You are on page 1of 4

The Myth of a Rational Consumer

Many people believe that the combination of fashion and serious academic work is an oxymoron, the one field completely opposed to the other by nature. But the Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar, which was held at the University of Navarra the 19th and 20th of May, set out to dispel that myth. The seminar, at which more than 30 people from all over the world participated, was organized by the project Emotional Culture and Identity (CEMID) of the Institute for Culture and Society and cosponsored by the Social Trends Institute. By bringing together senior and junior researchers in the field of fashion, the seminar aimed at getting a better grasp on the increasing relevance of emotions in the contemporary fashion world. As a participant myself, it was a rich experience and did indeed succeed in shining a rigorous academic light onto the meaning and current shape of fashion. The director of CEMID, Ana Marta Gonzlez, noted that the conceptual distinction between taste and emotion can be helpful to characterize and interpret current emphasis on emotions. Taste involves some sort of standard, against which fashion can make a difference, by introducing aesthetic novelty. Laura Bovone, director of the Centro per lo studio della moda e della produzione culturale at the Universit Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, observed that the current emphasis on the emotional side of fashion is taken to be a relevant sign of our current emotional culture, marking a significant contrast with previous emotional culture(s) in developing the contrast between modern and postmodern approaches to fashion. Lucia Ruggerone, senior lecturer in sociology at the Universit della Valle d Aosta and Diana Crane, emeritus professor of the University of Pennsylvania and noted author in fashion studies literature, also participated as speakers in the seminar, highlighting the importance of fashion in post-modern material culture and the empirical study of the emotions in fashion, respectively. EfratTselon*, cultural theorist and Chair of Fashion Theory at the University of Leeds, noted the importance of the emotions in marketing research, saying This is something that market researchers have noticed long ago, and it is influencing their market strategies, from emphasizing the objective qualities of products, current strategies emphasize the subjective shopping experience . I had the opportunity to interview professor Tselon. You can read our conversation below: What do you mean by "The Myth of a Rational Consumer"? The separation between emotional and rational as distinct forms of the human being has a pedigree that runs through Greek philosophy and Enlightenment philosophy, and 19th cent ury 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 2 dimensions undergoing significant changes. Freud s psychoanalysis reduced rationality to a rationalization builton the back of an emotional unconscious core. In marketing, this approach led to the conspiracy theories in the style of 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 sensorial experiences. This is evidenced in the rise in experiential retail and marketing which privilege the consumer experience added value beyond the functional transaction.

In the first years of the 21st century cognitive neuroscience research has drawn attention to 2 interesting phenomena: that rather than being 2 separate systems, the rational brain and the emotional brain are interdependent and specialize in different type of activities. The rational brain (cortex) which is the youngest system in evolutionary terms operates in the long term type 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. Further, 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 brains called the nucleus accumbens ( the craving spot ). In fact not only did they encourage instead of discouraging the consumer to smoke, when asked about the effect of the warning labels smokers checked off yes when they were asked if warning labels worked. 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 consume-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 the backlash against 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 part designing them (customization 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 Your ideas related to Sustainable Fashion are very interesting in a society where consumption increases more and more. How do you imagine the futu re? In my observation the ethical trend of which sustainability is just one of the key concepts is fast developing into a new landscape which comprises a few businesses that are truly ideological and the ethical mindset is part of their DNA, companies which truly embrace some aspects of the ethical mix (for example: organic cotton, or producing some ranges with fair trade monitored producers) but many other aspects do not participate in the ethical game, and 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 by more words than actions (greenwashing) and damage control(if a story breaks out that makes them look bad, try to remedy issues around that. This happens when it transpires that their production plant employ child labour, inhuman conditions ,etc). And while my big issue is the missed opportunity to address other core issues closer to home (from animal welfare in the use of leather, fur, plums and wool, to the kind of role model a company s publicity helps to promote) the problem with sustainability is paradoxical. On the one hand no big changes on the production side can be affected without systemic action. Making certain practices illegal (for example contract plants where people s lives and liberties are threatened, or using toxic chemical in dyes or cosmetics that compromises workers and consumers health) is the only way to create a soci l change. a 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 . When you talk about ethic s in fashion you have mentioned "manufactured cosmetics ". Could you give us some examples?

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, asStacy Malkan, cofounder 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 ofthe American NGO Environmental Working Group whose database show 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 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 no toxins attached. Do you think some representation of women in advertisements could be considered under the umbrella ethical fashion ? Or What do you think about this statemen t? <<As one feminist writer 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" (Quote from Bordo 1993, published in "Fashion images and the struggle for womens identity", Diana Crane, University of Chicago Press, 2001). 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 conduct of third party in faraway places. This appears an effective way of pushing the debate away from the core issue where change is neither invited nor welcomed. This areas include toxic cosmetics a sensitive point for the multibillion cosmetics lobby, animal welfare (that addresses both the exploitation of animals for our very basic products, but also their well being 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). Th ese are neglected issues on the production side. On the consumption side, the being complicit with 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, 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 who 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 BMI lower than the minimum are to be banned by law. The photoshop law has already passed its most stringent hurdle in the parliament, and 2 more sets of approval, which 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. Tiny skirts paired with enormous boots; winter coats and legs bare to the thighs; a week's wages paid out for fashion shoes or bags that will be outdated by next year; wardrobes crammed with expensive clothes that are not worn (or other examples that are more relevant) -- these things make (women's) fashion seem like a completely irrational pursuit. Do you agree?

Fashion has certainly been associated with women as a form of feminine pursuit which historically served as a way of deflecting lack of political power. It has acquired undertones of futility, vanity and trivialization. As for irrationality: first, as I have argued above, the notion of the rational consumer is an unhelpful (and now scientifically incorrect) myth. Secondly, it seems totally rational to capitalize on whatever powers one can legitimately lay claim to. Political wives may not have influence on policy but the likes of Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and the new royal bride of the UK prove to be an asset to promoting their national fashions. What they are seen wearing sells out almost immediately. In economic terms this is real power. Interview conducted by Adela Lo Celso Professor at Universidad Austral Argentina

* EfratTselon 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. A social psychologist (PhD from Oxford 1989) she has authored 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 to wardrobe research . Wardrobe research moved the agenda that dominated research on fashion in the 70s and 80s from focus on fashion to clothing , and from occasion dressing or stereotyped looks to everyday dressing .