Sunday, November 2, 2008

Products have no meaning of their own. Rather they are given meaning by cultural context. This culture is formed largely through branding and advertising.

In a consumeristic society cost plays an important role in the meaning of a product. Cost is driven by both actual value: price of materials and production, and by perceived value. So while there is actual value differences among products the cost difference is not always a function of that. For example, Advil brand ibuprofen and CVS brand ibuprofen differ only in that Advil has a sugar coating; a minimal actual value difference. The price difference, however, is greater than the actual value difference because Advil is a name brand. A name brand can charge more because they are known and at the same time appears to be a better product because it is more expensive. This works on a larger scale as well. For example a Maserati is ten times as expensive as a Toyota but the actual cost is not that different. The reason cost affects the meaning of a product is accessibility. If a product is largely inaccessible it is more desirable and therefore turned into a symbol of status and power as in the case of a car or at very least it is made to appear more reliable, as in the case of Advil. Of course this perceived worth of products has to do with more than just price; consumers are also being told what to think.

Through advertisement a company takes whatever product they are selling and gives it artificial meaning largely through context and tone. A certain razor blade is made appealing to men because it is being used by a muscular model being ogled by a scantily clad woman. A certain computer is made attractive to young people because its spokesperson wears cool clothes and makes fun of old stodgy people. If the advertising is effective in creating meaning and value for their product then people will buy it. In some cases it is bought by the people who fit the stereotypical user group ieg the young person buys the “young person computer” because they are young. Sometimes the buyer does not fit that user group but has a desire to fit and therefore buys the product eg the “old stodgy person” buys the “young person computer” because they want to appear young. Advertising is reliant on people identifying with or aspiring to certain stereotypes. Products receive meaning when they are purchased with the intent of fitting a mold.

Though it is mostly popular culture that decides the meaning of products through advertising and branding, consumers do have some agency. Usually this agency occurs in small subcultures. For example mountain biking, a now multi-billion dollar industry, began with a small group of people in California who liked to ride their bikes off road. Agency is also seen in art culture, where outdated fashions are altered to create something new, and box fans are made into sculpture. But this is not the norm.

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