Rolex watches are well-recognized symbols of prestige and wealth within Western culture. These two advertisements blatantly reinforce this symbolism and cater to desires to increase one’s perceived wealth and status. The advertisements promote the act of conspicuous consumption – the purchasing of items for their social meaning and visibility, rather than their actual utility. Instead of showcasing the functions of the watch, that is, to simply tell the time like all other watches, both advertisements highlight a Rolex’s ability to indicate personal achievement.
People shape their identities through conspicuous consumption by purchasing items that “say” something about them. According to these ads for example, owning a Rolex watch suggests that one has been successful. The advertisements pair the product with accomplished individuals to forge a relationship between achievement and Rolex ownership. Additionally, the slogan “Rolex. A crown for every achievement.” has little to do with what the consumer can do with the product, and much to do with what the product represents. Focus is drawn toward the way a Rolex watch can portray a certain type of persona, and thus, how any individual can adopt that persona through consumption of this product. Consumers are presumably aware that all watches function to tell time, so Rolex takes a different approach in marketing the uniqueness of its product.
As the advertisement suggests, what differentiates a Rolex from other watch brands is the message it sends about the people who wear one – that they are intelligent, talented, rich in social capital and financially wealthy. This message strategically coincides with constructions of an ideal identity. The advertisement is powerful in that it appeals to people’s motive to attain what is seen as desirable. It sells an image rather than a product, thereby providing conspicuous consumers with that which they were truly shopping for, that is, a certain identity. By drawing attention to the positive social meaning of goods, a company can sell its product at a higher cost than a product with the same utility, but which does not relay the same message(s). Advertisements play an integral role in conspicuous consumption because they inform consumers of what a specific product “says”. Rather than utility, a product’s model, appearance or in this case, brand, are made important because of the message associated with each aspect. Through buying products of a specific model, appearance or brand, individuals also obtain the associated trait(s).
The issue with conspicuous consumption is that it can result in the formation of false identities. By purchasing goods for their meaning, individuals construct themselves through their socially visible assets instead of through their behaviour. Consumers are able to adopt various characters through what they buy, and can do so without actually embodying the traits associated with a certain character. This permits character fluidity, but prevents the development of stable self-images. Lack of self-knowledge and an ever-changing personality can lead to host of personal, psychological problems, as well as contribute to an inauthentic environment. Conspicuous consumption inhibits the formation of strong relationships because individuals hide behind false representations of themselves and are unable to find those who actually share in their same interests.
Advertising towards conspicuous consumers is a manipulative tactic. It takes advantage of individual insecurities and media pressures which dictate how people “should be”. In fact, conspicuous advertising is a source of pressure itself. By promoting the statement(s) made by a certain product, advertisers indicate that such qualities are desirable, and thus, that people should strive to model such these traits or identities. The growth of this type of advertising, along with the strengthening of the media as an institution of socialization, places individuals at greater risk of feeling inferior because their characters do not reflect social “ideals”. The media intentionally creates negative self-images and then provides the solutions – products – to overcoming them. This method suppresses uniqueness and self-acceptance. Furthermore, it motivates individuals to take on debt in the attempt to present themselves in a certain light and seemingly improve their character. One must be critical of conspicuous consumption and advertising in order to prevent North Americans from plunging deeper into a hyper-materialistic culture in which reality and falseness are difficult to distinguish.