Flip an axis, make millions
Vietnam, hippies, and the civil rights movement all fomented into a powerful decade: the 60s. Flowery colors exalted a message of happiness and love over war. The Baby Boomer generation entered the workforce in droves.
Profits were to be made, and companies were eager to snatch even small portions of this new market. The continued growth of suburbs spawned a movement towards independence via cars. At this time of great economic and scientific potential, one auto company, VW (Volkswagen), created one of the most iconic advertisements ever made.
Printed in black, bold lettering was the word, “Lemon.” And above the text was a classic VW Beetle. Lemons were unreliable cars, and the VW ad suggested that the company carefully screened out those cars. Only perfection would be accepted; or, as they stated, “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”
Turning a word on its axis and daring readers to read on was risky. The advertisement had the potential to make consumers think, “VW Beetle is a lemon.” If they stayed for the explanation, the ad became clear; subtly, they were suggesting that other companies don’t care about reliability as much. By using “lemon,” they capitalized and succeeded in selling significantly more cars. It worked.
How “don’t buy” becomes “buy more”
In 2012, another company took a big risk: Patagonia. The corporate and marketing teams noted that there was a growing movement towards sustainability. Encompassed in this trend were simple living aficionados, minimalists, and value-oriented consumers. These careful consumers wanted great quality in responsible packages.
This Patagonia’s niche for quite some time. They advertised fair-trade, organic, and environmentally friendly products. Sales were growing, but then they decided to bet the farm on one massive ad in The New York Times. With bombastic, bold text, they wrote, “Don’t buy this jacket.” Behind the text was a Patagonia jacket.
Underneath the ad, the company focused on five key words: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, and reimagine. Every word was paired with a communal pronoun of “We.” It took everyone to reduce the carbon footprint, make the garments last, and find good homes for them after use. Patagonia seemed to be advertising that consumers take good care of the goods, and consider repairing them before throwing them away. All solid virtues.
These value-laden terms were inspirational to those who had suffered through The Great Recession. Because the company struck a chord with the current market demands, the company profited royally. After that advertising campaign, the company saw double-digit growth.
Ironically, that’s unsustainable. Double-digit growth, compounded repeatedly, would make the company larger than Apple in a few years. And never mind the horrible environmental costs that would be necessary to produce these garments.
Your values can become a manipulation tool
Nefarious. That’s the word that comes to mind when companies manipulate us through our values. The trick is subtle, and if you blink you’ll miss it.
For the aspirational types, there’s Gucci, Coach, and Louis Vuitton. For the trend setters, there’s H&M and Express. For the recreational, there’s The North Face, Columbia, and even Patagonia. Each brand is shaped by its consumers, but also shapes their consumers – the effect is bidirectional. In other words, we affect brands and they affect us.
If our values center on sustainability, kindness to the Earth, and repairing over ridding, a chicanery of sorts can be used against us. Without the brand awareness and heavy advertising, we could go to Goodwill or any other secondhand store for options. The clothing would be in fine shape or could even be repaired to return to like-new status. But we don’t, and there’s a reason why.
Corporations are powerful. Even the kindest ones can sway us from choosing another, more affordable option because they espouse “our” values. We like when we see our values portrayed in mission statements. We like that connection and feeling of being a part of something larger than ourselves. The brands fill that void. They provide a home for values.
So, should I buy that shirt?
Patagonia plainly states “Don’t buy this shirt.” Unfortunately, to those that connect with anti-consumption, anti-materialism, and minimalism, it’s hard not to foam at the mouth with lust for this company’s ad.
I love it! That’s the ad for me. It speaks to my heart. Despite the clear declaration to avoid purchasing their clothing, I can’t help but be intrigued and want to support them.
Subtly, the company is able to supplant a more frugal choice when the time comes to buy something. Goodwill doesn’t have the marketing budget of Patagonia, so the first reaction isn’t to shop there. But it’s more sustainable, frugal, and creates jobs for some of the most disenfranchised in the community. That’s a win-win-win, and it doesn’t cost us $80, $90, or $100.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with supporting companies that share your values. But know that this is a marketing trick, and when you choose VW or Patagonia after seeing that advertisement, it’s worked. They got you.