My new job involves reading lots and lots of advertising case studies. Today, it was potato chips. Two recent award-winnning marketing schemes – one in the UK and one in India – were based on getting people to suggest new flavours then running massive campaigns to get the public to vote for its favourite. In both India and the UK more than one million people offered ideas for new flavours and millions more voted. Video from the India campaign looked like an Obama outtake with added snacks.
What the hell? Why do people can’t be arsed to vote in real elections go into frenzies over fried food flavours? It would be easy to say, “Because they’re stupid,” and probably some of them are. But even dummies have a survival instinct and I refuse to believe that a sentient being in modern world seriously believes crisps wield a greater influence over their future happiness than does the government. People are savvy enough to know that A) junk food isn’t important and B) the whole shenanigan is a complex, well-funded, highly sophisticated exercise in finding new ways to take their money. Yet, they vote. They ‘Like’ the corporations that are picking their pockets and fattening them up. They do the corporation’s work for them by Tweeting and generating the precious, priceless word-of-mouth that gets marketing bods rubbing their moist palms with glee.
Because corporations, unlike governments, are listening. People rightly perceive that both are out for what they can get. The difference is that when they vote for a brand their vote matters in a way that it doesn’t in politics. The flavour they like best might not win, but their vote has equal weight to any other. The corporation, however cynical, is asking a genuine question and the eventual outcome will be untainted by mysterious special interests. Profit is the motive, but this is so transparent that the voter maintains his or her agency. They know the exact nature of the relationship so they can participate without feeling gullible. This is never the case in politics, where politicians can and regularly do make fools of their supporters by lying, abandoning promises, switching sides and making repugnant alliances.
When people vote for a politician they enter a relationship where their trust and dignity are bound to be violated sooner rather than later. Voting is supposed to give people power but only makes them complicit in their abuse. “You voted for us,” a government says as screws its citizens. Corporations offer agency. It’s only a little bit of power, over something insignificant, but the experience of meaningful participation is so goddamn rare and precious that people will happily pay for it — which heart-rending in all kinds of way.
Ultimately, the driving force of consumerism is not identity-creation, it is the need for agency. People engage with corporations because when they buy shit they are doing something in a culture devoid of opportunities for meaningful activity. By the same token, they loathe the government because it makes them feel helpless. Until politicians become as responsive as potato chips public apathy, and antipathy, is here to stay.