Rob Walker’s Consumed column in this week’s NYT Magazine (which is a special issue about income inequality and well worth reading) takes up the business practice of marketing products to the poor, but rather than look at the exploitative practice of pushing shoddy financial instruments on them as the BusinessWeek article I mentioned in the post had, he looks at the sale of soap to impoverished families in India. He cites C.K. Prahalad, author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, who is the main evangelist for the idea that by offering consumerism to the poor you can improve their lives and make a steady profit. It’s easy to be skeptical about this—if you want to help the poor, why charge them for the services and extort profit from them? One could argue that the absence of incentives makes philanthropy unreliable and its patronizing lack of rigor does nothing to reshape the mind-sets of beneficiaries. By regarding the poor in the market, they could theoretically acquire some of the social capital required to profit from exchange, some of the financial savvy that would prevent them from being ripped off. And there is a value in participation in culture for its own sake, which is what Walker’s piece hints at:
Building a campaign around a well-known product like Lifebuoy can be effective precisely because even the world’s poorest citizens can be “brand conscious.” (Hindustan Lever’s Misra agrees, saying that such consumers will stick with a brand they trust, because “money means that much more to them.”)
Brand consciousness itself may be a form of social inclusion that alleviates some of the alienation of poverty, but it also seems that developing brand consciousness is the price the poor must pay in order to have the market extended to them—they must be consumers in order to have their miserable living conditions ameliorated. It may be that becoming brand conscious is the prerequisite for becoming middle-class in general, that in some respects to be middle-class is to be brand conscious, that part of the security and the values (cleanliness, to use the example from the article) the middle class are accustomed to stem from the comfort of being surrounding by familiar brands and the ethos that animates them.