Fashion Marketing 101: The Pushers

SeriesInundated with marketing messages, Americans adjust their spending belt.

Editor’s Note: This four-part series from a leading industry insider is authored under the pseudonym “Louise Lagosi” for the individual’s protection. The series addresses our engagement with consumer culture and how marketing and advertising can manipulate us – and society as a whole.

Whether or not you are aware of it, this image of celebrity Jennifer Aniston is embedded with psychological material. Her honey-blond hair and softly-lit, Photoshopped face is childlike and dewy. Her intense attention to the money in her hand while clutching her designer bag loaded with more cash oozes power, sex, wealth, and control. The photograph even uses markers to pinpoint these little features while at the same time promoting the items you might want to buy if you wish to look like this. Celebrity, eternal youth, power, wealth, sex: That’s what this carefully articulated image has to offer up for sale.

But at face value, what is it really giving you?

Now, look at these photographs. What do you see? Realize that any previously presented Anistonian aspirations are absolute nonsense. She’s an attractive woman to be sure, but she’s only human. Even Jennifer Aniston doesn’t live the life that Jennifer Aniston leads in the above glossy magazine image.

Presenting Jennifer looking average or even shabby is playing up the competitive side of our human natures, getting us to compare ourselves to her, picking her apart, and at the same time picking ourselves apart through the comparison. We’re being primed to react defensively to the first image: Go shopping. But, at the end of the day, what does Jennifer Aniston have to do with our personal lives, and why do we find ourselves looking at her and other celebrity personalities with the obsession that we do?

Stuck In An Advertising Ambush

Are we truly tired of the messages that ads and the media are sending us? If you’re falling out of love with your relationship to fashion and shopping in general, join the club. It’s still a small one, but it is rapidly growing as our living spaces and surroundings are cluttered with stuff while our credit cards are maxed out. We need very little and yet we seem to want so much. And everywhere we look we see both evasive and aggressive marketing campaigns which bombard us with advertisements on a daily basis, suggesting that we need to buy more to gain beauty, glamor and fabulosity. In fact, if fashion were a drug, it would be almost impossible to kick the habit; there are pushers on every corner.

President of the Marketing Firm Yankelovich, Jay Walker-Smith, stated in a CBS news article, “It’s a non-stop blitz of advertising messages. Everywhere we turn we’re saturated with advertising messages trying to get our attention. It seems like the goal of most marketers and advertisers nowadays is to cover every blank space with some kind of brand logo or a promotion or an advertisement.”

Research from the late 1950s to the 1970s has shown that the average person 40 to 50 years ago was exposed to somewhere between 78-500 ads a day. Walker Smith points out that today we’re exposed to as many as 5,000.

NYC The Blog reports on the first NYC subway train completely wrapped in advertising

The tipping point is coming. Do-not-call. Adblock. “We have to screen it out because we simply can’t absorb that much information. We can’t process that much data,” Walker-Smith notes, “and no surprise, consumers are reacting negatively to the kind of marketing blitz; the kind of super saturation of advertising that they’re exposed to on a daily basis.”

There’s even an advertising company, cleverly called Wizmark, that’s putting advertisements in urinals. “You can’t look left. You can’t look right. You have to look at the ad and listen to it,” Richard Deutch, CEO of Wizmark brags with tongue firmly set in cheek.

Buying Into Luxury Brand Ads

Over the last 20 years, the fashion industry has employed numerous marketing tactics to drive consumers into a shopping frenzy, making industry giants enormously rich. Investing in “brand strengthening,” companies cultivate consumer loyalty which equates to high numbers in sales, quite often, from returning customers who have bought into the message that the brand’s advertisements are selling.

Take, for example, one of the most competitive luxury brands in the world: Louis Vuitton. In 2010, Louis Vuitton spent some $14 million on advertising during the first quarter. Their ad campaign appeared all over the pages of luxury lifestyle magazines, news publications, and across the internet where affluent shoppers would see them while shopping. Surprisingly, it was not enough to stimulate their consumer demand because in 2011, during the same quarter, they increased their budget to $22 million ( a 57% budget increase). The steep increase in ad spend could hardly be considered a coincidence.

The above ads were just about everywhere you looked in New York City during the spring of 2011. Louis Vuitton employed a small army of campaign advertisements to seduce luxury consumers back after the Great Recession.

In 2010, Consumer Reports revealed a noticeable trend that consumers were changing their habits: Shopping less, saving more, and choosing products that they equate with craftsmanship, practicality, and social values (think TOMS shoes) rather than luxury status “bling”. Bling is out. The reports also revealed that this new trend was not likely to go away anytime soon; it wasn’t merely a reaction to economic pressure, this new consumer was an entirely different beast living by a new set of rules. All of those advertisements were the velvet-gloved iron fist of Louis Vuitton attempting to coax the mass of luxury and aspirational consumers back into their former position of brand submission.

If you took eight LV samples and stuck them in a trash compactor, out would pop this expensive little piece of “limited edition” baggage called the LV Tribute Patchwork Bag. This particular bag might have cost approximately $3000 to make, but was sold exclusively to only 20 customers (worldwide) for $42,000 a pop in select stores.

What’s $36 million in advertising? Chump change to a company like Louis Vuitton that wants to ensure a dominant market position doesn’t erode. (In 2011, LVMH, the company that owns LV, boasted in their company quarterly report net profits of over $2 billion in fashion and leather goods sales alone.)

If you’re selling logo-covered, luxury-status, vinyl-canvas handbags with the words “Louis Vuitton” stamped on them, you can charge consumers a premium. The price tag we see can be anywhere between 250-1400% of the expense of making even a very well-made bag. The more expensive price tags (in the $1000+ range) subsidize the basic vinyl tote bags Louis Vuitton offers in the hundreds, allowing the company to lure the aspirational middle class with “affordable” luxury.

To the luxury fashion consumer, the primary value is not in the the design, the materials, or even the quality of labor that goes into the bag – it’s in the social status that the advertisements and exclusive products offer to customers. And over the past 20 years, while there have been many consumers that have bought right into the dream, there are those conscious customers who have simply walked away. After all, who really needs another logo-plastered tote when there are already so many of them out there?