But once you've spent the money, once you've got the personality-appropriate appliance or watch or handbag, how much good are these signals actually doing you? Not much, Dr. Miller says. The fundamental consumerist delusion, as he calls it, is that purchases affect the way we're treated.
The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It's no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?
Sidebar: people may not remember the exact items that their partner, friend, or whoever, was wearing the day before yesterday, but they sure do remember if the person was dressed like an emo, a yuppie, a redneck, and so on. Ditto for brand of watch or car -- "What was he driving? I dunno, a Jetta, I think -- or maybe it was a Prius. Well, one of those girly yuppie-mobiles, anyway." We ignored what the consumer item said about the individual's personality and used it to shoehorn him into membership in this or that social group.
It's not clear that the sole or primary function of branding is to signal to others what traits you have (Miller argues that they are signals of intelligence levels and personality traits). In fact, if we assume that everyone isn't a complete moron -- I know, but just go with me for a moment here -- maybe there's a better reason for branding, and that what's wrong-headed is our guess about the function of branding.
The simple explanation is that branding serves to mark members of ethnic groups (broadly construed). In this way, the logos on their clothing, the decals on their car windows, etc., are just pieces of a composite of markers that include non-consumerist choices such as what accent or which slang words to use. They allow people to quickly and faithfully tell who belongs to which group. Why humans care so much about Us vs. Them is an orthogonal question -- the point is that we are hyper-vigilant about in-group / out-group status. So, obviously something that lets us figure that out fast and with little error will benefit all involved.
These markers may have some understandable basis when they start out -- as when the more menacing groups wear clothes that look more like suits of armor, while the sanguine groups wear softer and lighter clothing. Then again, it could have started out with no basis other than the group members' wishful thinking -- "this is what badass people wear!", even if they were actually quite wimpy.
But social psychologists have shown that you can divide a group into two sub-groups arbitrarily, and you'll still end up with strong inter-group hostility. The most famous example of this is the Eagles and the Rattlers, two groups of pubescent boys who attended an outdoor camp that turned into Lord of the Flies in short order. (Still, there were some tasks that muted the hostilities, such as having to work together to neutralize a common threat.) It doesn't matter that they were boys -- if they had been girls, replace "Lord of the Flies" with "Heathers" or "Mean Girls." Again, in these movies, the preoccupation with brands is to keep one's own group members in line and to keep out everyone else.
You can even show them that the split is arbitrary by flipping a coin, and that doesn't matter. Most adults forget their childhood and adolescence, but you must remember when the teacher split up the class by counting students: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, .... , OK, all the 1's over here, 2's over there..." Even though you had to sit through a solid minute or two of proof that the grouping was arbitrary, that didn't change the fact that you all had 1's tattooed on your chests, and that you were going to mop the floor with anyone with a 2, 3, or 4 on their chest.
Hell, your best friend could have been a 2 -- but that was just tough luck for him, since after all you were a 1 now. And that cute girl who you'd like to impress close-up -- well, if she happened to get a 2, she might as well have rejected you outright, the whore. All the more reason to show no mercy to those fucking 2's!
So, a narcissistic obsession with broadcasting their intelligence and personality is not the reason that teenagers, or anyone else, are so crazy about brands. (Which they are, btw: Abercrombie & Fitch created the spin-off Hollister store to cater to teenagers in order to keep them out of the more college-oriented Abercrombie & Fitch stores. Someone with the company told the WSJ that their research had shown that teenagers craved logos more than college students.)
Instead, teenagers are so neurotic about brands because they are in the most tumultuous stage of their social lives -- groups of friends form and disband within a few years, especially during middle school, unlike the longer lasting relationships that adults have with each other. When social life often seems like a game of musical chairs, of course you want a simple way to keep track of who belongs to which group at the moment. Parents -- that is, adults who are still somewhat in touch with young people -- are reminded of this extreme social volatility when they eventually give up on keeping track of who their kids' friends are:
"So, are you going to the mall with Hayley today?"
"i mean, omigod mom, are you freakin' kidding me? i stopped being friends with hayley like two weeks ago."
"But you just started hanging out with her only three months ago..."
"yeah well it's not my fault she's a stupid bitch who thinks she's hot when she's like totally not."
Now that poor Hayley has been banished from the clique, she'll probably have to throw out most of her wardrobe and buy a bunch of new junk in order to fit in with the next clique that lets her join. Didn't you too dress like a hip-hop thug in sixth grade, shift shapes into a grunge rocker in eighth grade, only to end up in preppier clothes in high school? You're not signaling your changing personality (not that it couldn't be changing, of course) -- you're signaling your changing group membership.
Adults do this too, obviously, although the volatility is not so high, and thus the obsession is not so great. But when a conservative stay-at-home mom moves into a liberal yuppie area, assuming she can't find anyone else like herself, she may start dressing, talking, and shopping like her neighbors. Again, this isn't a reflection of some huge change in her personality, but of her new membership in the greater tribe of liberal yuppies.
Well, you get the idea. There's plenty more detail to consider here, but the point remains: if our hypothesis about why people behave the way they do makes it look like they're from outer space, we should consider alternative hypotheses that humanize them. In this case, obsession with brands is not mostly about signaling how an individual differs from other individuals (in intelligence, personality, etc.), but rather what ethnic group that individual belongs to. It's only one part of the larger composite of ethnic markers, many of which have nothing to do with hyper-tailored consumer options -- for example, accent and type of slang. Teenagers do not obsess more than adults about brands due to greater narcissism, but because there is a greater need to quickly and faithfully keep track of group membership at their age.
In short, when deciding on which slang words to use, which brand of clothes to wear, what fast food places to eat at, etc., most people are not thinking, "What will this say about my personality and lifestyle?" but instead, "Are they gonna think I'm a goth / yuppie / etc.?"