Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Culture - it actually changes

I'm teaching Consumer Behavior this summer and yesterday we talked about culture.  The University of Minnesota defines culture in its research of language acquisition as "the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization."  I like this definition of culture because if focuses on the fact that we learn it through socialization - culture is a way of understanding our surroundings or society.  It is a reflection of the beliefs, values, knowledge, art, etc... of a society.  Through culture we establish norms (expected behavior) and sanctions (how we are punished when we break the norms).

Advertisements, imho, are a great barometer of a society's culture and how it is changing.  By looking at mass-marketed or main-stream products and media vehicles we can get a sense of what are the norms.  If we study advertisements over a period of time, we can see shifts and changes in culture/norms based on the images/copy, etc... that are used.  Notice that I said main stream products and media.  Every society has sub-cultures as a part of it, and those sub-cultures have different norms - some of which may be in direct conflict with the majority/society Culture.  You can look to publications that target very specific subcultures to see these differences.

Times have changed drastically from when my grandmother who was born in 1902 and divorced by the time the 1940s rolled around was in her youth.  A divorced female was looked upon much differently by society in 1940 than she would be today in 2012.  Today, we most likely don't think differently of a person if they say they are divorced, but in the 1940s it was scandalous.  You can see the same changes with single-mothers and stay-at-home-dads.  The images of both of these in advertising has become acceptable, part of our media and part of our culture.  The sanctions have been removed (in the greater culture, there are still sub-cultures that would have sanctions in place).

I often tell my students that I remember standing in WalMart staring at a pop display for Budweiser.  I would show you a picture from my smartphone - but this was in pre-camera-phone days, so I don't have one, but I can't forget what it depicted - a white man dancing with a black woman.  This was a mainstream retailer that markets to the masses and a display for the 'American" of me it indicated as sure as anything that mainstream culture had changed, and that acceptance of interracial couples was going to increasingly become more prevalent.  I also knew that more couples in ads and in media would be interracial - reflecting what was already happening in our society.  Culture had finally caught up with reality and many of the norms/sanctions had changed.

Right now, I believe that we are seeing a change in culture depicted in the advertisements that are appearing in mainstream media and for mass marketed products or brands.  Here's an ad for Macy's that illustrates the shift in motion:

Now, I'll be honest with you.  I read about this advertisement before I ever saw it.  The article said Macy's had come out for gay marriage and this was the advertisement that proved it.  I found the ad - and I stared at it.  I thought I had the wrong one, so I found an article about it with the ad depicted - with the blown-up cake, and finally I got it.  It says a lot about how perception works that I didn't 'get' what was 'gay' about the ad - I saw a wedding cake and in my heterosexual girl universe, I just assumed there was a groom and bride on it and paid it no mind.  I also found out that since 2008, Macy's has actively supported gay marriage in their advertisements in certain sections of the country (think sub-cultures that are accepting of what in the mainstream culture is still sanctioned by many).  Has there been backlash from this ad - absolutely, reported about several groups that were upset at the advertisement.

JCPenney's is also taking a very public stand - and for a company that is trying desperately to re-brand it may be seen as risky or attention grabbing.  First, JCP chose Ellen Degeneres, 54, to be their spokesperson for their rebranding as a price conscious retailer - no sales, no coupons, just plain pricing. Several groups objected to the use of Degeneres as a spokesperson because of her sexual orientation.  The objections grew when the following appeared in their May catalog - focused on Mother's Day:

I thought it was a group of women enjoying themselves - boy was I off base.  It seems if you read the copy you discover that grandma, on the left, is being photographed with her daughter, her daughter's lover and their two kids.  One Million Moms called for a boycott of JCP:  
“It’s obvious that JCP would rather take sides than remain neutral in the culture war,” OMM writes. “JCP will hear from the other side, so they need to hear from us as well. Our persistence will pay off! One day we will answer for our actions or lack of them. We must remain diligent and stand up for Biblical values and truth. Scripture says multiple times that homosexuality is wrong, and God will not tolerate this sinful nature.”
JCP answered the boycott in their June catalog with the following ad:

Now, here is the big question for all the marketers out there - does JCP's continued use of gay couples indicate a shift in what is culturally accepted by the majority of Americans (the mass market) or is it a publicity stunt?  My guess, for what it is worth, is JCP is trying to appeal to a younger demographic, of which, the majority does not have issues with gay/lesbian couples.  In an email to ABC News, JC Penney spokesman Joseph Thomas said that "In celebration of Father's Day, we're proud that our June book honors men of diverse backgrounds who share the joy of fatherhood."  American culture is amazingly diverse, and what JCP's comment points to is a shift in culture to accepting another form of diversity.
If we continue to see more and more gay/lesbian couples depicted in advertisements and in entertainment media, I believe what we'll be watching is the change from something being sanctioned by a culture to acceptance being the norm for the majority culture and the groups that disagree with this will be sub-cultures - not the majority of the society - and have norms/sanctions that are against this behavior.

There are more examples out there of this cultural shift both in advertisements, Gap's Be One billboard, and entertainment media, DC and Marvel comics introducing gay superheroes and story lines.  It seems, that back in 1992 Marvel introduced Northstar, a Canadian superhero who was gay.  This June he ties the knot with his boyfriend in The Astonishing X-men #51.  The times and culture are changing - before our very eyes.  If you are a marketer, you better pay attention to where your target market's values fall in regard to these changing norms.