Marketplace of (others’?) ideas, Part two

Okay, then, an update on the recent-sh post, titled The Marketplace of (Other Peoples’?) Ideas. Basically this was me thinking out loud about indie creators who feel their work is getting ripped off by big companies, and what if anything can be done about it. Notably:

A prominent theory of Web-thought is that such exposure [of alleged ripoffs, online] ought to spark some kind of response and ideally resolution of the specific instances — and, you would think, a downtick in the number of such instances. And yet it seems routine.

I had a number of private conversations with various folks about this post after it went up. The upshot is as follows. Read more

License to act irresponsibly?

On his blog, Dan Ariely cites recent research that he says has some implications regarding “green” consumption and the idea that one “green” purchase may give us “license” to feel we’ve done our part, we’re off the hook, and we can ignore such considerations in our next action (consumer action or other):

Through a series of experiments, Mazar and Zhong drew the following distinction between two kinds of exposure to green: When it’s a matter of pure priming (i.e., we are reminded of eco products through words or images), our norms of social responsibility get activated and we become more likely to act ethically afterwards. But if we take the next step and actually purchase the green product (thereby aligning our actions with our moral self-image), we give ourselves the go-ahead to then slack off a little and engage in subsequent dishonest behavior.

So in effect, a green purchase licenses us to say “I’ve done my good deed for the day, and now I can focus on my own self-interest.” I gave at the office, I paid my dues, I did my share — that sort of thing. How moral we choose to be at any given moment depends not only on our stable character traits but also on our recent behavioral history.

Forgive me for saying so, but there’s a similar point, based on different (but not that dissimilar) research, in Buying In. I riffed on a paper called  “Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice,” by Uzma Khan and Ravi Dhar, Journal of Marketing Research, May 2006. Here, cut and pasted, are three relevant paragraphs from Buying In:

Members of one group were presented with a straightforward consumer choice: Would they prefer to buy a vacuum cleaner (a utilitarian object) or a pair of jeans (a bit of a luxury), each of which was assigned the same price, $50? About 73 percent chose the more practical product, the vacuum cleaner. Members of the other group, meanwhile, were told to imagine they had volunteered to spend three hours a week performing community service; they could choose teaching children in a homeless shelter or “improving the environment.” They were asked to explain their choice, a process meant to prod them into engaging with the idea. Then they faced the vacuum-cleaner-or-jeans choice. In this group, a majority (57 percent) opted for the jeans.

A similar set of studies indicated that subjects were more likely to splurge on fancier sunglasses or pricier concert tickets after giving to charity. The researchers concluded: “The opportunity to appear altruistic by committing to a charitable act in a prior task serves as a license to subsequently make [the subjects] relatively more likely to choose a luxury item.” In explaining their decisions after the fact, very few subjects made a direct connection between doing a good deed and their subsequent purchase decisions. Evidently, their interpreters helped them come up with other explanations. But the study strongly suggested that doing good in one area of life provided a rationale to worry less about such things in another.

There are many ways to feel you’ve done a good deed—and there are many ways for a consumer to feel ethical. That’s why the previously mentioned LOHAS population seems so huge: This caring consumer can be someone who claims to buy ecological or “green” products or simply to be a consumer of anything from alternative health care to “personal development” offerings, including yoga or “spiritual products and services.” That’s a lot of options for the consumer to buy something and conclude: Hey, I’ve done my part.

Anyway really interesting stuff, I think, and I’m always interested to see research that acknowledges all behavior happens in a context — what we do next is influenced by what we did recently and so on — instead of addressing all consumer decisions as discrete, happening in some kind of vacuum. That’s how experiments work, but it’s not how life works. For more of Ariely’s thoughts see his post.

Starbucks, looking for “personality”

As you may have read, Starbucks is testing out the idea of removing the Starbucks name from some of its locations, remodeling and renaming them, so that they look more like neighborhood coffee places. A Starbucks brand honcho says the idea is to give these locations “a community personality.”

Insofar as these coffee shops remain, in reality, disguised outposts of a ubiquitous multinational, this is obviously a completely synthetic version of “community personality.” It’s reminiscent of the big breweries putting out new brands that look like craft beers, or mass-market clothing brands tweaking product lines to get the “handmade” look, among other examples. In this case it seems that Starbucks sent out some of their experts on this matters to sit around actual local coffee shops to take notes and crib ideas. One Seattle coffee shop owner, such visitors returned many times over the period of a year, toting “obnoxious folders that said ‘Observation.'”

Presumably such detailed ethnographic study is necessary, for the chain’s new indie-simulacrum locations to be sufficiently, you know, authentic.

Immaterialism (2): Some costs

So just I was mulling over the broad subject of immaterialism the other day, I got a note from reader Gladys S. pointing out an London Times story I’d missed that raises a flipside issue. By and large many people think of our many online activities as being largely cost-free — not just in the sense that much of the Web is free, but also in the sense that it seems harmless compared to real-world consumption that entails various ecological and other side effects.

But the article looks at how much carbon dioxide is emmitted by … Google searches.  (As you’ll see includes it includes a clarification after some pushback from Google. I don’t know enough to really comment, you’ll have to decide for yourself.) Nicholas Carr picked up on this, and while he was dubious of the article’s numbers, he does point out that computer use has plenty of real-world consequences, and it’s probably just fine with the Googles of the world if we don’t think about them:

If reducing energy consumption were the company’s top priority, it would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications. It would encourage us to be conscious of the time we spend online — and to try to reduce that time. It might even offer, perhaps as part of the Google toolbar, a little calculator that shows a running estimate of the grams of CO2 we emit during each Internet session. Or maybe it could put a little banner across its home page reading: “Is this search really necessary?”

This in turn reminded me of an earlier Carr post, from back in the heyday of Second Life hype, in which he suggested the massive power required to run that virtual world’s servers meant that the per-capita energy use of a typical avatar was about the same as a typical Brazilian. A comment to his post added that in terms of CO2 emissions, a typical avatar’s yearly output is “the equivalent of driving an SUV around 2,300 miles.” Again, I’ll leave it to you to judge the details of that assertion.

My point here is not to say that immaterialism is a horrible pox upon us all. I’m just noting some critiques which point out it is not as cost-free as it might feel.


In a post back in November, I quoted a little from Robert J. Samuelson Newsweek article in which he more or less drew a link between American materialism, and American self-esteem (this in the context of  the economic downturn that at the time was still coming into full view).

An interesting comment on that post came from reader Jonathan, who essentially said that material goods had already been fading in significance: “Generations Y and X place more value on social capital in establishing their self-esteem, as in how many Facebook friends they’ve got, how their love lives are going, etc. … The Internet provides more opportunity for inexpensive socializing (meetups, parties, conversation).”

While I can think of ways to rebut, or at least question, that assertion, I think the essence of Jonathan’s point is pretty interesting, and it’s stuck with me. I’ve been intrigued by what I guess I’m going to call immaterialism for a while, and I do wonder if there’s a sub-plot here to the question of what sort of consumer culture eventually emerges from this recession.

Here’s some more fodder. I apologize in advance for the long post, but if  you have reactions I’d love to hear them.

Recently, Wired’s Underwire blog, in answering the hypothetical question, “what would you grab if you had just 20 minutes to save the objects in your home that mean the most to you,” replied: My USB drive. Obviously that answer has nothing to do with the  object, but rather with the immaterial data it stores.

Similarly, on a SXSW panel, Tim Brown of Ideo said something about (if I remember this right) the data on his laptop being more important than the physical laptop.

Another variation: A couple of times Consumed I’ve dealth with virtual goods — in this October 16, 2005, column on EverQuest, and this October 1, 2006 column about Second Life. And I’m certainly not the only person to write about that (non)stuff — there are whole books about people making and spending real money in virtual worlds.

And finally: A more recent Consumed dealt with iPhone apps, even silly ones, that consumers will spend money on and presumably value, creating another vibrant immaterial marketplace.

Now, none of that is exactly what Jonathan was talking about.

But … Let’s say you go along with the basic premise that much of the material-object-buying of recent years (decades) is partly explained by consumer desires for more abstract ideas such as individualism, or connection, or progress, or status, and the self-esteem that Samuelson references.

Can these various immaterial offerings serve a similar function? If so, does that have a  broad impact on consumer culture going forward, or does it just become another element of it? And how, in turn, does the recession affect our desires for immaterial goods — spending on stuff in virtual worlds, for instance?How does t

I return to virtual goods in part because I listened to a segment on DNA recently about an architect who has basically moved his practice to Second Life, creating “buildings” there for various clients. In that old EverQuest column, I noted argued that spending a few dollars on an (immaterial) Pristine Teak Strong Box isn’t that different from paying a few dollars extra for a (material) suitcase that happens to carry a luxury brand name: “Paying for the intangible is hardly exotic; most of us do it all the time.”

To take that another step: The immaterial object isn’t made in a dubious factory, and won’t end up in landfill. So maybe it’s even possible to argue that immaterialism channels consumer desires in ways that are, on some level, better.

Which isn’t to say there are no consequences (eco and otherwise) to our digital habits — more on that tomorrow. Because this is way too long.

For now, just sketching out these few thoughts, and curious if  you have any.

Memo to the ad biz…

I have something in The Big Money today: A call to commercial persuasion pros to use their skills on behalf of causes and ideas they believe in — not nonprofit client causes, and not the ideas of socially-responsible-business clients. Their own causes, their own ideas. The piece is here.

It’s pleasing to have something the extended realm of Slate again, after many years.

Mexico Snickers ad appears to be a fairly blatant ripoff

A (new) friend of Murketing passes along an interesting example of the, uh, inspiration for a TV commercial from a big agency. It’s a Snickers ad that ran, as I understand it, in Mexico.

Here is the opening sequence of the 2007 skateboarding video Fully Flared, which features skaters doing various stunts amid concrete ruins — made remarkable by various explosions that occur during and just after said stunts. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s pretty impressive. I gather Ty Evans and Spike Jonze were the principle filmmakers.

Here is the Snickers ad, as posted a few days ago on The Berrics. It features skaters doing various stunts amid concrete ruins — made remarkable by various explosions that occur during and just after said stunts.

You get the idea: Very similar. (Though in the latter, the skaters eat some Snickers bars.)

The Berrics also posts this Smoking Gun-like document which appears to be the pitch & storyboarding for the ad. The agency is BBDO. In case you’re curious what The Berrics’ view is of this, the ad is referred to on their site as “The BBDO Attrocity.”

Perhaps there is more to the story? If not, it does appear pretty blatant and shameless.

Consumption, values, and “do-gooding”

The Economist’s recent(ish) World in 2009 issue included a story about “no-nonsense brands” doing well in 2009, while those “priced for status are likely to suffer.”

This sounds in-line with much of the trend-pontification about the new-and-improved “values” of the 2009 consumer.

But the piece also said this:

Any brand built around do-gooding notions of organic, social responsibility or caring for the environment may need to rethinking, according to Interbrand, a marketing consultancy, as value for money rises up the consumers’ agenda.

Now, I don’t know what exactly Interbrand said. (Couldn’t find anything on their site about it.)

But if this assertion turns out to be correct, I wonder how it squares with the idea of “values.”

My thoughts on the “new thrift” are in this earlier Consumed. My thoughts on the limits of do-gooding sales pitches can be found in the final section of Buying In.

The global meta-murketing of Dove

mk-at656_cugly_d_20081228212535A story in the WSJ yesterday explained that Unilever’s famous “Campaign For Real Beauty” for its Dove products wasn’t working in China, where “women aren’t so bothered by the stunning models used in most beauty ads and aren’t driven to buy products promoted with so-called real faces.” Apparently the multinational has found what it hopes is a solution, by way of “Ugly Betty.” No, they aren’t simply sponsoring the Chinese version of the show — they’ve worked out a deal to basically produce a Chinese version of the show:

In an unusual move, Unilever’s ad-time-buying agency, WPP Group PLC’s Mindshare, brokered a deal to bring the format to Chinese TV, giving Unilever the right to exclusive ads and product placements during the show, as well as a script built around the company’s Chinese reformulation of the campaign for real beauty. …

On “Ugly Wudi,” protagonist Lin Wudi, who works at an ad agency, learns to unveil her own beauty, using Dove products and working on an imaginary ad campaign for the brand. …

In one episode, an actor playing the media director for Dove in China explains that an ad campaign that Wudi helped create epitomizes Dove’s view on beauty. “There are so many kinds of women and so many kinds of beauty,” he says. “This is exactly the message that Dove tries to put forth.”

Ethical shopping tool strives to provide the world’s largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of products and companies.”

Anybody tried this? Any thoughts?

Etsy sales and “handwashing”

I don’t want make too much of this, but it’s interesting that as retail sales and consumer spending have fallen, and, you know, media coverage of the economy has basically devolved into one extended freakout, Etsy says its sales have continued to rise.

  • $7.93 million of goods sold — a 5% increase over August.
  • That represents 544,157 items sold, a 5.3% increase from August’s stats.

Interesting. Etsy’s not exactly positioned as a bargain-hunting site. Maybe all it means is that its in a growth phase, being still relatively small, that would be pronounced in a more optimistic economy. Or maybe it means that “handmade” stuff is holding onto value in consumer minds that more mass goods are not holding onto.

The latter theory reminds me of something I read the other day on the Greenjeans blog, which asked, “Is ‘handwashing’ the new greewashing?” Basically this refers to making stuff look handmade.

I wonder if I didn’t see a hint of the next big marketing trend today on the cover of the graphic design magazine HOW: “Incorporating Handmade Elements.” They actually call it “Design 2.0” suggesting the techie look is out and the handmade look is in.

Greenjeans’ Amy Shaw continues:

I think perhaps because handmade makes us feel safe, and makes huge corporations seem kinder and gentler. And in today’s struggling economy, those companies that can make consumers feel warm and fuzzy will have a huge advantage.

Maybe this helps explain Etsy resilience? If so, then perhaps there’s more “handwashing” to come. . .

Eco extremes

“Their four sons often sleep huddled together to pool body heat.”

That’s from a Times Style section story, referring to a couple going to extremes to reduce their carbon footprint; it’s a trend story kind of thing, about hardcore eco-types.

Some people may view [them] as role models, pioneers who will lead us to a cleaner earth. Others may see them as colorful eccentrics, people with admirable intentions who have arrived at a way of life close to zealotry. To others they come across as “energy anorexics,” obsessing over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree, the way crash dieters watch the bathroom scale.

To me this story made such people seem more or less like a freak show. I wonder about stories like this, if their net impact isn’t to make the whole notion of changing your lifestyle in “green” ways seem like a marginal, vaguely comical pursuit — something other people do.

Optimism v. pessimism again, this time eco-focused

Back in February I had a short post pondering what a bad economy meant for the “green” movement. (Funny, February seems like it was a giddy boom period compared to today, eh?) Two more recent views on that question:

A Marketplace report is largely pessimistic: “Financial Crisis Is Not Eco-Friendly.”

A piece on The Big Money, by Eric Pooley, offers a more optimistic view: “Save the Economy, Save the Planet.”

In lieu of AntiFriday: Clorox Green Works link

Here’s an interesting article from last month’s Fast Company about the endorsement of Clorox Green by the Sierra Club. Writer Anya Kamenetz asks: “With no independent scientific assessment of Green Works products, and with an undisclosed amount of money changing hands, what does that Sierra Club seal on the back of the bottle really mean?”

The answer seems to be that it’s meant a lot of internal dissent at the Sierra Club — and strong sales for Green Works. Good story.

In other news, I’m kind of thinking of not doing AntiFriday anymore. Anybody care? It doesn’t seem to have gained any traction.

Bag it

Interesting story in the WSJ today about trendy reusable shopping bags. These are “the nation’s fastest-growing fashion accessory, with sales this year up 76% to date over last year.”

“Used as they were intended,” the article says, “the totes can be an environmental boon, vastly reducing the number of disposable bags that do wind up in landfills.” In other words, the payoff isn’t in acquiring this particular object, it’s in changing your behavior accordingly. And that’s a lot tougher for people. “At present, many of the bags go unused — remaining stashed instead in consumers’ closets or in the trunks of their cars. Earlier this year, KPIX in San Francisco polled 500 of its television viewers and found that more than half — 58% — said they almost never take reusable cloth shopping bags to the grocery store,” the piece says.

This month at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, marketing professor Baba Shiv dedicated the first day of a weeklong seminar on green marketing to the “road blocks” facing reusable bags. He says it can take “years and decades” for consumers to change their shopping habits, and only when there’s a personal reward or an obvious taboo associated with the change: “Is it taboo yet to be carrying plastic bags? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Shiv also says that according to surveys done by his graduate students, many shoppers say they are less likely to carry a retailer’s branded reusable bag into a competing store. “What these bags are doing is increasing loyalty to the store,” he says.