‘The Joneses’. Concepts of social power, reference groups and opinion leaders.

‘The Joneses’ is a fictional story, yet its plot, for  all its unlikeness, is merely a fantastical extension of existing marketing strategies. Stealth marketing has been using actors posing as ordinary people to advertise and even sell their products for several years now. The main difference of the Jones family is that of scale – and there is no guarantee that some company will not try a stealth marketing strategy that involves not separate individuals, but a whole social unit After all, marketing one’s product to social units is potentially much more profitable then working with individuals. The social unit the Joneses pretend to be is a family in the ideal, conventional sense: highly-paid upper-middle-class father and mother with good-looking children popular amongst their peers. Each of them becomes an Initiator, Gatekeeper and Influencer all in one in what is supposed to be a collective decision making. This image of a perfect family is identical with lifestyle – their neighbors soon try to emulate what they see as a perfect life through brand-name conformity. This desire for a better life is inseparable from chase after status, which is signified in popular jargon as ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ – this phrase is unmistakably hinted at by the film’s name. Of course, this chain ‘brand name-social status-better life’ has been used in advertisements since year dot, but traditional advertisements can only present an image. Conspicuously, this ideal family lacks little children – its youngest members are at an age when parents, family and teachers are hardly role models and definitely don’t influence their buying choices. This may be explained not so much by ethical considerations, as by the limited usefulness of marketing to children – the results of a successful campaign may take years to bear fruit (necessary to wait until a child acquires a capability to make his own decisions and/or the financial resources to realize them) The advantage of stealth marketing is that it involves social interaction – something which makes the consumer much more interested while at the same time allowing the stealth marketer to change his tactics according to the situation and find an individual approach to a person or a social group. The character of Steven does just that when he starts positioning the goods he uses as a remedy against the dull, repetitive lifestyle of an average middle-aged, middle-class adult. He becomes the opinion leader of a reference group that does not know it’s a reference group. That illustrates just how hard it may be to separate Internal Stimuli from External Stimuli and Cultural Factors where a commercial organization isn’t involved.  That is another advantage of stealth marketing – the consumer does not know he’s being targeted, does not know he’s being advertised to. This lowers his defenses and allows him to believe that he himself is making the choice of a product, that he is picking the product that is especially for him. An old joke that ‘product consumption is American way of expressing individuality’ is a way of stating yet another strategy that has been circulating in marketing circles for a long time. However, when this technique is being applied not by corporations whose aim is known to be financial gain, but by ‘ordinary’ people, the effect is much better. Social power allows manipulating people without them knowing it.

Of course, the Jones family is not all it seems. It’s members are not only troubled, but half its members (the ‘children’) posses traits that are incompatible with an image of an ideal family (or socially adept young people). Naturally, when the element of ‘aspiring to’ is removed and an element of desirability is removed, the products they use lose their allure as well. After all, the whole power of such kind of marketing is that it does not advertise products, but lifestyle. Usual types of marketing involves people knowing they are a reference group and allows them to manipulate their opinion so as to present the image of them that they want other to see. The Joneses’ type of marketing does not involve opinion polling and does not allow the consumers to manipulate their behavior as they would before an official body. It could be called ‘lifestyle marketing’ – as instead of studying the demand for products and then developing products that would meet this demand, the Jones study the people’s wishes and desires and then persuade them that an existing product is what they need in order to fulfill them. Larry is an example of how these desire for a different, better life is capable of reaching heights far more tragic than the usual ‘consumer society’.

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