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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.

Tide: overruling kings since 1028

 

Analysis

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.

So that’s what they mean by ‘amour-propre’!

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.

Synthesis

The Agent Smith training manual

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 commodity money, which means that these things have some use, some value, beyond being mere specie. ‘Real’ money is just 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?

Eureka! Conservative MILF porn.

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 supply/demand. So whereas Tide and gold are worth however much people, in their confused but decentralized little heads, think is right, fiat money, i.e. the money in your pocket, gets a bonus by the authority’s sanction. But that authoritative declaration comes first. If nobody had told you that scraps of cotton-linen blend in green were worth something, they’d be worthless, but once the Big Authoritative voice thunders down from the mountaintop that they’re valuable, you’re in. And only now does supply/demand kick in. If you doubt the power of Authority in prompting you, ask yourself why all the bills in your pocket, regardless of the domination, are exactly the same size and weight, yet a 1$ bill is worth only 1% of a 100$ bill. And before you start talking about scarcity, stop. You’re just repeating stuff you heard somewhere. You have no idea how many 5$ or 20$ bills are in circulation, and you don’t care. Just like you have no idea how much gold is out there, because all you need to know for an investment is the trend, and the trend just depends on what everyone else thinks is valuable. It’s not scarcity; it’s sign value. Magic beans. That’s it.

Two (!) different dollar signs. Seems legit.

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.

Faded colours? Uh, call it “minimalist” and charge 25% more.

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 are willing to fight, die, and sometimes kill based on the colours of the piece of cloth waving outside certain buildings, or who collects rent for which buildings in the desert, i.e. which brand is better. Just like the theft of Tide makes it seem more valuable, the fact that people you can identify with have sacrificed for your authoritative brand makes it seem more worthwhile. People have died to protect it, so it must be the most valuable thing there is. Better guard it carefully. Spare no expense. And the people who profit from you buying into the brand know what they’re doing and how to foster your attachment. They play with your aspirations for emotional attachment, making you ready to commit crime. Remember: “Some people … might think the brand doesn’t understand you. Of course we understand you.”

“Works every time.”

Categories: Communications & Media Studies, Current events, Long Form, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Social Science.

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16 Responses

  1. What’s with the “Oh, I know a lot and I’m hip, you the reader, you the typical mediatized consumer, you know shit, so listen carefuly while I enlighten you” tone?

  2. There’s something that I’ve always been meaning to ask you. This branding aspirational push has always been known as consumerism. Yet, isn’t it mercantilism as well? Do the names actually make a difference, or is it merely branding again?

    When you talk about Gold as branded value even before the 20′s boom, wouldn’t that already have been a ‘manufactured’ push?

    Am I making sense or am I just really confused?

  3. I’m a little annoyed with this post. Brands are bad because they play off their inherent arbitrarity? The language I speak is just as arbitrary as the brand of detergent I buy or the type of currency I use because absolutely everything we do is arbitrary! I’d have to agree with sphynx in saying you were using this post simply as an attempt to flaunt your knowledge and ideas, not apply them for a real purpose.

  4. I think that wasn’t what GuyFox meant at all. I think his point was that Tide as a brand is not arbitrary – that’s why ‘junkies’ specifically steal Tide.

    He never mentioned that currency is better because it isn’t arbitrary, neither did he mention of it’s goodness.

    Brands are bad because nobody sees them as brands. That was his point.

  5. Thanks for the comments, folks. As for the tone, point taken. The second-person singular is what *you* get as a result of effort to avoid a sterile, pretentious, academic style, whether on the social sciencey or cultural criticismy side of things. Yeah, there’s probably a less condescending register for prose that alive but not school-marmy. But I’m sure that whatever point didn’t apply to you couldn’t speak to you and, consequently, couldn’t offend you.
    As for the content, yes, there are some pretty disparate concepts here, and they need not be connected just this way. Going from junkies shoplifting Tide to nationalism is not the most direct route. But it’s a possible route, and putting these unfamiliar things together might help to show similarities that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. Whether that is the case or not depends on who’s doing the interpreting. As to what I really meant, well, think of the piece as an interpretation generator. What I meant is not as important as what you make of it.

  6. ‘Manufactured push’? If you mean that the desire for gold was artificially and deliberately stimulated, then when and by whom? As I understand it, ‘mercantilism’ means countries trying to screw others by pushing their exports with beggar-thy-neighbour tariff policies, which is ‘inefficient’ and way against the categorical imperative, but I see it a lot apparently used to mean something else. I don’t know what you mean by it.
    Names matter because of the connotations they make or avoid. People react differently depending on whether you call it ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or ‘breaking a perfectly good planet’. In many cases, the name is going to be just an aspect of the brand, but as we’ve seen, that doesn’t mean people will be indifferent to it.

  7. That is exactly my question, because the impression I get is that gold was gold not by supply/demand but through branding in the olden ways. My question is then how and what did it?

    When you say you’re going to dig deeper into this, do you mean that you’re trying to check the psychology of ‘consumerism’? I don’t seem to be sure there’s another way out of this, and I’d be interested to know your ideas.

  8. Speaking purely for myself, when I write to “you” in this way, it means that I have caught myself thinking that way and I think it could possibly apply to others.

    If you’ve ever read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, you might be put off by how insulting he is to “you” unless you realize that he was writing the whole thing to himself and not for anyone else (or for publication for that matter).

  9. Well, there’s another key aspect of the brand Tide as well — one you might not know about unless you frequent certain kinds of laundrymats, and hang around with your eyes and ears open while your laundry washes and dries.

    The kinds of guys who are stuck running those places day to day — hanging around, fixing the machines that get screwed up, doing other people’s laundry for money (invariably straight cash) — will tell you: There’s all the other detergents, and then there’s Tide.

    It’s not really about the scent — it’s about the fact that you can rely upon it, and you can even use a bit less of it compared to the other brands — at least as far as they’d say. I suppose they’d know — and I’ve heard and overheard that verdict about Tide now at a number of places in different states.

  10. mackytrajanJanuary 13, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    When GuyFox says You, he isn’t talking about You the reader who is naive and stupid and is now getting an earthshattering lesson from the master, so please don’t take it that way.

    It’s meant as an encompassing form of us as a whole, of us as a system.

  11. mackytrajanJanuary 13, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    It just happens to be that You is more jarring.

  12. Nope, it’s possible that Guy does come off as snarky. It’s just that we’re … used to it.

  13. Funny. I’ve heard and overheard that greenbacks have stable value despite the fact that minting a trillion dollar coin to sop up liquidity is apparently a thing. Also, ask yourself what the margin is on Tide compared to generics or cheaper brands. If the margin is higher on Tide, and given that it even has *street value* you can bet that it is, don’t be surprised when the Guy selling detergent tells you it’s the best.
    Besides, that belief is kind of the trend I’m talking about. Don’t know, but ‘they’ say so, so it’s gotta be true.

  14. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that because we ascribe meaning to things, those things are “in reality” worthless. IE: Tide, gold, paper money. It’s not that they have value, hence we believe in them–it’s the other way around. Our belief in these items leads to their value.

    But that does not mean that they don’t have value “in reality.” That value is authentic Your viewpoint seems to promote the dissolution of these arbitrary system by showing their unreality.

    You extend your argument to things like countries, and I think that is where I disagree with you. People will fight and die for scraps of cloth, just because others have? It’s just some weird things that humans value, but in reality is worthless, right? But it’s not. You mentioned various governments, Canada, Germany, and at one point compared the USA and N. Korea.

    Sure, all of these things are just artificial constructions made by man, but I would seriously rather live in the USA than N. Korea. Why is that? I’d say it’s because those artificial patterns and systems of government matter. There are higher level systems and lower level ones, and you know what? These systems that we have created positively or negatively affect our well being. Artificially manufactured by man: yes. Affect reality: yes.

    If you can accept that these social constructions are real and have varying degrees of value, then suddenly it does not seem so strange to die for them. To defend a higher level system (Britain) against a lower level system (N. Korea) would be just. The system has benefited all (most), and it needs bodies to keep it running and protected from external threats. Why not die for it?

  15. There’s a difference between valuing a thing and ascribing meaning to it. One of the nifty aspects of the concept of sign value is that there is value without meaning. So yeah, I’m denying these things have meaning, but I’m not denying that people value them and act based on them with real consequences.

    As for your preference to live in Britain as opposed to N. Korea, allow me to quote myself:

    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.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with you about the evaluation in this case. Now tell me why, if universal health care au NHS is a good thing, why it’s only a good thing for Brits, or why something like political asylum is something anybody should even have to apply for. I’m not so much questioning the premise that some things are better and some worse; I’m just questioning the principles on which we distinguish these things from each other.

    Thanks for engaging.

Got insight?

Continuing the Discussion

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