Artwork: Sir Frank Dicksee
This post is the first in a series on Ethical Advertising.
For most of us, being part of a collective grants us a sense of belonging and relatedness. Whether it’s a social cause, ideology, or an affiliation with what we consume, collectives shape our identity and influence how we think.
But being part of any collective also significantly changes the way we behave. We may gain some identity through shared group attributes, but those attributes can make us feel less responsible for our individual actions.
What tends to follow is a strengthening of collective thinking and a reduction of individual autonomy.
In collectives, a perceived gap between the expectations of how we should behave and our own achievements can result in groupthink and, consequentially, deviant behaviour. It’s the gap between what we have and what we want.
Sociologist Robert Merton argued that wanting what others take for granted or have in abundance results in relative deprivation. It’s frustrating. It fuels a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that often manifests in the accumulation of ‘stuff’.
It’s the descent into the Cult of More.
Relative deprivation is entirely dependent on social norms. Those who are disadvantaged–socioeconomically or otherwise–experience it the most, while those who benefit from existing social structures experience it very little.
In other words: people at the top lack a perspective of disadvantage that is necessary to see things from the point-of-view of the disadvantaged.
Relative deprivation is often born out of criticism of these norms, which can cause us to act in ways that are deviant. Deviant behaviour, as a general rule, is less normalised in collectives with higher socioeconomic security.
This isn’t to say that disadvantaged groups condone deviant behaviours, but that they have far less options than those at the top. Their ideas of what is considered ‘deviant’ are not necessarily wrong- only different from existing norms.
It becomes a cyclical pattern. Social norms disadvantage certain groups, which cause them to act in ways thought of by the advantaged as ‘deviant’, which only reinforces the normative perception of disadvantaged groups as social outcasts.
Consider consumption, which is one such behaviour influenced tremendously by relative deprivation.
Commodities taken for granted by those with greater socioeconomic privilege are coveted by those with less privilege, which gives rise to differences in how different social classes respond to advertising.
Unsurprisingly, research has shown that those on lower incomes respond more to value positioning, whereas those on higher incomes respond more to status positioning– a form of conspicuous consumption. Consumption in this instance becomes less about necessity and more about accumulation- not of food, shelter, and safety; but of status symbols, external validation, and social power.
Conspicuous consumption allows us to broadcast our economic security to the world, and boosts our ego as a result.
Tafjel and Turner argue that the main goal of identifying with collectives (and broadcasting the fact) is to build a positive self-concept. Though we tend not to admit it, many of us take pride in the accumulation of ‘stuff’.
Houses, cars, vacations, and nights out with friends all reinforce the self-concept that we are financially, socially, and psychologically secure. ‘Stuff’ allows us to identify with those who have comparable lifestyles, and we become part of their ingroup as a result.
But this identification comes with a caveat: outgroups are perceived as lesser. Those who have accumulated less than we have are subconsciously placed in a separate category, and are therefore thought about differently.
When we place someone into a category, we tend to ignore behaviours that don’t fit that category in favour of behaviours that do. This is an example of confirmation bias: when we seek out information that confirms our assumptions about a person, while ignoring information that refutes those assumptions.
Humans are naturally lazy thinkers. We’re unlikely to divert from our initial ideas about a person or collective if we’ve spent a long time thinking about them.
Instead we judge how acceptable or unacceptable peoples’ beliefs, choices, and lifestyles are relative to our own EXPERIENCE.
The relationship between social deviancy and conspicuous consumption comes down to commodification. Our lifestyles, beliefs, ideologies, and very beings have become commodified in order to sell an idea; the idea that accumulation is fundamental to identifying with and relating to the socioeconomic elite.
And when we don’t achieve this–when we don’t accumulate enough to become part of that collective–we retaliate. We question the social norms that reward only those who have more.
We become deviant, in their eyes, for only pursuing what we need.