commodification

From the blog Japan Probe I discovered that Ralph Lauren has partnered with the United Way to create a line of polo shirts they’re calling Japan Hope:

The shirts range from $98-110, and the website says “100% of all proceeds” will be donated to humanitarian efforts in Japan. The site does have a link to a United Way site that lets you make donations directly, without buying a shirt. However, looking over the information about the Japan Hope shirt, I have the same concerns I often do when I see humanitarianism-through-consumption efforts. Though we’re assured that “100% of all proceeds” will be donated, nowhere could I find out what that actually adds up to. Perhaps the donation from each shirt is sizable, but it may just as well be tiny. There’s no way to know what your actual contribution to Japanese relief efforts is. If you wanted to donate $50 and you buy this shirt, have you met your donation goal?

I honestly don’t really understand the point of these types of products. If you want to help out, why not just donate directly to a group involved in relief efforts? Why the need to get something for yourself in return? Maybe I’m underestimating the draw; perhaps such gimmicks actually bring in donations (of whatever size) from individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have contributed anything at all. (If any of our readers have any direct evidence one way or the other, I would love to hear about it.)

But I would feel more comfortable with this type of consumption-based giving if the companies engaged in it clearly provided a baseline idea of what the “proceeds” would be so consumers could have some sense of the size of their contribution. Without such information, I can’t help but wonder how many people greatly overestimate the positive effects of their purchase.

For more on potential problems with buying-as-activism, see my earlier post on the ethical fix.

While Americans began celebrating Valentine’s Day in the early 1700s, it wasn’t until the 1840s that it became a commercial holiday complete with mass-produced Valentine’s-themed goods.

Greeting cards, candy, flowers, and jewelry are Valentine’s-Day-Approved gifts and are among the most frequently gifted items (along with stuffed animals and perfume/cologne):

Contrary to stereotypes, the majority of men say they would love to receive flowers for Valentine’s Day:

Alas, 21% of them have never been so blessed:

This may upset primarily the young:

But, of course, they have the greatest chance of one day having their dreams come true.

What I’m saying is:  “Go ahead! Buy your man some daisies!”

For more on Valentine’s Day, visit this fun graphic (via Chart Porn).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Commodification is the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes bought and sold.   At one time, Americans grew, or raised and butchered, much of their own food.  Later, meat, grains, and vegetables became commodified.  Instead of working in the fields and with their animals, people would “go to work,” earn a new thing called a “wage,” and trade it for meat, grains, and vegetables.  With those raw ingredients, they would prepare a meal.

More recently in American history, the very preparation of food has commodified as well.   When I go to a restaurant, I am exchanging my wage for the planting, harvesting, processing, delivering, preparing, and disposal/clean up of my meal.   In this way, then, more and more components of our daily nutritional intake have become commodified.

The graph below traces the increasing commodification of “dinner.”  When it comes to family dinners, Americans are increasingly turning to restaurants, which commodify the preparation of food and the post-meal chores.  Sometime around 1988, the family dinner as a commodity became more common than family dinners at home.

Image borrowed from Claude Fischer’s Made in America.

UPDATE: In the comments, Ludvig von Mises offers this alternative explanation:

Another way to look at this would be as a form of increasing wealth. The nobility of old, after all, also did not butcher, harvest, and prepare their own meals, and neither did the wealthiest members of the new rich. Over time, the ability to afford such a thing on a more regular basis has gradually expanded to more and more people.

Matter of fact, there is very little in the way of such luxury that has been enjoyed by the elites of the past that is not available to the majority of workers today. “Commodification” is not, as you suggest, the creation of any kind of new product, but merely of making extremely expensive products affordable to a much larger fraction of the population.

“The characteristic feature of modern capitalism is mass production of goods destined for consumption by the masses.”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

“You can’t be taught the skills to model, because first and foremost, skill doesn’t matter.  It’s all in the jeans genes.”

So notes a shirtless man, a self-described “male mannequin” in commercials for Next Top Model in Vietnam:

My sociological knee-jerk reaction is to point to the ways in which models’ labor is deliberately rendered invisible, masking performance as mere appearance, in much the same way social categories are naturalized to appear like states of being instead of products of social organization — think gender, ethnicity, class, and yes, beauty.

As concerns the category of beauty, there is considerable work involved in pulling it off.  Like retail service workers, models do “aesthetic labor,” as documented by sociologists Elizabeth Wissinger and Joanne Entwistle and more recently by Christine Williams and Catherine Connell.  Aesthetic labor is the work of manipulating one’s physique and personality to embody a company brand.  In the modeling market, some people easily have that physique, as the shirtless guy claims to have, but most models have to fight for it, and they’re fighting against the clock of aging.  If they don’t have to work for cut abs and narrow hips, they most likely still feel compelled to work at it, given the rampant uncertainties facing them in their daily grinds of auditions and rejections.  All of this work gets carefully tucked behind the scenes of fashion and beauty images — a clandestine world NTM purports to expose for voyeuristic consumers around the world.

But instead of exposing it, the NTM franchise caricatures it.  In the American version, Tyra Banks insists that effort is everything, and she axes candidates left and right because they didn’t “want it badly enough.”  She just didn’t work hard at it, goes the usual dismissal, or she lacked the determination to keep smiling when Jay Manuel told her that her face is weird.  It’s not that you’ve got the wrong look, the show tells contestants, but that you didn’t put in the work to get the right one.  NTM sticks close to an individualistic ethos:  if you fail, it’s because you lacked the individual effort needed to succeed.

Success in any culture industry is a mix of both hard work and the luck of being the “right” contender at the right moment, which is somewhat arbitrarily decided in any given fashion season.  Saying that success is “all in the genes” renders the “look” into a natural state of being, when like all culture industries, modeling is a complex social production.

Saying it’s all in the jeans is also pretty funny.  Let’s not overlook this guy’s self-deprecating humor:  here’s a man surrendering himself (and his manhood) to the whims and preferences of fashion, an industry widely believed to be controlled by women and gay men.  In other ads he mocks his talent and wryly notes the biggest hazard in his line of work: wearing leopard print g-strings (to say nothing of occupational challenges like the precarious nature of freelance labor, the lack of health and retirement benefits, or the unpaid labor of castings and magazine shoots).  What’s most striking about this guy and his seductive black-and-white commercial is not the sociological back story, it’s his own silliness.  He’s playing on the ironic gap between social expectations of masculinity and the realities of being featured as a passive visual object.  We probably wouldn’t be so charmed if the commercial featured a young woman laughing about her job title: “I’m a professional model!”  We’d probably roll our eyes.  The source of that silliness—unequal cultural expectations about the display value of men and women—is as problematic as it is good fodder for comedy.

Ashley Mears is a former model and current Assistant Professor of sociology at Boston University who is doing fantastic work on the modeling industry.  In her book, Pricing Beauty: Value in the Fashion Modeling World (UC Berkeley Press), she examines the production of value in fashion modeling markets.

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

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Accordingly, during October we come across more than the normal number of pink-ribbon-adorned items that variously give a portion of proceeds to breast cancer research, remind women to conduct breast exams, contain supportive messages for breast cancer survivors, or just sort of, you know, support the existence of boobs and oppose cancer. For instance, Alicia, the moderator of Think Before You Pink, found this thong

And Renée Yoxon noticed that Staples, among other office-supply stores, has a lot of pink ribbon products for sale, including pink-ribbon paper, file folder, calculators, daily planners, pens, and, in Canada, a tape dispenser from 3M shaped like a high-heeled shoe:

We’ve posted on the whole issue of breast cancer awareness branding before. And one response that always comes up is, basically, yes, companies may be using breast cancer as a marketing tool to increase sales, but if by doing so they also donate money for breast cancer research or prevention, who cares? By buying pink-ribbon address labels, money goes to fight breast cancer that probably wouldn’t have been donated otherwise, so the net effect is good, right?

In his book Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker suggests perhaps not. He summarizes a number of studies that found that “doing good in one area of life provided a rationale to worry less about such things in another” (p. 222). Specifically, feeling they had contributed in some way (by imagining they had agreed to volunteer at a community organization) significantly increased subjects’ preference for “luxury” items. It appears that feeling we have done a good deed makes us feel like we deserve rewards in other arenas, or at least frees us to make decisions we might otherwise be a bit embarrassed about.

Walker connects this research to the wide array of companies that either create a particular product that is slightly more eco- or labor-friendly than their regular line or that donate a tiny portion of profits to a charity of some sort. He suggests that the ability to easily “do good” through consumption — that is, I can choose the pink-ribbon file folders and feel good about myself for being a good citizen — may contribute some money to a particular charity, but may ultimately lead us to be less concerned about the impacts of our other consumption choices. As Walker summarizes the effect,

These various efforts each add just enough options to the miles of retail shelves to give us all an ethical fix — to do our one good shopping deed. Then we can push our basket a little farther down the aisle, letting other rationales take over: Here’s a bargain, here’s a great product…and here, yes, here is something ethical. I’ll take one of those, too. (p. 223)

From this perspective, this type of branding may benefit companies not just by making it more likely we’ll buy the specific product they’ve attached a pink (or red, or yellow, or whatever color) ribbon to, but by satisfying our need to feel like we’re aware, concerned consumers, and thus making us less likely to question the production practices of the other items we’re choosing among.

Crossposted at Jezebel.

Understandably, parents are eager to memorialize pregnancy and the birth of their child (well, the nicer parts of them, anyway).  Some of this is done informally by parents or relatives themselves. Earlier this summer I took my 4-year-old niece for her first ever haircut because my sister loves long hair and couldn’t bring herself to get it cut, but I’m a big meanie with no soul and it didn’t bother me to cut a little girl’s butt-length hair into what seemed to me a much lower-maintenance, reasonable length. But I digress. The point is, my sister’s one requirement was that I save her hair and bring it back in a ziploc bag. Not one or two curls; all of it. So I handed over to her a freezer-size bag full of a lot of hair. Many of us have baby books from when we were young where our parents saved our first lost tooth, hair from our first haircut, or other things deemed to have sentimental value.*

But an industry has also arisen to help parents turn every step of the pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy process into a precious memory, whether it’s paying to get a video of the childbirth or the enormous number of scrapbooking supplies that provide an array of materials and pre-printed statements to help you express your joy.

RudolfoRabulous sent in a coupon for a product that takes this process of turning every single event in a pregnancy and child’s life to a new level. If you buy an e.p.t. pregnancy test, you can send in a coupon for a FREE promotional “keepsake gift”…a pouch to save the used pregnancy test in, to “remember the moment you knew”:

I am sure there are people who treasure their used pregnancy test, perhaps because they were trying to get pregnant for a long time or wanted a baby more than anything in the world. I’m not trying to deny the importance that finding out you’re pregnant has for people who are actually happy about it. But…e.p.t. has created purple pouches you’re supposed to send in for so you can keep a peed-on stick in it (notice the coupon says, in bold, “Please do not send in your stick”).

This strikes me as part of the trend to treat increasing amounts of our lives as unique, precious moments that require formal remembrance through some type of physical creation/artifact, rather than something to remember fondly as a non-material memory. Technologies such as film and video cameras, and consumer products such as physical and digital scrapbooking materials and the wide array of “keepsake” items you can buy, both allow and encourage this process. It’s not that the desire to have physical reminders of important moments in our lives is new, we just have a much greater variety of ways to do that now, and many have become quite cheap (digital photos, for instance, have no cost, really, once you’ve bought the camera, unless you want to print them out). Those two factors mean we now have the ability to turn many more life events from intangible memories into an end product, either on our own or with the aid of the items provided by a helpful memory industry.

* Am I the only one who wasn’t really sure what to do with this stuff when my mom decided it was time to hand it all over to me? What am I going to do with my old teeth? Why on EARTH would I want my umbilical cord? I kept the baby book itself but all the bottles and baggies of accompanying biological materials went in the trash.

And what would you do if your mom gave you her used pregnancy test? Would you be excited or touched? Or creeped out? Or just confused/indifferent?

Bundle presents the following infographic detailing how much people in various U.S. cities spend restaurants and groceries (some highlights below): The average household in the U.S. spends 37% of its food and drink budget in restaurants. In Hialeah, Florida, 69% of food and drink spending is spent on groceries instead of dining out; the largest proportion of spending in eating in. Atlanta is on the other side of the spectrum, with 57% of the food budget spent at restaurants. Households in Austin spend the most on food ($12,447) with more than half of that spent dining out. In contrast, people in Detroit spend the least ($2,246), As the graphic notes, “five average Detroit households can eat on one Austinite’s food budget.” On average, in U.S. households 17% of spending goes towards food and drink. The largest proportion of spending allocated towards food and drink is found in Denver (22%), but my city, Los Angeles, is not far behind (21%). Hat tip to Flowing Data.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

While most people look at the Gulf of Mexico and see seafood and beaches, oil executives see the Gulf differently.  They see a giant grid containing thousands of squares of possibility, each potentially yielding billions of dollars.

You see this:

(photo credit: Dmitriy Pritykin)

They see this, a grid of the entire gulf representing regions available for lease (click to enlarge):

(source)

This is a close up off the Louisiana coast (green lines and regions are oil pipelines and fields, the pink are the same for gas):

(source)

There are 6,652 leased squares, amounting to 22 percent of the lease-able Gulf (click to enlarge) and approximately 4,000 oil production platforms in the Gulf:

(source)

I offer this only as an illustration of the degree to which the Gulf has been commodified.  The Gulf is big, big, big business:

(source)

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.