The power of marketing in the formation of class identity – an examination of consumerism in young adult fiction

Consumerism, materialism and individualism are all common terms applied to modern society in the western world. Since the time of Marx the signifiers of class have shifted from the production function to the consumption process and this has only recently become evident in young adult fiction. The Insiders (Minter 2004), Feed (Anderson 2002) and So Yesterday (Westerfeld 2004) are three such books laden with consumerism. The Insiders, contains prominent brand names to draw the distinction between cultural groups, niche marketing is demonstrated and resisted in the novel So Yesterday and the futuristic novel Feed illustrates how consumerism and the marketing of products could progress in the future. These novels will be investigated through general marketing theory, economic theory and Bourdieu’s social theory to demonstrate how young people form identity through consumption and corporations bolster their power through the marketing process.

In the 1800s Marx split the world into “the owners of the means of production (capitalists) and those who sold their labour for wages (workers)” (Schirato & Yell 1996, p.170) at a time when workers were often viewed as just another possession. Even now, in terms of current economic theory, labour is just one form of resource, the others being land, capital and enterprise. However, after World War II there was a shift in social commentary of emphasis from workers to consumers and from production to consumption. At this time people’s materialistic needs were being met with ease so firms had to find more products to meet consumers’ desires in order to beat the competition to the all important dollar vital for profits. Products thus became differentiated from competition under the concept of niche marketing by concentrating on a “small but specific and well defined segment of the population” ( Niche marketing attempts to force consumers to not only seek identity through class and other forms of social groups but personalises the marketing approach by playing to the increasingly prevalent philosophy of individualism. Church refers to the “hinterland” between production and consumption as “marketing activities in all its dimensions” (1999, p.405). Marketing was the force that shifted the focus from worker to consumer and it remains as the main link between production and consumption.

So Yesterday shows marketing in one of its more covert dimensions. Hunter is employed by a large firm to locate creative expressions at the grassroots of society in order for them to be produced and marketed by the firm as the next trend. The firm can lift a trend spotted on a street, particularly through its transnational status, to market it on a global scale and thus influence a great portion of the world into a new fashion. It is through this process that Hunter meets Jen, an “innovator” (2004, p.3), somebody who doesn’t conform to trends but through the firm is likely to set them. Her identity lies in being original, by resisting brand names (2004, p.28) and altering clothes into her own designs (2004, p.261). She consciously resists the power of marketing.

Firms also use trend setters to subtly market their products since ‘word of mouth’ is a very powerful marketing tool. Hunter was supplied with a mobile phone with this intent in mind. Since Hunter exudes ‘cool’ the phone company hopes that when other people see him with their brand of mobile phone it is also deemed cool and its popularity spreads (2004, p.4). Through this covert marketing method the phone company exerts alarming power.

According to Bernard consumers can resist the power of advertising by declining to accept what is on offer (1988, p.64) but with covert marketing most consumers do not realise how they are being manipulated and hence often do not see a need to resist. Allen & Anderson (1994, p70) see “the consumption field” as where “individuals and groups seek to maintain or alter the distribution and the various forms of capital”. They are supporting the economic concept of consumer sovereignty where power in the market place supposedly lies with the purchaser, meaning corporations will only continue to produce goods and services that consumers are willing to buy. However, it is the power of marketing that influences consumers as to what they are willing to buy. Simply not buying particular products is an extremely passive form of resistance.

The plot of So Yesterday includes Hunter and Jen becoming amateur detectives as they try to find a missing colleague. Through their detective work they discover a group of people, Jammers, who go beyond the passive resistance of consumer sovereignty by deliberately sabotaging marketing processes. For instance, the Jammers hold a fake magazine launch to play a practical joke on people in the marketing world by turning them purple. The idea is that others will follow in rocking “the whole system: marketing categories, tribal boundaries, all the formations that people get trapped in. Or locked out of” (2004, p.215). The Jammers are attempting to reduce the marketing power of corporations.

In our world today technology has enabled website domains to be provided for no cost in return for banner space where key word detection software automatically selects advertisements related to the topic on the webpage. Technology has also developed so that when a mobile phone is detected in a particular coverage zone an advertisement for a nearby store is messaged to it. In Feed the setting is a small step into the future where instead of having information at fingertips in the form of PCs, Blackberries, i-Phones and the like, the information is fed directly to the brain via a chip installed in the head. Advertising banners no longer flash on internet pages but inside people’s minds. Thoughts can trigger a feed of related information and much of it is advertising. Most of the characters in the novel are dimly aware that the powerful corporations are behind it but are too apathetic to fight the system (2002, p.49). A hacker disrupts their feed and they feel lost without it and as soon as the feed returns everything is normal again, where dependence on the feed system is not questioned (2002, p.84).

Foucault wrote about “the reign of the normative” and how the dominant institutional powers can cause an individual to alter “his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements” to meet the norm (1977, p.304). Feed has an extreme example of institutionalised treatment of someone outside the standard consumption boundaries. Violet resists marketing by deliberately jamming her consumer profile through indiscriminate window shopping so that she will not fit into a particular market segment. Since the Feed Corporation is unable to determine what to sell her it severs her access to help when her feed malfunctions. Her parents had consciously fought the capitalist system and then when they did yield to society’s pressures, so Violet would ‘belong’, they were too late for it to work as effectively as it would have if it been installed when she was younger. The late purchase, the hacker’s attack and the consumer profile jamming eventually led to Violet’s death in an ultimate flex of producer muscle “because she is no longer fit for, nor fits into, her society” (Bullen & Parsons 2007). The Feed Corporation not only had the power to influence or reinforce class status, it played God in determining life or death.

Pierre Bourdieu viewed society as a “multidimensional status game in which people draw on three different types of resources...economic, cultural and social capital” (Holt, 1998, p.3). He included social experience and aesthetic taste as two of several concepts that help to build cultural capital. He also believed that the operation of cultural capital was largely a subconscious process (1984, p.66) but he was writing in 1979 (translated into English in 1984). Today’s youth are more information savvy and increasingly aware of cultural negotiations and thus are “both players and pawns” (Huntley 2006, p.150) in the marketing game.

Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs has levels which people progress through to achieve the final level of self-actualisation. The first level is about meeting the basic physiological needs of food, clothing and shelter. The second is about the need to feel safe. Most of the western world’s population easily have the first two levels met through high living standards brought about by nations’ economic prosperity. The third level is about social needs, including the need to belong, and this is the need marketers tap into.

This social need motivated Hunter in So Yesterday to form his identity through consumption. He moved to New York from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, when he was thirteen years old (2004, p.95) and found he didn’t belong. He then examined what he perceived to be the signifiers of cool, the styles and trends of the hip crowd, “a billion coded messages being sent every day with clothes, hair, music, slang” (2004, p.96) and became such an aficionado he became employed as a trend spotter and trend creator. Bourdieu (1984, p.74) would say he had the economic capital but lacked in some elements of cultural capital. He was able to obtain the knowledge of what to wear and how but he didn’t have the social experience or lineage to know how to negotiate the field.

Jonathan, in The Insiders, had this social experience in spades. He even referred to himself as the social glue that kept the group together (2004, p.7). From the opening chapter it is clear that the Insiders, as a group, are ‘cool’ due to being together since they first started school and that their parents were either friends or did business together (2004, p.7). One of the common threads amongst many of the families was the world of art, a world commonly viewed as an elite activity and prominent in Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984) analysis of cultural capital. Arno’s parents were art dealers (2004, p.20) and Mickey’s Dad a “famous sculptor” whose art Patch’s parents buy (2004, p.34). This knowledge and experience of an art market reinforced the class identity of the Insiders.

The clash of the outsider, Kelli, and the Insiders with their ‘in’ girls, fits with the ‘aesthetic taste’ aspect of Bourdieu’s social theory. Bourdieu (1984, p.57) argued that class distinctions were also made through economic signifiers such as “cosmetics, clothing or home decoration”. Cultural capital often means that the upper class do not need to brazenly display their goods and chattels yet the Insiders portend to be the upper echelon of New York society by dripping with brand names, as analysed by Bullen (2009). Within the Insiders it was obvious that some brands were natural, for instance, they all drank foreign branded beers (Grolsh, Heineken, Stella, Tsingha) whereas Kelli had “a pint can of Miller Lite that she’d bought at the corner store” (2004, p.99), an American beer. Yet Jonathan’s obsession with brand name clothes, and particularly shoes, was not accepted as normal behaviour for the group with Mickey calling him a “freakish clothes-hound” (2004, p.221). Jonathan believed he had so much fashion and music knowledge he mocked the New York Times for its idea of what was fashionable (2004, p.106) and a hip music store for what it declared to be ‘in’ and ‘out’ (2004, p.124). More than the others, Jonathan developed his identity through his consumerism and liked his friends recognising his taste, his individualism, such as when David went shopping with him for guidance “to get some cool clothes” (2004, p.216). “People must always try to acquire new consumption goods in order to distinguish themselves from others” (Trigg 2001, p.101). Consumerism as a form of class distinction is not new. In 1899 Veblen wrote that the “conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure” (1970, p.64).

The Insiders used brands to accentuate their class over others and very consciously mocked Kelli’s clothes such as the “Lick Me” T-shirt (2004, p.241) and associated her with pop culture like Britany Murphy (2004, p.13), a movie star, and Christina Aguila (2004, p.52), a pop singer. “Tastes (i.e. manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference” (Bourdieu 1984, p.56). Jonathan and his friends were able to affirm their social identity through comparison and judgement of the ‘other’ in Kelli through the brands of clothes and alcohol. The distinction in class was made by the various brands’ “code of reputability” (Veblen 1977, p.98).

In conjunction with changes in marketing, economic theory has shifted the emphasis from the supply of economic resources, including labour, to the demand of products (what and how much consumers want). The economic problem has always been about satisfying unlimited wants with limited resources so the focus had been about choosing which products to develop and the opportunity cost of developing one product over another. However, after World War II the western world rapidly changed from an excess of demand where people wanting goods and services weren’t able to obtain them, to an excess of supply where more than enough products are available (Bernard 1988, p.62).

In Feed Violet’s father declares that Americans are only focussed on consumption with no consideration for the production or disposal process (2002, p.290). A good demonstration of this opinion was at Titus’s house where the dishes were incinerated and even the table was disposable (2002, pp.128-129). In The Insiders when Mickey can’t remember where he left his new Vespa he uses a newly issued American Express card to purchase another and then proceeds to smash that one and give it way to a limo driver in return for a lift (2004, p.245).

Veblen identifies two main ways in which an individual can display wealth; through extensive leisure activities and through lavish expenditure on consumption and services. The common thread that runs through both of these types of display is "the element of waste that is common to both.... In the one case it is a waste of time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods" (Veblen [1899] 1994, 85). Being able to engage in such wasteful activities is the key way in which members of the leisure class display their wealth and status (Trigg 2001, p.101).

The ability to purchase, discard and replace objects with ease contributes to the formation of class identity.

It is easier and quicker for governments to influence the economy through its own spending (government demand), or altering the spending of others via tax and interest rates, than to influence the production (supply) side of the economy via long-term spending projects on infrastructure such as transport (roads, railways, ports), education and technological development. In Feed the American government has handed over so much control to firms, supply-sided economic policies are completely neglected so the focus is completely on consumption (consumer demand). SchoolTM is a commercial organisation (2002, p.109), trees are demolished to make way for air factories (2002, p.125) and there are major industrial disasters (2002, p.241). An undercurrent of the story is how the rest of the world criticises the American government. “The Prime Minister of the Global Alliance issued a statement that, quote, ‘the physical and biological integrity of the earth relies at this point upon the dismantling of American-based corporate entities, whatever the cost’” (2002, pp.242-243, italics in original). The short sightedness of governments has added to the shift from worker to consumer. The relinquishing of power to corporations means people are forming their identities more through consumption than work. All three books demonstrate youth are immensely affected by consumerism even before they really commence working life.

Foucault’s “carceral network...with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power (1977, p.304). He might as well have been describing the marketing process. Marketing has become so intrusive in the western world its power and influence has been accepted as part of everyday life. The Insiders further indoctrinates this by normalising the obsession with brands. The Jammers in So Yesterday are treated as subversive elements as they attempt to break society’s acceptance of this norm. The 'us and them' binaries are the acceptors and the resistors of marketing. So Yesterday isn’t necessarily questioning the ideology of capitalism but just one aspect of it that is more observable. The ideology of capitalism is so ingrained that it is mostly accepted in western society that workers need to increasingly aim higher. The marketing process has convinced workers it is through consumption they can become closer to the upper classes. This also serves to make workers labour harder to earn better incomes to be able to spend more, which, ironically, just further indoctrinates the distance from worker to producer because the producer gains the money from the increased consumption and the income distribution gap widens. “Ideology, in this sense, can be understood as the means by which the dominant class disguises the true nature of its relation with subordinate classes and thus helps perpetuate inequality and oppression” (Schirato & Yell 1996, pp.171-172). In the capitalist world marketing acts as a wedge separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’ and oppresses those who cannot afford to keep up with the brand names deemed important in order to belong.

The power of marketing, particularly in its more covert forms of today, has placed increasing emphasis on consumption as a construct of class identity. Resistors such as Violet in Feed have not met much success but the Jammers of So Yesterday offer hope that corporations will not gain complete power through their marketing schemes. Otherwise the brand obsession depicted in The Insiders may become even more pervasive as class determinants and formations of identity.

Reference List

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