Commodities as Trophies: How Advertisements Valorise the Elite

An excerpt from Sreedeep Bhattacharya's book 'Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images'.

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The following is an excerpt from Sreedeep Bhattacharya’s book Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images, reproduced with permission from Oxford University Press.

Exclusionary tendencies flourished in the post-liberalization era, as it marked the beginning of unapologetic material indulgences by the middle classes.

Sreedeep Bhattacharya
Consumerist Encounters: Flirting With Things and Images
Oxford University Press (September 2021)

Symbolic exclusionary assertions often got linguistically coined in denim tag-lines such as: ‘If Your Jeans are Original, How Come Everyone Else has One?’ The portrayal of exclusivity also got visually mediated and circulated, as the product-imagery offered a route to un-belong or belong to an aspired league.

Access to a broader basket of choice in the post-liberalization period has significantly accentuated strategic purchase and display. Choice of commodities functions as markers of class. They also act as tools of distinction. Commodities can be used as fences for creating social distance, and can simultaneously be used as bridges to belong. The idea of exclusion is often expressed through commodities—both in real life or in the representational domain. Advertisements are often visual registers of this class polarization.

I will draw your attention to the heightened sense of exclusivity expressed in some of the ads, mostly apparel. Apparel often becomes a social currency in the quest for distancing and distinguishing. It dresses and declares class. It promises ‘eliteness’, as we see figure 1. Here, ‘eliteness’ is not just a matter of aspired class belonging, but also a ticket to stand out in the crowd. The social distancing is conveyed through sharp focus on the protagonist and blurring off the crowd in the backdrop.

Figure 1

A society, which has been highly stratified, and has traditionally practiced social discrimination, cannot possibly discard the ‘class questions’ in its visual propaganda. Especially for the middle classes, who are still learning the fine art of flirting with things—commodity becomes a symbolic site for class contestation and consolidation. It is through the performative act of displaying the material possession—that exclusivity, distinction, and empowerment is communicated. The language of advertisement remains obsessed with the portrayal of an aspired lifestyle. The tag-line in figure 2, reads: “Celebrate an elevation. Celebrate an acquisition. Celebrate life. Power. Evolved.”

Figure 2

In a status-conscious society, commodity constantly invites consumers to be a part of the ‘Upper Crest’, as we see in figure 3. The consumer is persistently lured to feel elegant, vibrant, charming and attractive through exercising such apparel choices. The assertion of the ‘upper crest’ bluntly communicates the aspirations of the upwardly mobile. The repeated usage of white models to communicate the idea of ‘exclusivity’ is yet another colonial hangover that refuses to disappear. The visual of the ‘upper-crest’ also affirms spatial exclusivity. Props and lighting in the background recreate an elite social milieu to establish the look and feel of luxury—an assemblage of exclusion.

Figure 3

The famous Onida (TV) tag-line from the 90s once stated: ‘your pride; neighbors’ envy’. Pride in one’s possession and being envious of that of others’ is integral to consumption in a society characterized by stark socio-economic inequalities. Using the commodity as a distinguisher, the ethos of consumer mobility somewhat resembles caste mobility too—’equal only to the superior’ and ‘superior to the equals’.

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Hence it is not surprising that most commodities focus on ‘exclusivity’, and not on consumption’s capacity to equalize. The sexist Tata Safari ad in figure 4 states: “If men are born equal, it must be their cars that help women choose”. Similar classist statements can also be seen in the new Mahindra Alturas ad that claims, “Your highness. Your SUV is here”, and places the SUV in front of a grand palace; or the old Scorpio ad that said, “Cars will now suffer from a low self-esteem.”

Figure 4

The process of ‘distancing’ always entails distinguishing from certain groups in order to align with some others. It is indeed a constant tug of war—a tough negotiation between building and bridging the gap, of association and disassociation, of belonging and un-belonging’, of connecting and disconnecting, of inclusion and exclusion, of division and union. The message in figure 5 captures the deep-rooted desire for distinction by directing the consumer to be ‘unbelong’. Not only does “it pays to unbelong”, but it is through this process of ‘unbelonging’ that one survives. Those who follow the herd, meet a tragic end.

Figure 5

Exclusivity is fundamental in order to unbelong. Figure 6 states: ‘If your jeans are original, how come everyone else has one?’ The message is loud and clear: buy in order to be distinct.

Figure 6

The content of the advertisement in figure 7, equates success with consumption, and earning with indulgence. The consumer is elevated. Physical and spatial elevation denote status preferment as well. The elevated space is a well-deserved reward of long working hours. From this elevated platform, one can now look down upon others, and simultaneously rise above the congestion of the city. Consumers work hard to earn in order to aspire and afford standardized versions of a world-class-lifestyle. It is a highly secluded, secure and guarded space—assembled within walls that exclude everyone and everything beyond the boundary walls. Real estate is established as a spectacularly pleasurable space, rooted in the idea of ‘distance’ and not proximity to the ‘other’.

Figure 7

There is a definitive indication of how to use commodities for building status consciousness and furthering status enhancement. Commodity packaging is often projected, perceived and used as visible trophies of exploits to meet exclusivist targets. There is an obvious exclusion of the productive character of work, workers, everyday and the ordinary. Rather we witness valorization of the imagined elite. The preferred portrayal of leisure activities in sanitized spaces of consumption reinforces status-upgradation as an exclusivity as an ultimate goal. Commodity depictions are overtly ‘classed’ through postures, décor, surroundings, demeanor and an overall aesthetics. It involves a visible strategy of classing and out-classing the other.

Sreedeep Bhattacharya is a sociologist. He is an associate professor with Shiv Nadar University. This is an excerpt from his book, Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images, published by Oxford University Press.