We buy, therefore we are. We are consumers, targets, groups, classes; we are persuaded, charmed, moved; we are products ourselves. With a few decades since the golden age of advertising, it´s ordinary today to witness a constant loop of commodification of desires, wants, and needs. As critic Naomi Klein puts it, “successful corporations must produce brands, as opposed to products.” This standard, now having circulated in popular culture for over 30 years, has indeed become the norm: products in themselves make for weak arguments in a “why buy it” type of discourse. What moves the target of advertising from receivers of commercial message to buyers is the added value, the soul and voice of the brand, the meaning that transcends function, and serves an elevated purpose.
With recent expansions of life into digital realms, the category of “consumer” is being redefined, to include followers alongside buyers, and to chase a new form of reaction to advertising – sharing. As, allegedly, a precursor to buying, sharing is both consumption and a form of self-commodification: to share is to advertise one´s own choice, to endorse, and mimic the advertiser´s position. In this, sharing is a short-lived, nonetheless enticing, form of power, which turns followers and social media target groups into a special breed of consumers – aware, confident, even proud, the kind that know their tweets can easily bring down expensive marketing campaigns. Social media made the production of content, as opposed to product, absolutely necessary, and success is now measured in the capacity to incorporate values that resonate with an increasingly demanding and sharp audience.
It´s yet to be decided that social media following translates into revenues, but many brands seem to have moved from chasing this, and towards catering to followers as consumers by treating images of their brand as products in themselves, chasing ever-growing visibility, often for its own sake. Needless to say, visibility is a double-edged sword, in a world where most Twitter accounts essentially play the role of self-appointed watchdogs. The recent image disaster suffered by Clarks Shoes UK speaks to the clash between the commodification of the experience of buying and that of more abstract values: if the now-infamous sexist shoe design responded probably to research (accurate or not) on their target customers, the social media backlash was prompted by values of consumers of social media images, most probably a category far larger, yet irrelevant in terms of buying intention, than that of their customers.
Emotions are historically associated with advertising, but content deployed across social media redirects vectors of influence, allowing users to experiment with a more democratic form of engaging with brands as consumers. In this, the leap from affective response to sharp criticism is clear, with a hybrid of the two becoming the norm. This overwriting of emotion by critical input is part of why the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial failed to be this generation´s Coke Hilltop ad. That, and admittedly a bad concept.
Advertising, therefore, has come far from being a by-product. It is a legitimate entity, in which the aesthetic and narrative processing of affect alone is no longer enough. Advertising is now held accountable from social, cultural, and political points of view, with armies of Twitter users ready to interpret, decode, and react. We tweet, therefore we are.
Words: Elena Stanciu