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Facebook has eroded the actual meaning of the word “status,” a real shame (and no accident) since I think the concept of status is an immensely important evolutionary psychological tool which helps us understand just about everything. This is an immensely loaded statement, so let me qualify and explain what status is, how inauthentic and contrived it can be, and what all this means in regards to advertising.

Status is ever-changing reputation that you wear or live. It has nothing to do with the person’s innate qualities. If you drive a Porsche, whether you can afford it or not, you get heightened status in most communities (not amongst bohemians though…you need rags and a record of activism, imprisonment a bonus, for that). If you’re rich but drive a Honda, your status is equal to all non-rich Honda drivers.

Perhaps you don’t want to be showy, but a CEO would look ridiculous, or have his authority undermined, appearing to work on a bike. Perhaps the guy in a Porsche is just a destitute man having a mid-life crisis. You cannot judge someone without knowing their inner reasons! This piece is about considering our own reasons for buying things, not judging others. But Porsches and Hondas differ hugely in performance, materials, and the quality of construction, so the increased price is warranted.

But the most pure example of headlong waste is bottle service. Nothing signals baller status like unnecessarily paying ten times the price for the exact same drinks. If bottles were sold at $30 instead of $300, they’d no longer be desirable. Obviously people would buy the cheaper booze, but not the same people, and for different reasons. $300 bottles reliably sends the message that the buyer can afford to waste, and this message is no longer sent if the bottle is reasonably priced. I have seen sparklers attached to bottles so everyone sees who ordered: if nobody sees them ball, they’re not really balling. The impression made is worth $270 to some–this is what’s really on purchase, not the alcohol, after all.

This is a silly, irrational remnant of the Pleistocene, where having an over-abundance of resources in harsh times meant guaranteed survival to cavemen and the people in their circle. But today, spending for the sole sake of wasting is tacky and everywhere in bad taste. The most essential thing when considering evolutionary psychology is not to conflate what is in our genes with how we ought to behave. Remember, too, there’s nothing wrong with buying expensive things that are worth the money if you appreciate them.

Facebook’s diabolical genius is letting people control and publicize their own “status” for free. Of course, it’s not really a status they’re posting, but just a message that appears to people on their list. But they called it that for a reason. Facebook is the sparkler attached to the bottle service, without having to buy the bottle. No wonder its mass appeal.

Understanding status is essential to understanding the horror show of corporate branding. To be certain, branding is so successful that any company would be crazy not to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not absurdly irrational. They give out status by making us feel predictably good about ourselves (or stop us from feeling insecure or bad) or by making us feel like we belong to a desirable set.

To be a company in the present age requires a predictable image, a term I like better than “brand”; The word “brand” falsely suggests the company is innately and permanently a certain way, where “image” rightly sounds contrived and painstakingly designed in advance to appeal to certain masses.

Companies can’t exist now unless they are seen to be giving entities which help the world in some small, yet heartening or profound way. So they give a negligible amount to a high-profile cause and take possession of a moral posture. Moral qualities are not for purchase, yet companies lay claim to them and offer moral vindication to consumers as a reward for buying their product. The formula is roughly: Fight hunger by buying this chocolate bar since we donate to so and so.

While on the surface it seems only positive that companies benefit people who otherwise would receive nothing, it’s the exploitation of our craving for status working in their self-interest that upsets me, as well as the impurity of the hijacking of the genuine yearning to do good for only its image. It’s not unlike requiring high school students to perform community service in order to graduate; the charm and the actual moral worth of the action is removed from voluntary service when it’s obligatory. So when companies posture like they care about the world, even if it does help somewhat, it ceases to be charming or genuine when their “giving” is embedded in their price, or when it makes them appear advantageously compassionate

You can be certain no company will ever give anonymously, unless they also secretly leak to the right media sources that they were the ones who donated so freely. I predict this will happen one day, as companies seek to appear pure and genuine.

Imagine the CEO of a fortune 500 company venerating the company’s dedication to the environment, or towards humanity, on a jumbo jet en route to Las Vegas where a business deal will be concluded amid unimaginable excess. This blends the two strains of status–exclusivity proved by over-priced gluttony, and worldly benevolence proved by high-profile giving. While I made up the above CEO, no doubt he has many real existences somewhere.

When branding is safely ignored, it’s evident that we only buy products from companies, yet there is an immense chasm between the physical properties of the product, the price at which it’s sold, and our reasons for purchase. Companies increase our status by making us feel accepted in cliques they spend millions of dollars determining we seek belonging. Beer commercials are hilarious in this respect.

The notion of a beer being tastier for a certain demographic (undergraduate party animals, urban sophisticates, etc.) is absurd. People either like it or they don’t, but it tastes the same way for everybody. The combination of barley, wheat and water cannot love hockey or act as a national ambassador for the simple reason that inanimate grains cannot have thoughts or feelings. Yet companies try and convince us that drinking their beer puts us on the “cool male hockey guy” or “patriot” team.

When a celebrity claims to use a product, ordinary mortals who also use it somehow feel linked to their high status, despite knowing they’re paid for the endorsement and might not actually feel that way. But this works in reverse too. Andrew Coyne wrote well on how Magnotta’s picture drinking a Labatt shouldn’t really mean anything:

“The idea that Magnotta’s alleged crimes would somehow have been related to his fondness for drinking Blue is only slightly more tenuous than the idea that drinking Blue would cause hundreds of sexy girls to show up at your parties.”

I’m sure Coyne knows that people aren’t rational, but a brand has a strange hold on people. Nabokov describes a similar cynical humour of the falseness in advertising in even better terms, and I never resist quoting him:

“…the world they [advertisers] create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make-believe. The amusing part is…that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither the sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts…”

But Nabokov wrote before there was a clear demarcation between the real life and the made up world of the advertisement. If this clear line between “ad” and “world” ever existed in Nabokov’s time, it has been fully eroded by advertisers who not only put ads into movies, but make sure their celebrity is candidly filmed consuming a product in the “real world”. The idea is to make the giving and taking of status more authentic by conflating the world of the ad, the art, and the actual world.

This deliberate obfuscation is the most pernicious delusion of all. It strikes me as unfair and as the most profound kind of lie imaginable, approaching the Platonic form of falsehood. The only reasonable response is to distrust every screen–no grain of salt is big enough. We cannot remain innocent in an age where everybody knows advertisers have hitherto unprecedented information about us, and they exist only to find new invasive ways to flatter us (“you’re so charitable and good”) or threaten us (“you’re not charitable or sexy enough”).  

And so, anybody who makes money by selling us something cannot be an impartial status bestower.  Measure your status on your own terms, or by the intimate people in your life who don’t benefit from praising or criticizing you. The people who think buying a product has any bearing on their status or character whatsoever is under a delusion not very different than the hypnotized man who makes love to a chair.