The Power of a Brand
If you watch too much television, you might get the idea that crime is fed by aspirational goods, the things you can’t afford, like Swiss gold watches, Italian sports cars, guns plated in unalloyed metals, and what not. You’d be half right, but only because you’d be working with an overly sexy stereotype of criminals. Aspirational goods are a motivation for crime, but you’d be wrong if you’re looking for examples of these goods in the first class lounge. As it happens, laundry detergent is so effective as an aspirational good that it’s not just something people will scrimp for, but it can even work as the currency people scrimp.
Okay, so that’s not entirely accurate. Not just any laundry detergent will do. If you want to buy some rock, it’s gotta be Tide. Here’s where things get fascinating. There’s apparently a wave of shoplifting going on in the US directed at Tide laundry detergent because it’s coveted enough that people will accept it in drug transactions, or it can at least be quickly fenced for some quick cash. There’s a whole economy with all kinds of economic reasoning that’s grown up around it. As the article describes, junkies prefer stealing Tide to more compact and higher value items, like electronics or jewellery, because it tends to count as shoplifting rather than theft, giving them access to cash – or even a form of cash directly – with lower penitential risk. There are dealers who will accept the Tide directly as specie, and there are also brokers who will exchange the Tide for ‘real’, i.e. government-issued, currency.
Before we synthesize this information, let’s analyse it. The (short) article is a fascinating study in how brands are erected, maintained and perceived. Wanna know what an aspirational good is? Proctor & Gamble chooses the scents in Tide to cover up the astringent smell of the actual cleaning agents, yes, but also to create ‘an instantaneous mood of being happy’. Feeling down and feeling down about feeling down? Do a load of whites. Had a bad day at work or feeling worthless after half a day on Facebook? Got it covered: “The goal … is to turn clothes-washing into more than a to-do; it’s being a good parent, a good person.” In case you’re one of the many for whom success is measured by bank balances and price tags, Tide is a way for the working man to splurge: “being able to afford Tide laundry detergent is seen as a sign of success”. That’s aspiration. There’s some lingering, barely conscious dissatisfaction with life, and the brand soothes the need. It doesn’t change anything about you or your life, but it gives you a yardstick, a way to make you think you’ve got at least that far. It lets you think you’re better than you know you are.
The parallel with the drugs it’s used to buy is also worth a thought or two. An instantaneous mood of being happy? How else do you get that? And notice that, like with drugs, it’s not a lasting happiness, as you would get if you had finally achieved that goal you’ve been working towards for months. It comes instantaneously, and it lasts only until the first mustard stain or B.O.-inducing trot up the stairs. Although I’m inclined to think that fMRI results are akin to observational astronomy in that they provide tons of information at ever greater levels of detail but remain completely orthogonal to the actual questions of interest, the article even draws the parallel via cortexes lighting up, if you go for that sort of thing: “When shoppers are exposed to a brand they identify with, their ventral medial prefrontal cortex [or was that cosmic background radiation? – GF] lights up – the same part of the brain associated with reward recognition in drug users. That neural pathway may have helped our ancestors remember, say, which plants were safe to eat or when a tribal marking meant a clan was worth avoiding. [assuming that having watched uncle Ook keel over after puking out his liquefied spleen or getting brained by 2nd cousin Drog was a forgettable experience, but that's a rant for another decade – GF]“.
But remember that these political economic, criminological, emotional, and neural effects are not caused by anything so general as just feeling clean or looking good; they’re products of a specific product, and that product is exactly Tide. Gain, Ariel, Cheer, Persil, or those funny Indian laundry nuts won’t do; it has to be Tide. All of these clean using the same kinds of surfactants and enzymes, which are just long carbon chains that are polar at one end and non-polar at the other or a kind of protein. There is no voodoo in the chemistry. It’s all in your head.
And make no mistake, because those pushing the brand aren’t. None of this is accidental. How do the folks at P&G feel about all this? “It’s unfortunate that people are stealing Tide …, but the one thing it reminds me of is that the value of the brand has stayed consistent.” Get that? The fact that it’s worth stealing reinforces the brand, and this doesn’t just apply to the junkies. How many of them do you think read New York magazine? But it gets to you. You value jewellery more because you know you have to lock it up to keep it safe from the junkies. That risk reinforces its value to you, and its value to you reinforces its aspirational quality to them. And this is deliberate, by design. You could call it a conspiracy, but it’s not even secret. Those who maintain this brand brag about their prowess: “Some people … might think the brand doesn’t understand you. Of course we understand you.” And it doesn’t matter. The matrix can be totally open about the terms of the deal because they know you’ll buy it anyway.
It seems odd that something could function as currency without being officially declared as money, doesn’t it? It just seems so arbitrary. But all currency works that way. Given a slight change in the laws, the drug economy could work with currency based on name-brand razor blades, which are apparently also favourite shoplifting targets. Drugs themselves can work as currency. You can use them to buy sex just about everywhere. Cigarettes, which are just a drug whose lobby has better lawyers, are often used as currency and often have a more stable value than ‘real’ money.
In fact, there’s a difference between drugs and razor blades being used as money versus paper money and coins that are officially declared to be money. The drugs and razor blades are fiat money, which is good for nothing. The only thing that gives it any weight in the world is having the local big shots declare it to be money and putting a picture of the queen on it (it’s a Commonwealth thing). That’s it. In addition to buying protection or sex, you can smoke a cigarette or crack. Hell, you can even play a game with marbles. What else can you do with banknotes?
Now those of you who’ve learned economics from Ron Paul’s election platform are probably thinking something along the lines of “Yeah, but in the good ol’ days money was backed by gold! That gave it value.” But that’s silly. Why gold? Why not beryllium? Gold is Tide! Gold only had the status it did because of the brand that was built up around it. (Those of you who think that people only became susceptible to brands since mass consumption became a thing should think carefully about gold and other brands we’ll get to in a second.) Unless you’re looking for electrical connectivity or chemical inertness, which nobody really cared about until pretty recently, gold is a terrible metal. It’s soft and it’s heavy; the strength to weight ratio isn’t much better than pudding.
But there is something interesting about gold and Tide compared to fiat currencies. Real fiat money relies on some recognized authority declaring the thing’s status as money. Nobody ever really did that with gold. Instead of having their value based on (supply/demand)+authority, commodity currencies are based strictly on sign value. Magic beans. That’s it.
Okay, so we’re almost there. Tide works as currency because it’s a viable brand, and somebody concocted it for that purpose. Currency works as currency because somebody concocted it for that purpose and maintains it as a viable brand. The only real difference is whether the chicken preceded the egg or vice versa in the first instance, but once the process is rolling, it runs itself.
Last question: if you’re taking your cues from Authorities as to what’s valuable, do you even care about the authorities? I don’t mean do you care in the sense of just being able to say you do, but do you have a good reason to be attached to one or the other? Is your commitment to this Power any deeper than your commitment to Tide? I doubt it.
Notice that the weird thing about both fiat currencies and commodity currencies is their arbitrariness. TPTB set bills and coins as money, but they could just as well be buttons and marbles. The junkies are using Tide, but they could just as well be using razor blades or even a different freaking brand of detergent. There’s nothing inherent in any of this, but the attachment persists. Is your attachment to your government, the Big Authority that keeps your green green, any different? Sure, there’s probably a pretty big difference between your government and North Korea, at least if you’re reading this. But there’s a big difference between using Tide and nitroglycerin. There is not, however, a big difference between Tide and Gain, and there probably isn’t a very big difference between your government and Britain’s or Switzerland’s or India’s or Ghana’s or Brazil’s. Attached to your 2nd amendment? How much do you actually use your gun, and of those uses, how much do you actually need it? And trust me, anybody who really needs a gun for their daily bidness in Sao Paolo has one … or seven. Attached to your universal healthcare, you cuddly Canadian? What? You think sick Germans, who have to buy health insurance, are left to die in the street if they miss payments? These differences are more like Tide vs. Gain than Tide vs. the moons of Saturn.
The twisted thing is that junkies are only risking criminal prosecution for realizing their odd affiliation to the Tide brand, but people, even sober(ish) people commit crime. Remember: “Some people … might think the brand doesn’t understand you. Of course we understand you.”