A counterintuitive analysis suggesting that consumers instinctively know more about the value of the signals they are sending than their critics do.
Most books that cover this territory suggest that consumers are mere sheep, blindly led by the insidious forces of capitalism. That assumption, write Quartz (Philosophy and Cognitive Science/Caltech; co-author: Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are, 2002) and political scientist and communications professional Asp, is wrong. The authors’ credentials provide an indication of how much ground they cover, from a variety of perspectives that transcend conventional categorization. Perhaps the key concept concerns self-image as reflected through the perception of others: “The fact that our self-concept draws on how we think others think about us presents a tremendously intriguing possibility,” write the authors. Consumers proceed with an eye toward “how others might think of them with that product: that is, how the product might enhance their social image.” Where the measuring sticks for social image might once have been wealth and conspicuous consumption, the evolution of “cool”—from anti-materialist rejection of the bourgeoisie to dot.com mainstreaming and from bebop to beatnik to rebel to hippie to ironic hipster—has changed the signals and codes that consumers send. It shows how Harley-Davidson has gone from annual sales of around 70,000 in the early 1990s to more than 325,000 in 2005 by seeing its “consumer culture evolve from a hierarchical to a pluralistic one, a ‘mosaic of microcultures,’ ” while sales of minivans plummeted over the same period in favor of SUVs targeting the same market with a different coded message. Quartz and Asp are particularly incisive on the evolution from rebel cool to “Dotcool,” encompassing the embrace of nerdiness and hipster irony as “today’s knowledge worker is valued for his unconventionality, because originality drives innovation,” thus transcending the rebel-cool disdain for “selling out.”
Some points are more provocative than convincing, but the authors put a lively spin on an age-old argument.