Let them eat brands

[26 January 2007]

By Rob Horning

When most people are confronted with the plight of the poor, they are perhaps overwhelmed with sympathy for their sufferings and filled with shame at the world’s structural inequities. But when marketers notice the struggle and squalor of the lower classes, they see opportunity: “How can we extract from them what little they have for products we inflate the significance of?” Today’s WSJ has a piece about advertisers targeting the poor, called “Marketers Pursue the Shallow-Pocketed.” Having saturated the middle-class and luxury markets, what remains untapped is the potential of the poor, who as a class make up for what little they have to spend with their sheer numbers—a lot of poor people buying a little is just as good as the few rich people buying a great deal. This, anyway, is the pet idea of economist C.K. Prahalad, who peddles the idea that the poor will see improvements in their life if businesses began to cater to them and try to hawk them branded goods. The poor get flattered by the recognition of their special needs and integrated into the market (the only relevant social institution), and the businesses fatten their profits, win-win. It seems constructive when companies seek to give the poor opportunities to subvert some of the inequities of the credit market by offering them alternative means to pay, but offering them an opportunity to participate in brand culture seems counterproductive—brands are about making the class structure visible, not effacing it. (Though brands associated with the poor would allow some sympathetic middle-class slummers to feel faux solidarity with the poor by using them, similar to how I earned all that street cred and deep understanding of black culture as a teenager by drinking Old English 40-ouncers in the rural Pennsylvania town where I went to college.) And there may be some bumps on the road, as when advertising people see just how destitute the poor are:

But communicating with low-income groups remains something of a mystery for multinational firms. Marketers and ad agencies are full of well-educated and well-off employees who know little about how the other half lives. A trip into slums or lower-class neighborhoods is frequently a “mind-blowing” experience, says Johnny Wei, Nestlé Brazil’s director of regionalization and low income.

Another problem, the inconvenient fact that the poor are uneducated. “lliteracy is one big challenge. In Brazil’s northeast, Unilever solved that problem by launching a brand of soap called Ala. ‘It’s three letters, and two are the same,’ says Fabio Prado, Unilever’s vice president of marketing for Brazil.” So apparently the poor are protected from marketing by the inconceivable misery of their lives and their lack of the basic education necessary to participate in the mainstream of public life. Perhaps I should try to remember that when I’m dreaming about being assaulted with fewer advertisements; abject poverty might be the cost of that dream.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/let-them-eat-brands/