WITH today’s high education, high income and high exposure to culture comes a simultaneously high level of taste, particularly in fashion. Without wanting to be seen as basic or “unfashionable”, there is no question that, if possible, consumers will opt to buy luxury and high quality products in order to fit in with social classes and standards, and to prove that they are knowledgeable and up-to-date with the latest trends. Naturally, it is with this high taste, and the luxury items that come with it, that reaffirms the different social circles and statuses that exist in society today. As Bourdieu states, taste doesn’t just classify an object, but rather, it ‘classifies the classifier’ (Bourdieu 1984, p 6).
Consumers who desire social credibility, based on taste, can be seen embodying the concept of ‘cultural capital’, which Leiss describes as ‘one’s body of taste and the rewards that come with it’ (Leiss 2005, p 520). This assumes that the consumer has invested time and money to acquire esteemed products that showcase their wealth, education and participation in leisurely and cultural activities – all elements that society have come to value. Therefore, it makes sense that advertisers have learnt to target such a segment, as these are the people seen as trendsetters and the people who care about buying the next big thing, no matter the price tag.
As a result, advertising presents high cultural capital as something to strive for. This is most evident in fashion and high-culture magazines in which it is difficult not to find a high-production advertisement selling a unique, individualistic and luxury item. For example, the black and white Alexander Wang advertisement (see above) in Interview magazine in which a questionably feminine model pictured naked, with minimal makeup and messy hair, wears elaborate Alexander Wang shoes. This presents an androgynous advertisement that could only make sense in the context where high cultural capital is present – i.e. where the consumer’s ability to interpret this advertisement as art and to translate the products into everyday use separates those with high cultural capital and those lacking. As Bourdieu explains:
“To the socially recognised hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers” (Bourdieu 1984, p 1).
This look would never be replicated in public, and if it were, it would be met with shock and confusion. Those that can decode the art within the advertisement accordingly, although not in flashy or overt means, are thought to maintain high cultural capital and “good” taste. Therefore, those who do not have the knowledge or means to live a high cultural capital lifestyle are often excluded and seen as inferior.
The consumption patterns for those who have low cultural capital often show a mainstream, cheap, and very accessible lifestyle. Yet, in a 2013 commercial by Sears, the insecurities of low cultural capital are displayed and overcome, blurring the reality of what “good” taste actually is.
As seen in the commercial, a woman is asked where she bought her outfit. Her shy and seemingly embarrassed response to reveal that she got her outfit from, god forbid, Sears, is quite evident. However, as the commercial continues she becomes increasingly confident and excited about her mainstream purchase, and thus her low cultural capital, to the point where she is telling everyone, whether they asked her the question or not.
Typically, this behaviour would be seen with luxury items; it is not the consumer norm for cultural capital to see stores such as Sears (or equivalent stores such as Target and Kmart) bragged about. This commercial has called out the large bias we have towards high cultural capital and expressed the ridiculous insecurities many feel when buying from an average and conventional store.
Bourdieu, P 1984, ‘Introduction’ in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Routledge, London, Melbourne.
Leiss, W 2005, Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace (3rd Ed.) Jacqueline Botterill, Routledge, New York.
Youtube 2013, Sears Commercial 2013 – Where’d She Get It’, viewed 11 September 2015, < http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ym0AA1YfGEA>.