Perhaps one of the most recognizable ad campaigns in my lifetime, MasterCard’s string of “Priceless” commercials and print ads continue to spawn parodies and memes to this day.
The general format is typically the same: creating an experience costs money, but the experience itself is ‘priceless’. So, put the money part on your MasterCard and enjoy the rest.
The ads above depict experiences with very visible expense- a night dining out, tickets for a live show- and yet emphasizing the sentimental value of these experiences allows the monetary value to be downplayed. Something that is ‘priceless’ here both indicates that no amount of money could be traded for this experience….and thus any amount of money is worth spending for it.
This divergence of abstract, monetary and use value is at the center of our readings for this week, which looks at the experience of objects as they travel through the process of commoditization. Much of this commodifying process, the readings suggest, is structured within the society and the individuals who use and value these objects, and tension invariably results as people must navigate the varied equivalence of objects with cultural, personal or monetary value.
In Susan Strasser’s piece, Woolworth to WalMart: Mass Merchandising and the Changing Culture of Consumption, we see the progression of custom-made items to the massive dry goods and department stores which laid the groundwork for major big box retailers like WalMart today. In her piece, Strasser notes the campaigns once waged against both the rising monopoly of mass marketers and the labor practices utilized to keep prices low. Reading in 2019, these historic campaigns certainly echoed recent news digging into the abusive labor practices waged by companies like Amazon, and my own complicity within this society of consumers. Like the 19th century shoppers who railed against job loss as clerked grocery stores made way for self-service shopping, I detest these stories of abuse….but not yet enough to stop benefitting from one-day shipping and dirt-cheap prices.
In both Peter Stallybrass’ Marx’s Coat and Igor Kopytoff’s The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process, we see the varied ways that both the abstract and use value of object shift within both complex and simple economies, and how cultural structures typically determine these values.
While reading, my mind leapt to an article which just came out about the new smoking ban inside Pennsylvania prisons. I didn’t have commoditization on the brain at the time, but revisiting it from that perspective has made me wonder how Kopytoff would see analyze the economy that springs out this particular society. While the new, complete ban of tobacco products is cited as a health initiative, many working or involved in corrections have noted the disruption this may also bring to the prison economy, which has long revolved around cigarettes as a commodity. Reminiscent of Marx’s coat, which carried an exchange value often complicated by its abstract value (the coat must be pawned to put food on the table, but without the coat there is no respect, there is no research, etc.) one prisoner quoted in the article mentions the benefit of using cigarettes to pay for a clean load of laundry, with a fresh laundered shirt boasting a similar respectability value of Marx’s coat. Conversely, the potentiality of ramen flavor packets as a new form of currency invoked Kopytoff’s definition of ‘non-commodity’: nobody needs more soup, so no amount of .28 cent packets can equal the $5 pack of cigarettes.
These shifting understandings of value, both in prison and without, bring me back to a phrase my sister and I like to yell while running around a grocery store: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. How does the way a society does/doesn’t value labor, and who is performing the labor, shape the ways we understand the abstract value of these objects? How can the average consumer (like me) make the right choices for their income level without immediately becoming complicit in a vast network of invisible labor and capital?
Basically: can I be an ethical consumer and still get next day shipping?