Idols of the Tribe: Brand Veneration, Group Identity, and the Impact of School Uniform Policies

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The imposition of school uniform policies across the country presents an interesting opportunity for marketing researchers to examine the behavior of consumers in response to real world changes in the social context of consumption. School uniform policies are especially interesting phenomena in that they often seek to change the consumption patterns of young consumers and in doing so, change their behaviors in a specified direction. This paper utilizes the context of a school uniform policy to explore general consumption attitudes of school-aged children toward their clothing. The concept of "brand veneration " is introduced here as a way of thinking about the psychological and social importance that the students in this study place on their clothing. An analogy is developed here linking the emphasis on brand named clothing by students to the use of totems by tribal groups. Data derived from interviews, focus groups and the words of the students themselves, as presented in the analysis of written essays, form the basis for the analogy. Larger issues of the role of symbols in the formation and maintenance of group identity are considered.

INTRODUCTION

This paper utilizes a case study approach in examining a recently implemented school uniform policy in order to explore more general issues of adolescent consumption. It expands the discussion beyond the policy implications of the movement and into basic research on consumption and social influences. The focus of school uniform movements on enhancing the quality of the educational experience in public schools as well as public safety makes the issue important from a public policy standpoint (Crockett and Wallendorf, 1998). More directly related to the present discussion, however, is the occasionally expressed goal of eliminating social boundaries within the school through the elimination the clothing that contributes to boundary formation and maintenance. Several key rationalizations have been forwarded by proponents of uniform policies (Crockett and Wallendorf, 1998). The major justifications for such policies include the following: Uniform policies; (1) eliminate outward evidence of class/income disparities, (2) reduce incidences of theft/violence over expensive brand names, (3) head off the possibility of gang violence resulting from the purposeful or accidental display of gang colors/symbols, (4) eliminate general distractions over the types of clothes worn or not worn by students, (5) recognizes the shared commitment among students of learning as the most important duty, and, (6) creates a sense of community within the school.

Opponents of uniform policies argue that the emphasis on uniform policies attract attention away from other policy changes that could and should be made toward improving the school environment and the process of learning. They also argue that school uniforms punitively constrain self-expression manifested through dress and therefore impinge on the rights of children.

Marketing scholars should be especially aware and interested in the implementations and implications of these policies since the policies often seek to directly address potentially negative consequences ranging from the promotion of "crass materialism"; to violence and theft of heavily demanded clothes; to marketing influences on children's preference formation and consequent behavior (see for example Pollay, 1986).

It is posited here that clothes, and specifically brand named clothes, are among the most important symbolic representations of group identity and belongingness within the subcultures of late childhood-early adolescence in the US. Mass merchandising, mass media and the convergence of social norms that result from the two have resulted in the spread of youthful culture, particularly its material manifestations, to communities throughout the US and the world The debate over school uniform policies provides something of a "critical incident" in American history that can shed light on the pervasive role of fashion and materialism in the lives of young people. …