Marketing’s Catch 22.

Last year, the blog Dirt ran an excellent commentary from cultural critic W. David Marx on NFTs as status symbols.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a form of decentralized online commerce that have been derided as speculative investment vehicles. The most famous are the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, a series of digital “artworks” (used here in the most charitable sense) that exploded in value and then crashed in about a year. They are the reason why most people hear “NFT” and think “very expensive monkey cartoon.” People like Steph Curry and Tom Brady dished out huge money to buy one only to sell it to someone willing to dish out even more money to buy one for no other reason except Steph Curry and Tom Brady have dished out huge money to buy one.

This is “greater fool theory.” It posits that the value of certain things depends less on any intrinsic or practical worth and more on your ability to find someone who will pay more for it than you did. It’s been an aspect of status symbols forever, applying to luxury goods, art, and the like well before NFTs came around.

In the Dirt blog, Marx (David, not Karl) identifies three properties of status symbols:

  • Signalling costs: “Rich people buy very expensive things to show they can.”
  • Cachet: “Clear associations with existing high-status groups.”
  • Alibis: “Plausible excuses for ownership other than the intentional acquisition of status symbols.”

The last one is important, because it points to a paradox with all status symbols: “The intentional signalling of a status is a low status activity.” When you buy a Rolex or Ferrari primarily for the purpose of being seen wearing a Rolex or driving a Ferrari, you’re making the exact opposite impression of the one you mean to make. “This is why luxury brands talk endlessly about unprecedented craftsmanship, brilliant design, or engineering prowess — to sell a veneer of functionalism that hides raw positional marking,” Marx writes.

This, as we say, is marketing baby. Advertising luxury goods is all about communicating how a particular product or service makes you feel and that feeling is, a great majority of the time, wealthy: comfort, exclusivity, the admiration and/or envy of others, etc. It’s a status game writ large.

Crucially, the fact that we are trying to elicit these feelings is never explicit. It can’t be because then it wouldn’t work. Think of the word “luxury.” When it’s overused (and I can say with some authority that in new home advertising, it is) the products seem less luxurious. The alibi is blown wide open.

Now, you might conclude from this that the most effective advertising comes from the best liars. But that’s only true if the feeling is artifice. The most effective alibis need to correspond to reality and do so in interesting ways. Good advertising reveals something about the product or experience, telling you how you’ll interact with what you’re buying rather than how the people selling it (me) would like you to interact with it. It isn’t usually aspirational — it’s descriptive.

There is another level to this. The greatest advertising also shapes the interaction. Consider Coca Cola’s “Open Happiness” or any of the dozens of their magical holiday ads. These campaigns not only increase the salience of the feelings you associate with this drink but seed new ones (wonder, nostalgia, etc.). It becomes something more than whatever sugary buzz you might get from drinking a Coke.

But those feelings still need a real-life corollary which, in the case of Coke, is that sugary buzz. Whatever else the advertising says, the story it tells about the experience with the product still needs to feel true. One of the reasons NFTs like Bored Apes plummeted in value is because the centre couldn’t hold. A mass generated cartoon image wasn’t enough to prop up the overpriced framework on which this status game was being played. When the money dried up, there was nothing left.

You have to start with something more. We as advertisers have to be honest about what that something is, even if we’re never honest about why you really want it.

Tristan Bronca is the lead copywriter at Impact North.