Brief Tour of Advertising Week 2015: Product Tribes and Thingification

I dropped in on Advertising Week’s big event last week to see what this latest generation of Don and Peggy types were up to. Unlike the tech events I usually attend, I quickly discovered I was massively under-dressed with my Banana Republic jeans and black pullover sweater. I may have been nerd chic, but this crowd looked like the ads they were creating and blasting out to the rest of us.

My favorite part of my short afternoon at AW was listening to Nate Silver and his Five ThirtyEight crew “science”—it’s a verb according to Matt Damon—sthe 2016 election. Unlike the usual political reporting that spins events to fit into a news narrative, Nate & Co. actually look at, you know, past data. And then use that data to try to predict or gauge the likelihood of an event.

So when observing the current Trump spike—really noise in the dataset—one has to keep in mind that in past election cycles there were was similar background static in the form of Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, or say Ross Perot. Donald Trump is just another “show”. Silver also pointed out that Trump has no endorsements while Bush picked up 23 from current members of Congress. And he’s sitting on lots of money that he’s only starting to spend in Iowa. Endorsements and dollars are good predictors for success according to Silver.

This year could be different but the political tree rings tell another story. [Ed.’s note: Boy howdy, Silver and his number crunching was way off the mark.]

Back to Advertising Week. After listening to a few panels, I could see that even at this late date, the Internet and digital media still make companies nervous. Back in the day, there was TV and print, and consumers were told what to think about toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, TV dinners, and shampoo. Nowadays consumers use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr as voice amplifiers that can make their own experience with products go viral.

So it was revealing to hear at least one panelist representing some omnipresent consumer brand saying he hates losing control to outside fans and other “authentic” voices on social media sites, like Tumblr. Another unintentionally insightful moment: a brand ambassador proclaimed during a discussion that it’s just “shampoo we’re talking about”.

I came away from Advertising Week really seeing how commodities take on a life of their own for consumers.  As pointed out by marketing thought leaders, K. Marx and others, consumers engage in commodity fetishism. That’s a fancy way of saying the value we’re getting from a product has little do with its actual use. Products have magical powers and they’re kind of a primitive religion.

We’re not buying a car, we’re buying a Cadillac. Or we not just buying an athletic shirt, we’re buying Under Armour.

In the Neuroscience of Marketing session, the cognitive neuroscientist panelist kept on reminding us that a product can help bridge the gap between where we are and some other goal not necessarily related to the product itself. Sure an athletic shirt soaks up or perhaps lets the perspiration pass through, but wearing Under Armour tells the world you’re part of a tribe that really believes in healthy living through extreme physical activity involving lots of sweat.

In the views of say Adorno, we’re now in the territory of thingification. The shirt object or commodity thing becomes more important than doing the actual fifty push-ups. Theodore Adorno, who fled the Nazis and helped establish the New School of Social Research in NYC, also had some interesting things to say about music and culture—for example, the concert ticket is more important than the actual concert and music experience. And further, we end up relating to each other through our things. Wonder what he’d make of The Grateful Dead?

In any case, I do like the fact that there is a tribe of extreme athletes that can signal each other through their shirts. Kind of balances the tribe of Burger King, TGIF, and Applebee’s, and their religion of saturated fats.