I’m a traitor, a turncoat, a fence-jumper, and possibly having an identity crisis. Some of my friends feel betrayed, others feel like they’ve gained an ally, still others feel like they don’t know me anymore. I have mixed feelings of guilt, pride, defensiveness, and confusion. I don’t know if many of the people in my life will ever look at me the same way again. Certainly they won’t if they are looking at me in a recent selfie, since one of the advantages of my new life is that the front-facing camera on my new Android phone is much better than the one on my old iPhone.
I am a brand-betrayer. I’ve been “that Apple guy” for most of the last decade, an Apple evangelist even. I was an early adopter of the iPhone, and an apologist for it ever since. But no more. Now I’m an “Android phone guy”. Sure, I still use Apple computers (as well as a Windows computers, because they both have their advantages), but everyone knows that when you get a text message and pull out your handset that is simultaneously your connection to the rest of the world and a distraction from it, it’s either going to be an iPhone, or something else. People can tell a lot about you from your phone. They know how you operate, what’s important to you, what kind of person you are. They can tell whether you are a sophisticated, modern aficionado of contemporary industrial design, or a utilitarian, no-nonsense, all-business power-user.
People judge you on what kind of phone you use. I had no idea how much until I made the switch. As a member of team iPhone, I never noticed how much people believed in their iPhones. It seemed normal to me. Obviously iPhone is the superior device. I’m no fool, why would I have ever bought an inferior product? As one of these people, I had never been on the receiving end of the nose-wrinkling, smug disgust toward anything non-iPhone. Since becoming an iPhone outsider, I have been forced to wonder, have I been behaving that way all these years?
Of course I know, academically, that all this talk about judgment and character evaluation is superficial and not to be taken seriously. I even teach my business ethics students this very lesson. I use “consumerism” to indicate this kind of social behavior. I know “consumerism” is used lots of different ways in different contexts, but this is how I use it in that course. I’m covering that unit now, and just last week established the term. It works like this. Advertising comes in two flavors: transactional and branding. Transactional ads are ones that give you some information about some product or service. Branding ads don’t give you any information, but instead aim to change the way you feel about a brand. The danger of branding is that it asks you to identify with the values that a brand (ostensibly) represents. When lots of people internalize these brand values, they begin to understand themselves, their personal identity, through the brands that they buy. Their self-identity depends on their consumption. Hence, consumerism.
Here is an example that is both particularly easy to analyze and particularly relevant to my case.
I’m sure you’ve seen one of the ads from this campaign, perhaps even a parody of it. It was, in terms of recognition, very successful. I often use it as an example in business ethics class. In it we see two characters who figuratively represent not just products, but brands. It’s important to notice that the two characters don’t represent specific products. The two options are Mac and PC. Not Mac and Windows, Mac and Dell, or something else. Apple has set up a dichotomy here between Mac and everything else. So you, the consumer, have exactly two options. Do you want to be like the hip, young, creative, relaxed, attractive Mac guy, or the stiff, nerdy, uptight, boring PC guy? The ad implies that there are “Mac people” and “PC people” and that they have personalities that can be identified by the products they use (or more importantly, buy).
When our culture becomes one (and it has) where people make purchasing decisions based not on the qualities of the products but on the whether or not they believe those products reflect the identity that they want to project, then it becomes a consumerist culture.
Let’s face it, all computers (and all smartphones) do pretty much the same stuff. When we decide which one to buy, it’s rarely based on the properties of the device itself. They just aren’t very different. Sure, you might be used to doing things one way or another, and it would be inconvenient to have to learn new methods for getting things done (another strategy companies use to create an artificial barrier to switching once you’re in), but certainly you don’t think so little of yourself that you believe you couldn’t learn. When you decide to buy a Mac instead of a PC, Apple hopes that it’s at least in part because you think of yourself as the kind of person who uses a Mac. That’s where brand loyalty comes from.
Sure you might come to believe that the product you chose is objectively superior, or that it will provide tangible benefits to you over the alternative. But those are ad hoc justifications for a decision you made based on how you felt about the product and what kind of person you want to be. Cognitive psychologists call it “confirmation bias” when we cherry-pick evidence to support the position that we’ve already adopted. As consumers, we don’t want to feel foolish for having bought an inferior product (I’m going to stick with the example of computers or smartphones), so we insist that our choice was the best in the face of criticism from those who happen to have bought a competing product for the same feelingsy reasons. And because none of us want to admit (or are maybe not even aware of) our underlying motivations, we get into esoteric fights about megapixels and gigahertz, or when these measurements are not on our side, we can use more abstract metrics like “user experience” or “software ecosystems.”
I’ve taught this lesson for years, and it never occurred to me until now that I was as guilty as anyone else. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and turn in my iPhone, to abandon the comfortable hegemony of Apple’s walled garden for the untamed, shifting Otherness of Google’s Android platform. I admit, I had a period of homesickness when I discovered that some of the conveniences I had enjoyed would take some work to reestablish.
But on the whole, as I should have expected, my life has continued largely unchanged. I don’t regret my decision. And as I write this, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t even be a big deal. It wouldn’t be if consumerism wasn’t such a strong force, both internally and externally, in my life.
So I guess that’s the lesson, which I’m still learning. Consumerism is ubiquitous, insidious, and powerful. I’ve resisted the desire to detail the arguments I’ve heard in just the last few days for why my decision to change camps was either foolish or inspired, and to analyze all the ways in which these arguments are misguided, selfishly motivated, or just mean. I know my decision was neither a blunder nor an epiphany. It was an experiment. And it’s value in self-reflection alone was worth the price.