Brands, Advertising and Commodity Fetishism

Are brands and commodities ‘a way of being’?

This lecture encouraged us to question if brands and commodities define us, or if we use them to design ourselves.

Karl Marx’s theory of ‘Commodity Fetishism’ defines the irrational preference for one commodity over another, suggesting that there is no difference between two objects, but people will prefer one over the other. This links into critic Georg Simmel’s, 1957, theory that the value of an object is dependent on the value given by the subject.

Marx suggests in Das Kapital that material possessions have ‘mystical character’ both as signals of social status and expressions of individuality (Bogart, 1995). This idea is unified with Bauldrillard’s notion of ‘sign value’, which describes the value granted to an object because of the social status the possessor gives it, and not the actual material value and functionality of the object. An example of this could be the value a buyer gives to a high end product such as a Rolex watch, although they are also valuing it’s functionality, they are more interested in it acting as a sign to signify their wealth to society.

The value an individual gives to an object mean human beings have become subordinate to their own creations, one feels impaired when they lose their phone because we have been convinced that we need them to get on with our daily lives. It is the marketing of brands that have convinced us that their product has more value than it does, answering the question that for many consumers, that brands and commodities are in fact ‘a way of being’.

In an opposite argument to this, Professor of Cultutal Studies Mica Nava and and political commentator Neal Lawson, 2010, suggests that Bauldrillard’s notion of ‘sign value’ is not necessarily a bad thing. They argue that there is a “part of a broader need in modern mobile societies to be recognised, to be visible, to belong”, highlighting that feeling that you look good through the objects you buy is a source of social power, and enables a lot of people to improve their lives, and build confidence, and this isn’t something that should be undervalued.

The origins of our attachment and reliance on objects, in the case of brands such as Gillette, is compelling. In 1901, King Gillette invented the disposable razor blade. He then sold this in bulk to the army with a large discount, he also sold it to banks to give away for free with new deposits and likewise his razors were given out free with chewing gum, coffee and tea, spices and even marshmallows. By giving them out for free to a mass audience, he was creating a demand for his disposable blades (Anderson, 2008). Gillette became, and remains today, a household name because of this, and similar common strategies can be seen in place now with phone shops giving free phones when customers purchase monthly plans or when video consoles are sold cheap whilst all the games needed to play on it are expensive.


Reference List

Anderson, C. and Staff, W. (2008) Free! Why $0.00 is the future of business. Available at: (Accessed: 1 March 2016).

Bogart, L. (2000) Commercial culture: The media system and the public interest (Second edition). 2nd edn. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Nava, M. and Lawson, N. (2010) Is shopping all bad?. Available at: (Accessed: 1 March 2016).

Simmel, G. (1957) ‘Fashion’. The American Journal of Sociology, Volume 63 [Preprint]. Available at: (Accessed: 28/02/16).

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