- Vancouver, British Columbia - On a recent trip to Disneyland, I was perusing one of their many gift stores, looking for a personal memento of my trip there. I came across several amusing T-shirts, some plastered with Donald Duck in an unbecoming pose, while others had Mickey Mouse and his pals on a beach. As a lover of Disney, I thought about buying one, but ultimately I didn't. Granted, I have more than enough T-shirts already, but that wasn't the primary motivation for deciding against buying one. Most of the shirts had "Disneyland Resort" printed on the shirt, and while I really enjoy going to Disneyland, I didn't really want that printed on my shirt.
It might seem petty, but something about having the location where I purchased that shirt just made me not want to buy it. Recently, I've spent a considerable amount of time reading and thinking about advertising in society. It is amazing how easily we can fail to critically analyze the forms of media and ads that we're inundated with on a daily basis. On my trip to Southern California, I also spent more time that I wanted on the parking lots known as Interstates in Los Angeles. One of the things that jumps out at me each time I'm in Los Angeles is the prevalence of billboards everywhere you go from the side of highways to the sides of architecturally beautiful building that is now being hidden by a behemoth of a billboard telling you about the newest blockbuster film. Even the store signs in Los Angeles are more obnoxious than those that I'm familiar with in Vancouver. It were as if Los Angeles has become so visually noisy that to be noticed, you have to make your signs and advertisements louder and visually intrusive.
In the Morgan Spurlock documentary, The Greatest Film Ever Sold, he spoke with one advertising executive who stated that in the ad business, "visibility equals credibility." The rest of the film was rather forgettable and generally a waste of time, but this three-word sentence has stuck with me in a way that I couldn't have imagined. In every advertisement that I see now, I can see how this principle is at work. Corporations big and small are eager to get consumers familiar with their brand through exposure. When businesses were smaller, they primarily relied on word of mouth to develop their consumer base, but in an economic market that is saturated with national and multinational corporations, word of mouth simply doesn't cut it anymore. It doesn't move fast enough and it is too unreliable; it can't be cheaply bought.
There was one corporation that boldly did not buy into this mindset until recently: Starbucks Coffee Company. I remember as a teenager being marveled at how Starbucks Coffee Company could've become such a recognizable and well-loved brand, when I never saw advertisements in the newspaper, online, or on television. I remember speaking with a Starbucks barista once, asking about why I never saw any advertisements and he said to me that it was because Starbucks Coffee Company focused on establishing a positive experience for each and every customer, known as the "Starbucks Experience," rather than investing dollars into a large, faceless advertising campaign. The thinking being that if you invested in every moment with your clientele, naturally the positive word of mouth would follow. Within the past few years, however, I've noticed that advertisements for Starbucks Coffee Company have started showing up and become more prevalent. I do not know what changed, or if that barista was even speaking as an authority on the matter to begin with, but a part of me was sad as a consumer to see that Starbucks Coffee Company had begun to engage in this common practice.
For most corporations though, they have grown so large that maintaining a personal connection with the consumer is just not feasible, let alone possible. Furthermore, they have too many customers that in order to keep track of them, they ask you to join a loyalty club or membership in hopes of aiding them in making you feel like you are appreciated or benefited by your continued patronage with them. But what is an even larger focus for most corporations is the push to create higher visibility for their brand. Some corporations go to great lengths to write their own narratives about their brands, while others allow the consumer to formulate that narrative on their own through their personal connection with the brand. However, all brands embrace the necessity of visibility for creating credibility for their brand, except maybe those brands that could be seeking to capitalize on the hipster market, but we'll ignore those self-aggrandizing individuals for the purposes of this article.
As an example, there are a number of major telecommunications companies in Canada that provide mobile phone services. The biggest ones are Bell, Telus, and Rogers. The Canadian mobile phone service provider market is acknowledged for being more costly than those in the United States or anywhere else in Western Europe, as the major service providers have a strong grip on the market. Recently, however, smaller mobile phone service providers have attempted to get themselves into the market by leasing the networks that the major service providers maintain and develop. By law, these larger corporations must lease their networks at rates mandated by the Canadian Radio and Television Council (CRTC), thus these smaller mobile phone service providers are often able to provide lower rates than the major service providers who own the networks, though the smaller providers don't possess any control over the network.
Yet when these smaller mobile phone service providers hit the market, I surprised myself with my reaction to them. Despite them offering cheaper service bundles often with unlimited minutes, texts or data, I found myself overly cautious about signing up with them, instead preferring to stay with one of the three major mobile phone service providers. In my mind, I decided that these new upstarts were likely going to nickel and dime me since they were offering such cheap service plans (it was too good to be true!), nor did I have a relationship or connection with any of these brands. I didn't know what to expect of them, nor did I know anyone else who had used these brands, and why should I have? They were brand new!
It was then that I realized how much I've bought into the advertising mantra, "visibility equals credibility." When a brand is highly visible and entrenched, there is almost a security in that since we assume that they have been around for awhile and are successful by making their customers happy. Also, if we have problems with the brand, we have some leverage in any conflicts with them by promising poor word of mouth about our experiences. Some brands place an emphasis on making the customer's experience positive regardless if it costs the company more money in the short term. While these corporations may think positive word of mouth is too slow to count on for creating credibility, they recognize that negative word of mouth travels much quicker and that they can count on it to destroy credibility. I found security in the larger mobile phone service providers because I knew they were established companies, who have been around a long time, plus they are nationally recognized brands in Canada, even if a week never goes by in which I don't hear one friend telling all of their friends to never use one of the three major service providers. Nevertheless, I equated their national visibility with credibility in that I assumed them to be more legitimate and safer to deal with than these new corporations that I knew little to nothing about.
So where does the Disneyland Resort T-shirt come into all of this discussion? Why did I start this article with that? Corporations have many avenues for establishing visibility, and many of them cost a great deal of money. In the United States of America alone, an estimated $150 billion is spent annually on advertising. $150 billion! It is clear that many corporations hold fast to the belief that marketing is a critical part of their business, which is made more evident by how much some companies are willing to fork over for a Super Bowl TV spot. Yet many corporations realize that they can promote their own visibility in another way that doesn't cost them money (if done right!), but instead is a small source of income: get people to wear clothing with your brand on it.
For most of us when we buy a T-shirt of some kind, the brand appeals to us, and while we may simply say that the shirt looks sweet, we are likely consciously or unconsciously wanting to associate ourselves with that brand and the narrative that we've associated with it. In our minds, certain brands say things about us, or at least we perceive them to, as brands can say different things to different people. I remember once seeing an Internet Meme going around that showed a preppy looking high school student carrying an Apple iPad2 with an obnoxious inscription stating, "the only reason to own an iPad2 is to show that you can afford an iPad2." Perhaps a little exaggerated, but when we make purchases, we do so with some belief in mind why our lives are made better by owning or possessing a product or a brand. Sometimes it merely comes down to associating with the brand. Certain brands appeal to specific subcultures, whether it is the skateboarding community, or some other. Corporations understand the psychology behind this, and they also realize that they can capitalize on people's needs to construct their identities, which often comes through how we express ourselves through our appearance. Thus when I looked at a T-shirt from the Disneyland Resort gift shops, I was conscious that I subconsciously (makes no sense, I promise!) that I like to associate myself to the Disney brand of storytelling for how well they make timeless stories that connect with children.
I've thought of some of the other T-shirts that I own, there is a New England Patriots shirt, which I bought as they are my favourite NFL team. I also own a Batman shirt, and while I didn't ever read Batman comics growing up, there was something cool about owning and wearing a shirt with the Batman emblem plastered on the front. Hey! Batman is pretty hip right now, right? Another one that I can think of has the brand Hurley written on it. I don't own a lot of shirts with any writing or logos on them, but I'll admit that there are a few.
Yet for whatever reason, I didn't want to buy a shirt with the name "Disneyland Resort" on it, because I felt it made me a billboard for the theme park, when it isn't so much the theme park that has my love, but the brand behind the theme park. I still love going to Disneyland (even as an adult), but it is more about what the brand of Disney has accomplished. Still, I find it strange that I am comfortable being a billboard for the New England Patriots, Batman, and Hurley clothing, and by proxy, legitimizing these brands with increased visibility. The best part about it is that I have done so and I was the one who had the fork over the money.
How strange is it that we pay money to become a marketing tool for major corporations? Our world is already oversaturated with obnoxious visual marketing to the point that it is impossible to isolate yourself from it unless you move into the wilderness and cut yourself off entirely from all electronic devices. How is it that we got to a place that we pay money to become the billboards for many corporations? Sadly, I would argue that it has much to do with the subtle philosophy of marketers to prey on individuals' insecurities by showing how inadequate we all are, and how our lives will be so much better if we buy things their things. Associating ourselves with these brands is subconsciously an attempt to say that, yes, we are enough...but not because of who we are, but rather because of who we have associated with. And you can associate with anyone you want, so long as you are willing to pay up and become an unpaid billboard for that corporation, which has just chiseled away a little more of your self-worth.
So where does one go from here? I'd hate to leave you on a sour note. My personal goal from this point on is to not associate myself with or support businesses that prey on my own insecurities or that of others. I don't believe in the effectiveness of boycotts personally, thus you won't find me advocating any such activity, but instead I will support businesses that seek to do the right thing rather than tearing down people to make themselves more successful. These corporation are little more than the popular kids or the bullies on the schoolyard playground, telling us how we will never be good enough like them, but maybe we can suck just a little less if we try to be them instead of us. You have a choice of who you associate yourself with, and it may not change the world, but it will change yours. Make it wisely; your decision will likely affect those generations that come after you.