wages of the 50th percentile (the purple line) and the wages of the 50th compared to the 10th percentile (the dotted blue line).

In English: it asks how quickly the richest people (90th) are pulling away from the average person (50th) and how quickly the average person is pulling away from the poorest (10th).  The answer?  Income inequality has been increasing since the 70s but, since the late ’80s, rich people have continued pulling ahead of the average American, but the average American has not been gaining on the poor.

Wage-ratios

Another indicator that the middle class is shrinking is changes in the share of jobs that are low-, middle-, or high-paid.  The next graph shows that, across a wide range of countries, high- and low-paying jobs are on the rise, but middle-paying jobs are on the decline.  So, middle income jobs are disappearing, but there are more of both high- and low-income jobs.

Jobs (1)

Hart-Landsberg suggests that the reason for this shift in the economy involves the globalization of production.  For more, visit Reports from the Economic Front.

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.

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.

Modern Social Problems and Vintage Technology: Google’s Project Loon

Screenshot_2As our society becomes increasingly technological, I love stories that remind us of the value of simpler ways to solve problems, like a faux bus stop to catch escapee nursing home residents or dogs that are trained to sniff out cancer (both stories here).

This weekend we were treated to another such story, this time by Google. The company has announced a plan to bring internet to the whole world… with balloons.  The very first launch of a gas balloon was in 1783.  Two hundred and thirty years later, the company aims to deliver what is arguably the defining feature of our age — the internet — with helium-filled balloons.  That technology will then bring almost countless other technologies, such as medical advances and agricultural information, to people who are largely excluded from them now.  A fantastical plan.

Here’s how it’ll work:

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.

Study Abroad and Sensitivity to Global Inequality

Scholars suggest that studying abroad in a previously-colonized country may increase people’s cultural sensitivity and awareness of global inequality.  I investigated this hypothesis by interviewing college students: one group had studied abroad for a semester or more, the other had only traveled out of the country for vacation.

I asked both groups to view and analyze fashion photography that contrasted models with more humble images of residents of less developed countries.  I hoped people would point to how, by contrasting glamorous, thin, conventionally-attractive White models with “average” people from less-privileged countries served to heighten the high status of the West and their representatives.  I saw this as a form of Western “slumming”: a practice of spending time in places or with people who are “below” you, out of curiosity or for fun or personal development.

Here are three examples of the kinds of photography I showed students:

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My findings revealed that study abroad students think they’re more culturally competent but, in fact, they were no more likely than people who had never studied abroad to express concern about the exploitation of previously colonized people in ads like these.

The majority of students from both groups – those who’d studied abroad and those who hadn’t — demonstrated a distinct lack of concern.  They unreflexively “Othered” the people in these images; that is, they affirmed the locals’ marginalized group status and labeled them as being Other, belonging outside of our normative Western structure.

The majority also expressed approval of the aesthetics of the ads without irony. For example, one student said: “I think it works because it’s this edgy, culturally stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing ad.” When asked the art director’s intentions, another student commented: “I don’t know. Just like ordinary people next to someone who’s on top of their fashion game.”

Only select few students successfully observed the use of Othering in the images. When asked the art director’s intentions of one image, a student replied: “I think it’s to contrast the model with the everyday life of these people…  (it) feels more like an image of people of color being an accessory.” Noticing this theme, interestingly, did not correlate with having studied abroad, in contrast to my hypothesis.

My findings suggest, then, that living abroad for a semester or more in a previously colonized country does not necessarily contribute to the detection of global inequality in fashion photography.

Erica Ales is a senior Sociology major at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.

The Stigma of Immigrant Languages

Cross-posted at Asian-Nation and Racialicious.

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Photo by Lulu Vision (Flickr/Creative Commons)

As an undergraduate majoring in linguistics, I was fascinated with the concept of endangered languages. Colonization, genocide, globalization, and nation-building projects have killed off untold numbers of languages. As linguist K. David Harrison (my undergrad advisor) tells NPR, speakers of stigmatized or otherwise less-favored languages are pressured to abandon their native tongue for the dominant language of the nation and the market (emphasis mine):

The decision to give up one language or to abandon a language is not usually a free decision. It’s often coerced by politics, by market forces, by the educational system in a country, by a larger, more dominant group telling them that their language is backwards and obsolete and worthless.

These same pressures are at work in immigrant-receiving countries like the United States, where young immigrants and children of immigrants are quickly abandoning their parents’ language in favor of English.

Immigrant languages in the United States generally do not survive beyond the second generation. In his study of European immigrants, Fishman (1965) found that the first generation uses the heritage language fluently and in all domains, while the second generation only speaks it with the first generation at home and in limited outside contexts. As English is now the language with which they are most comfortable, members of the second generation tend to speak English to their children, and their children have extremely limited abilities in their heritage language, if any. Later studies (López 1996 and Portes and Schauffler 1996 among them) have shown this three-generation trend in children of Latin American and Asian immigrants, as well.

The languages that most immigrants to the U.S. speak are hardly endangered. A second-generation Korean American might not speak Korean well, and will not be speaking that language to her children, but Korean is not going to disappear anytime soon — there are 66.3 million speakers (Ethnologue)! Compare that with the Chulym language of Siberia, which has less than 25.

Even if they’re not endangered per se, I would argue that they are in danger. While attitudes towards non-English languages in the U.S. seem to be improving, at least among wealthier and better educated people in some more diverse cities and suburbs, the stigma of speaking a non-English language still exists.

How many of you have:

  • been embarrassed to speak your heritage language in front of English speakers?
  • been reprimanded for speaking your heritage language in school?
  • been told to “go back to [country X]” when someone overhears you speak your heritage language?

I’ve heard innumerable stories about parents refusing to speak their native language to their children. Usually, the purported rationale is that they do not want the child to have language or learning difficulties, a claim that has been debunked over and over again by psychologists, linguists, and education scholars.

I’m sure that these parents truly believe that speaking only English to their children will give them an edge, though the reverse is true. What I wonder is how much this decision had to do with an unfounded belief about cognition and child development, and how much it had to do with avoiding the stigma of speaking a language that marks you as foreign, and as “backwards and obsolete and worthless”?

Calvin N. Ho is a graduate student in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles studying immigration, race/ethnicity/nationalism, and Asian diasporas.  You can follow him at The Plaid Bag Connection and on Twitter.

International Data on Cosmetic Surgery

The  International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has released new data on the incidence of invasive and non-invasive cosmetic procedures.  The U.S. leads in sheer numbers of procedures but, accounting for population, we fall into 4th place.  South Korea leads for the number of procedures per person, followed by Greece and Italy.

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By far the most common kinds of surgical cosmetic procedures are lipoplasty and breast augmentation.  Along with fat, breasts seem to be a particular concern: breast lifts and breast reductions for both men and women are also in the top ten.  Abdominoplasty, nose jobs, eyelid surgeries, and facelifts are as well.

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The incidence of these surgeries is strongly related to everything from the gender binary to global power dynamics.  In 2008 we reported that male breast reductions were the most common cosmetic surgery for 13-19 year olds (boys and girls combined). You would be shocked at what counts as excess breast tissue and how little the before and after photos look.  Boys and men getting breast reductions, alongside women getting augmentations, is obviously about our desire for men and women to be different, not naturally-occurring difference.  See The Story of My Man-Boobs for more.

Likewise, we’ve posted about surgeries that create an epithelial fold, a fold of skin in the eyelid more common in people with White than Asian ethnic backgrounds.  This surgery is a trend among Asians and Asian-Americans, as colonization has left us with an association between Whiteness, attractiveness, and power.

The Economist summarizes some other trends:

Breast augmentation, the second biggest surgical procedure, is most commonly performed in America and Brazil. Buttock implants are also a Brazilian specialty, as is vaginal rejuvenation. Asia is keen on nose jobs: China, Japan and South Korea are among the top five nations for rhinoplasty.

More on where and how many procedures are being performed, but nothing on why, at the ISAPS report.

Image at The Economist; via Global Sociology.

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.