The Allure of Affectations

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now. Oh you know what Bill is doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. — Bill Hicks

From the redundant refulgence of television commercials to the annoyingly tiresome click bait on the internet, today’s sales and marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to life as it could be … if only we purchased the advertised products. The message is implicit and often explicit: You are inadequate without what we have to offer. Fulfillment is only a credit card transaction away, and your self-esteem will be noticeably improved. Consumer behavior research has demonstrated that people experience a welcome hit of dopamine whenever an object of desire is purchased, and the frequency of purchasing usually increases whenever a person feels a compromised sense of agency. Appealing to our personalities, our sense of style, our interests, and our ideal self involves applied psychology as much as it involves the art of misplaced innovation. It seems we are becoming more and more of what we own as it slowly begins to own us.

The experimental psychologist Bruce Hood, among others, has brought attention to the unique value people place on objects in a research article entitled Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects. The peer-reviewed work explores the hypothesis that individualistic cultures (such as the U.S.) place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons.¹ A curious aspect of consumer culture is the disproportionate interest it places on items if it’s believed they are associated with important, unique, or famous people. Likewise, mere association represents a powerful illusion that we are sharing in the experience of being socially unique. As Carl Jung described with his archetypal concept of the mana personality, anyone that seems to transcend the banality of daily experience might as well be seen as “a little more than human.” Based on what modern psychology has revealed regarding attachment theories and object relations, it’s clear that people living in individualistic cultures value feeling significant. Likewise, material objects have symbolic value that promises acknowledgment and social inclusion while provoking feelings of special status.

I happen to be a stubborn curmudgeon when it comes to being soft on consumer materialism—reminding myself of Chuck Palahniuk’s famous line made popular by the character Tyler Durden: “You are not your khakis.” However, for the sake of further levity, I will say that consumer materialism is for blinkered vulgarians, but it never hurts to own at least one good suit. While it’s true that ownership of an object can bring great meaning to our lives, and many objects are considered practical necessities, ownership is not always a means to an end as much as the end itself. The anticipation of possession often overrides the goal of what was to be accomplished upon acquisition of the object (e.g., I will do something or be someone spectacular when I get this or that). The carrot and stick motif plays out endlessly as interests and desires shift throughout our lifetime. Subsequently, to “covet thy neighbor” is a consequential side-effect of living in an industrialized society when inequality of possession is universally conspicuous.

There is, however, another way to manufacture desire that is more subtle and pernicious than encouraging the possession of non-essential consumer goods. This is what I call the allure of affectations. Marketing can indulge narcissistic tendencies in the salesperson under the auspices of presenting an “exceptional” product or exclusive ideology. Furthermore, if someone has established themselves as socially important, the attractiveness of that person usually includes multiple accoutrements for creating and sustaining their mystique. Confidence quickly becomes implied superiority achieved through acting a certain way or obtaining a superficial demeanor that signifies eminence. Certain aspects of dress, posture, and language differentiate the luminary from mere mortals. You must respect the great guru, become enamored with the celebrity, and defer to the master. Gawking credulity, demanded in some circumstances, practically ensures that respect will most certainly be a one-way street; meanwhile, asymmetrical abuses of power are only one submissive gesture of acquiescence away. Whatever happens, remain predisposed. Says who? Says the incomparable person, and a handful of minions eager to reaffirm that person’s professed prestige. Equal-opportunity deference usually involves a suspension of critical faculties coupled with a propensity toward self-abnegation.

Arrogance is not competence, and arrogance under the guise of competence is never a virtue. A demonstration of proficiency should be all the marketing needed if a person’s claims are genuine, and evidence of content is ultimately what justifies a product.

1. Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects (Nathalia L. Gjersoe; George E. Newman; Vladimir Chituc; Bruce Hood) PLOS One, published: March 21, 2014. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0090787.