Perfect credulity

by Rob Horning

10 May 2006


Via comes a link to this article, which explores recent developments in shopping research, including Jennifer Argo’s anthropological-style field studies from drugstores,

Argo’s research centres on the retail experience itself. Like an anthropologist in the field, she goes to stores and watches shoppers in the aisles. She even hires “mystery shoppers”—plants, in effect, who do nothing more than stand nearby and look at different products.

To analyze shoppers buying batteries, for example, she asked her mystery shoppers to stand at a rack looking at camera film located near a rack of batteries. There was no interaction between the battery shoppers and the film browsers. Argo wanted to know if the mere presence of another shopper affected a buyer’s choice. It did.

When anyone was standing beside the battery shoppers, most would buy the most expensive brand. If no one was there, they’d buy a cheaper brand; if there was a crowd of three or more, they would always buy the expensive brand.

Argo’s findings held up in three separate studies involving hundreds of shoppers and were published in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
“It’s impression management—people don’t want to look cheap,” she says. “We will spend more money to maintain our self-image in front of others.”

It seems that in the store, in public, is one of the moments we feel most vulnerable. Does this mean it’s best to shop alone, in a state of hyper-efficient focus that obliterates the presence of others (shopping paranoid, as I recommended here, or does this simply underscore the fact that what we buy when we shop is not products but the approbation of others? There’s a defensive component to that as well—it depends on what you are more paranoid about, getting ripped off or looking like a cheap skate.

The article also explores neuromarketing, the brain-scanning science that tries to figure out what biological mechanisms are involved in purchase decisions, what part of our mind is engaged by brands. One neuromarketer admits, “We still haven’t found the buy button.” But it seems pretty troubling that they are looking for it. If retailers found such a button, it’s a sure thing that it would be pressed even more than the rats would press the lever for more cocaine in those addiction experiments. The whole notion of a trigger that could make a purchase irresistible evokes eternal questions of agency and desire—if the fulfillment of a “phony” desire provides real pleasure, who wins and who loses? What makes for a real desire anyway? If we are all brainwashed into loving Coca-cola, but the satisfaction we get from drinking it feels real, aren’t we glad we were induced to love it so much? The Matrix is the logical endpoint to such enquiries—if the whole world is fake but it feels real, what difference does it make? Maybe reality actually sucks.

The somewhat scary truth is that as much as we celebrate autonomy, we also enjoy being manipulated, whether it be by a tearjerking movie or an ad that makes us feel as though what kind of razor we buy is Important. Not to wax too psychoanalytic, but perhaps there is a primal, regressive allure in passivity that recalls for us a time when all our needs were attend to from without and we were free to react without any guardedness or suspicion. At certain moments in our shopping excursions we experience inklings of this perfect credulity, Wordsworthian “unremembered pleasures” that remove us from what is at stake in the economic exchange and shifts us to another resister of experience altogether, where we are contemplating the sweetness of surrender to the inherent benevolence of the mothering universe. I’m tempted to say the shopping mall has become our Tintern Abbey, but that’s probably more pithy than true.

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