Generic brands and self-esteem

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

The anti-Apple snarker in me wants to claim this as some sort of victory (“See – this is why Macbook owners are so damn smug!”), but that’s just me airing my own (admittedly irrational) prejudices*. I think there may be something far more important to tease out from the discovery that generic non-brand products have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of those who buy them:

“Even incidentally used cheaper, generic products have the ironic consequence of harming one’s self-image via a sense of worthlessness,” Yin-Hsien Chao and Wen-Bin Chiou report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found this dampening of self-esteem has potentially negative consequences in the realms of both money and romance.

Of course, all such statements must come with caveats:

… it’s worth noting that in these experiments, the use of a generic product was both involuntary and public. The results may or may not hold true for someone who makes the choice himself, and does so in a private setting.

Nevertheless, it’s striking that in these experiments, using a non-brand-name item for a just few minutes had a measurable negative impact. This suggests “we should not overlook the possible backlash of using generic products,” the researchers warn.

This says something pretty powerful about the effects of branding and media saturation, though we’d have to do a lot more work to find out how and why it happens. But the link between consumer choices and self-identity seems clear, and fits with a great deal of media theory from the last four decades or so; what I’d like to know is whether those effects are stronger in the infinite-duplex-channels landscape of the networked world than they were in the golden era of limited simplex broadcast media (TV and radio). How much influence does the opinion of our fellow consumers have? Are we more influenced by those closest to us, or by those more distant figures we aspire to be like?

[ * More seriously, I think the stark polarity between Apple fanpersons and Apple detractors is a really good illustration of the complexity I’m talking about, there: what is it about Apple products that causes some people to identify with them so strongly, and others to reject them equally forcefully? Branding must be a big part of it, but there are definitely more factors in play. ]


William Gibson on the cyberpunk obsession with brands

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2010

Having recently completed his forthcoming novel Zero History, William Gibson is kicking back at his blog and fielding questions from the intertubes; if you want an insight into the man’s attitudes and philosophies (toward his work, and the world in general), you’d be well advised to tune in.

This one particularly caught my eye, because it calls out a foible I’ve always noticed in Gibson’s writing (and Chairman Bruce’s, too, though to a different degree) – his fetish for explicitly dropping in brand names and obsessional detail about clothing, hardware and vehicles. Gibson’s justification is charming, not least because I’ve always had a similar sort of obsession*:

Q Why do you seem obsessed with brand name apparel et al in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country?

A You ain’t seen nothing, yet! Actually the new one may explain that, a bit. Or just further convince some people that I’m obsessed. It’s one of the ways in which I feel I understand how the world works, and there aren’t really that many of those. It’s not about clothes, though, or branding; it’s about code, subtext. I was really delighted, for instance, to learn who made George Bush’s raincoats. A company in Little Rock (now extinct, alas) but they were made of Ventile, a British cotton so tightly woven that you can make fire hoses (and RAF ocean survival suits) out of it. Which exists because Churchill demanded it, because the Germans had all the flax production sewn up. No flax, no fire hoses for the Blitz. The cultural complexities that put that particular material on Bush’s back delight me deeply; it’s a kind of secret history (and not least because most people would find it fantastically boring, I imagine).

Brands are stories, in and of themselves. I wonder if the cultural histories of consumer goods are one of the few types of narrative that can survive postmodern erosion?

[ * There’s a part of me that always hates noting similarities like this, because it feels like my brain trying to tell me “oh yeah, you’re just like him, bravo you!” Anyone else get that kind of feeling when they read author interviews or blogs? ]


New Olympic sport – intellectual property whack-a-mole

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2008

The Beijing Bay logoDid you know that the International Olympic Committee threatens non-sponsor advertisers just for mentioning the Olympics?

Lucky for us that Futurismic‘s too small to show up on their radar, then… but that’s not all. The IOC’s latest move in Beijing is to cover up the brand names of anything that isn’t an official Olympic sponsor – things like bathroom furnishings, or the headphones of press reporters… or entire non-sponsor hotels. And there we were questioning the ethics of the Olympics taking place in totalitarian China. Looks like a perfect match after all, no? [via TechDirt]

In more Olympics-related news, those wily Swedes behind legendary torrent-tracker site The Pirate Bay have fallen foul of the IOC as well, in this case for acting as a tracker for Olympic footage.

But far from capitulating, The Pirates have yet again used the Streisand effect to turn legal threats to their advantage and boost their public profile… which is why, should you head over there to download a video of some weightlifter popping his elbow joint out or something, you’ll notice the site has been temporarily named The Beijing Bay. Zing – gold medal for Team Sweden! [via Wired]