Are our choices truly independent ones or are we the product of a social engineering that serves a consumer economy?
Years ago, in an older strip, the cartoon character of “Momma” by Mell Lazarus was sitting in a comfortable chair in front of the TV with her chin in her chest and eyes closed. I forget the humorous punch line but not the subtle message it conveyed. She had settled into an undisturbed state during the program she apparently lost interest in or was overcome by a long day.
In each frame we are aware that commercials are blaring their messages on her TV screen. About every third frame a commercial comes on that arouses Momma’s interest and one eye pops open to observe the content of the advertisement. They are ads that have personal meanings to a woman of her age selling Geritol®, services for retirement homes, pain relief ointments, etc.
Like Momma, we all have personal wants, needs and desires. Our relationships with others are guided and even driven by these intrapersonal aspects of our being. I was piqued by that cartoon strip because, as a Sociology major at the time, I was struck by the notion of social engineering used to arouse Momma’s interest in a given product. The field of sociology studies patterns of behavior with groups of people and like any science is concerned with understanding our world around us.
Knowledge is power and when used for good we all benefit. Like any science Sociology can be used for good or bad. In fact when you are considering entering the teaching field in a given science you are asked by the department what your intent is for doing so. Academia has a responsibility to make sure, as best it can, that learning is used for good and that it benefits more than the recipient of that knowledge; society and its individual members must also benefit. Social engineering is a by-product of Sociology that has good potential but too often I feel has been used for the opposite.
There is a gentle form of social engineering in our culture that is referred to as “branding”; a marketing technique that promotes a product with the intent to develop a want with individuals that would encourage them to buy not just any brand, but that brand that most successfully promised to improve their life somehow. Health, wealth, romance (sex) and social status were the personal triggers that these ads aimed at. These are the parts of the psychic Id that addressed what Freud referred to as the “pleasure principle” and lie just beneath the surface of our conscious state.
It was hoped that if a product caught your fancy and induced you to buy it next time you shopped that you would become a loyal purchaser. The loyalty would likely remain despite its apparent failure to deliver on its promises of fulfillment. Loyalty after all is a state of mind that sees something in another person, place or object that connects it to some innermost feeling or emotion within an individual.
The target audience for most branding ads is not necessarily regional, gender, race or cultural. It is more a state of mind that appeals to a sense of youth or more accurately to our puerile instincts that Benjamin Barber calls “infantilism” in his book “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”.
Marketing executives learned to employ aspects of social engineering years ago to sell their business customer’s products. Rather than just selling soap, soda or medicine, which were inherently the same, marketers saw advantages to identifying their product through trade-marks and promoting them as a better buy than their competitor’s. As time progressed in commercial markets and customer loyalty to certain products was identified by perceptive advertisers, the idea of branding evolved.
The object of establishing brand loyalty begins by creating the belief with the consumer that a product would create a rewarding experience in their life; experiences that were associated with our health, wealth, sexual desires and social status. It became clear then to focus less on what purpose the product served and more towards how the consumer connected it to an aspect of their personal life. Barber assessed this in his book as the “emotional propaganda that hijacks authentic emotions and sentiments and employs them in wholly instrumental ways to sell products which neither producers nor consumers … otherwise are likely to have much interest [and] little inherent demand.” (p.183)
Branding not only aims to alter our age-related perception of market of goods and services from one where it’s utility is not it’s material or functional reality but more a youthful fantasy where we can fulfill the Peter Pan in all of us to remain forever young or, for older people, regain that lost “innocence” of youth. By appealing to our more puerile selfish needs, wants and desires, marketers hope to create a loyalty that attaches itself to a false sense of self; one that was made to fit the products our branders promote for general consumption.
In today’s world of branding we are no longer the creator of life-styles. By the imaging and special effects of commercial ads we are led to be a Dockers® man or a Victoria's Secret woman. Our bodies become Bowflex® bodies to be the attraction that serves our non-committal lifestyles in our youth. Fun and feelings of gratification occur more with the aid of Bud-Lite and at Miller Time than through sober, adult interactions. And nothing spells financial success more than a Rolex, Lexus or Armani clothes even if it means maxing out the credit card and incurring a debt that will take years to repay.
Branding is here to stay and serves in purpose as a way of achieving sales for a vibrant economy. But our economy is more focused now than at any other time on simple consumerism; buying for the sake of buying of products that really have no other value than to impress other people with your ownership of them. It serves more to generate an interest in otherwise useless and unneeded products to enhance a company’s bottom line.
We are becoming a nation of consumers instead of producers and fashioners of socially beneficial ideas. In so doing we are prone to trading away a life where we benefit as individuals within a social collective for the life of a faux rebel and iconoclast defined by a marketing strategy.
Each day we evolve as products of the imagination of those that that design our clothes and furniture; build our cars and trucks and provide services that seek to alter our natural state to something more cosmetically appealing. We become marked by the logos on consumer goods than we are by our innate social connection as humans; an existence where loyalties lie with the ebb and flow of stylist perceptions who appear more capable of projecting our inner wants, needs and desires through effective branding ad campaigns.