I feel, therefore I buy

Neuroscience has put the last nail in the coffin of the rational consumer.
Efrat Tseëlon | Jun 15 2011 | comment  

Efrat TseelonOne does not have to view many catwalks, billboards or television ads to grasp that fashion is a project driven increasingly by the emotions. So much greater, then, is the need to shine the light of reason on the fashion world in order to lead it back towards the standard of taste. This was the aim of the Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar held at the University of Navarra in Spain last month under the umbrella of the project Emotional Culture and Identity (CEMID) of the Institute for Culture and Society and cosponsored by the Social Trends Institute.

In a presentation entitled “The Myth of the Rational Consumer”, Efrat Tseëlon, cultural theorist and Chair of Fashion Theory at the University of Leeds, noted the importance of the emotions in marketing research. Participant Adela Lo Celso, a Professor at the Universidad Austral in Argentina, took the opportunity to interview Professor Tseelon and their conversation follows.


You have spoken about "The Myth of a Rational Consumer" - what do you mean by that?

The separation between “emotional” and “rational” as distinct forms of the human being has a pedigree that runs through Greek philosophy and Enlightenment philosophy, the 19th century post industrial revolution ideology of separate spheres (feminine domesticity; masculine world of work), to 20th century psychoanalysis. It is a convenient tool of social control that operates by defining people’s destiny as bound by their body. The 20th century saw the relationship between these two dimensions undergoing significant changes. Freud’s psychoanalysis reduced rationality to a rationalization built on the back of an emotional unconscious core.

In marketing, this approach led to the conspiracy theories in the style of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which suggested that once the consumer’s underlying motives are unearthed, they can be manipulated into buying whatever the marketers want to sell them. These ideas were put to use by Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, and with the work of Ernest Dichter, the father of motivational research.

Sociological, social cognitive and economic theories, on the other hand, developed a model which put at its core a rational social actor and decision maker who seeks to be well informed, and who weighs information before reaching a logical and reasonable conclusion. This formed the basis of information campaigns for public health, or for risk communication that emphasized an informative, factual and rational discourse.

Over the last decade the attention of consumer behaviour research has been increasingly extended to cover emotional and experiential marketing, moving from the traditional focus on rational product characteristics, or brand image, towards a focus on more holistic explanations which include other sensory experiences. This is evidenced in the rise of experiential retail and marketing which privileges “the consumer experience” -- added value beyond the functional transaction.

In the first years of the 21st century cognitive neuroscience research has drawn attention to two interesting phenomena. First, rather than being two separate systems, the rational brain and the emotional brain are interdependent and specialize in different types of activities. The rational brain (cortex), which is the youngest system in evolutionary terms, operates in long-term decisions where there is time to collect evidence. The emotional brain which is in the limbic system (brain stem, amygdale) had hundreds of millions of years to evolve and is exquisitely refined to be able to make snap decisions on the basis of very little information.

Second, even in the rational decision making, emotional input is critical. In fact, without it as Jonah Lehrer says “the brain cannot make up its mind”.

These new developments in neuroscience have brought us a new branch of “neuromarketing” which finally puts the last nail in the coffin of “the rational consumer”. Neuroimaging studies found, for example, that cigarette warnings, instead of scaring the consumer by providing risk information, had in fact stimulated an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (“the craving spot”). Not only did they encourage instead of discouraging the consumer to smoke, when asked whether warning labels worked, smokers checked off “yes”.

Thus neuroscience ushers in a whole new revolution in the understanding of human reasoning and action and their relationship to emotion.

In what sense can we speak about the "consumer author"? Could you illustrate that concept?

The consumer-author is a concept coined by Francisco Morace (in a book by that name) from the Milan based trend research agency Future Concept Lab. According to FCL analysis, mass consumption has caused a backlash which is expressed in a “return to basics” and a preference for creative goods (like craftsmanship objects) or at least ones in which the consumer has an input, either in the form of partly designing them (as in the customisation of fashion products one buys online) or in participating in activities that create them (from cooking demonstrations at concept stores, to open source products where the users are part of the production team). This is part of what FCL calls the Third Renaissance of the market: a revival of Humanist values expressed in creativity and relational goods

What are your thoughts on “sustainable fashion” in a society where consumption increases more and more -- how do you imagine the future?

As I see it, “sustainability” is just one of the key concepts in an ethical trend which is fast developing into a new landscape. There are a few businesses that are truly ideological and the ethical mindset is part of their DNA. Others embrace some aspects of the ethical mix (for example: organic cotton, or producing some product ranges with fair trade monitored producers) but in many other aspects do not participate in the ethical game. Then there are companies – the majority – which would follow the compliance route (they will do whatever is legal, or avoid illegal moves) rather than the voluntary initiative, and even then their actions are characterized more by words than actions (greenwashing) and damage control. With the last group, if a story breaks out that makes them look bad -- for example, that they employ child labour or have inhuman conditions -- they try to remedy issues around that.

The big issue for me in this is the missed opportunity to address other core issues “closer to home”, from animal welfare in the use of leather, fur, plumes and wool, to the kind of role model a company’s publicity helps to promote. However, the problem with sustainability is paradoxical. On the one hand no big changes on the production side can be effected without systemic action. Making certain practices illegal (for example, contract plants where people’s lives and liberties are threatened, or using toxic chemicals in dyes or cosmetics that compromises workers and consumers’ health) is the only way to create a social change. Without such legislation “ethical fashion” will remain in the margins. On the other hand, unless social consumption habits change (reduced consumption) dramatically, our finite resources will be depleted and we will need to look for a few more planets to satisfy our global consumers’ needs. Reducing consumption, and not the “greening” of our current production practices – this is what will make our consumption “sustainable”.

In the context of ethics in fashion you have mentioned "manufactured cosmetics". What are the ethical issues here?

It is perhaps rather unexpected, hence unsuspected that beauty products that are designed to improve, enhance and decorate are actually hidden threats. This applies also to those products that are styled as “organic”, “natural” or containing some good plant based ingredients. To increase shelf life, for example, most use petrochemicals: ingredients that are derived from petrol, and other hazardous chemicals all of which are linked to cancer, hormone disruption and allergic reactions. Often the nice scent of perfumes or other personal care products is produced as far from the field as possible: in the lab, as Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics details in her book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.

Other studies are listed on the website of the American NGO Environmental Working Group whose database shows the results of testing toxicity of thousands of personal care and make up products. It shows that almost all high street brands contain unsafe ingredients. And the industry’s habitual defence that “unsafe” depends on quantities is somewhat misleading as even baby products contain them, and their effect is cumulative. Studies by EWG and the NGO Health Canada show that toxic ingredients start accumulating in babies and children. In 2009, The Endocrine Society of the US did a thorough review of the influence of the chemicals of very low doses. They found that these can disrupt key processes in the body in ways that contribute to many chronic diseases.

And while the regulatory situation is better in Europe than in the US, there are very few companies (like German products Weleda and Dr. Hauschka) whose ingredients are wholly natural – with no toxins attached.

“Ethical fashion” has become a buzz-word, but advocates seem to overlook some important issues. On the subject of representations of women in advertisements, for example, one feminist writer has commented, "In virtually all rock videos, the female body is offered to the viewer purely as a spectacle, an object of sight, a visual commodity to be consumed."

This is a very good point. Issues of representations have been embraced by ethical fashion advocates and activists in a very selective way which focuses mostly on the conduct of third parties in faraway places. This appears an effective way of pushing the debate away from the core issue, where change is neither invited nor welcomed. These areas include toxic cosmetics – a sensitive point for the multibillion cosmetics lobby -- and animal welfare. The latter involves both the exploitation of animals for our very basic products, but also their wellbeing and conditions of rearing, as well as treatment of wildlife, like the annual brutal massacre in Canada of some half a million young of the most magnificent of mammals: baby seals. These are neglected issues on the production side.

On the consumption side, being complicit in promoting “toxic ideals of perfection” defies the efforts of some fashion brands and houses to engage with the full range of ethical aspects. The use of thin models and the photoshopping of models’ adverts hold up an unhealthy and dangers models of flawless beauty that creates what Susie Orbach calls “an epidemic of body hatred” among increasingly younger girls. There is one Israeli high-end fashion label which addresses this head-on: this is the truly ideologically committed feminist label Comme-il-faut. Israel is also set to be the first country where photoshopping of models and using people thinner than the BMI minimum are to be banned by law. The “photoshop law” has already passed its most stringent hurdle in the parliament, and two more sets of approvals, which are mostly technical – need to be affected. However, globally, trends in body perfection have a big following in cosmetic procedures. Changing that landscape is a tide that will need bigger dams than a mere law.

EfratTseëlon is Chair of Fashion Theory at the School of Design, University of Leeds and the editor of the journal “Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty” published by Intellect Books. She has authored several books, including The Masque of Femininity (1995), Masquerade and Identities (2001) and many articles on the cultural meaning and experience of body, personal appearance, visual identities and representations. She has pioneered research methods privileging the accounts of clothing wearers of their day to day clothing choices and experiences, laying the ground for “wardrobe research”. Wardrobe research moved the agenda that dominated research on fashion in the 70s and 80s from a focus on “fashion” to “clothing”, and from “occasion dressing” or “stereotyped” looks to “everyday dressing”.

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