Brands, Interactivity, and Contested Fields: Exploring Production and Consumption in Cadillac and Infiniti Automobile Advertising Campaigns

By McCabe, Maryann; Malefyt, Timothy de Waal | Human Organization, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Brands, Interactivity, and Contested Fields: Exploring Production and Consumption in Cadillac and Infiniti Automobile Advertising Campaigns


McCabe, Maryann, Malefyt, Timothy de Waal, Human Organization


Brands mediate relations between production and consumption in capitalism. This essay aims to expand current discussions about brands by looking at the nature of interactivity between producers and consumers as a symbolic field of negotiation that can be contested. We argue that interactivity involves layers of representation and interpretation in the process of qualifying and requalifying products in the marketplace. The authors analyze two past advertising campaigns for luxury cars, Cadillac and Infiniti, to show how these brands were stabilized as cultural forms at one moment in time and why one was accepted and the other rejected by consumers. Our analysis concludes that objects of material culture in the highly reflexive branding practices of advanced capitalism reflect a dialectic embedded in an ongoing process of producers reading the consumer, and consumers assessing imagery communicated by the producer. At the heart of interactivity lies the contested and negotiated meaning of things in lived experience. This dialectic between producers and consumers indicates agency as mutually interactive on both the supply and the demand sides of capitalist activity.

Key words: branding, interactivity, agency, capitalism, advertising, automobiles

Introduction

A curious thing happened in the United States luxury automobile market a few years ago. Two manufacturers launched new vehicles with advertising campaigns that led to opposite results. General Motors developed a new Cadillac automobile line that was introduced to the public by the successful "Breakthrough" advertising campaign, celebrating the idea of crossing boundaries and charting new territory. Sales increased especially within the target population. Nissan entered the luxury car market with the Infiniti automobile line and an advertising campaign that associated luxury with the serenity of nature. Sales did not reach the intended mark.

As anthropologists who conducted ethnographic work for both companies, we were internal observers of how the branding and advertising efforts unfolded. This essay examines these two outcomes, one a feat, the other a folly, and focuses on branding as an economic and cultural process that engages producers and consumers in capitalist practice. Our purpose is to identify the dynamics between producers and consumers in developing brand meaning and, hence, to contextualize the location of agency in production and consumption.

In examining two automobile advertising campaigns, we contend that branding reveals a complex, dynamic, and ongoing process that involves negotiating layers of representation and interpretation by producers and consumers. Corporate marketers assign meaning to products and create brand identities based on their understanding of research on what products mean to consumers and on their own schémas and agendas for fitting their organization's lineup of products and brands into the competitive marketplace. Consumers, in turn, respond to both product and brand image through their own lived experiences with the brand. Because consumer response to product and/or brand image may be positive or negative (and if negative lead to further rounds of representation and interpretation), we argue that interactivity becomes a critical and necessary symbolic field of interaction and even contestation between marketers and consumers that leads to a negotiated meaning of the brand. Sometimes companies get it right, as Cadillac did with its "Breakthrough" advertising campaign, while other times companies need to redo their marketing strategy and advertising campaign, as did Nissan with its initially failed Infiniti ad campaign. The benefit of framing the brand as an interactive process of representation and interpretation is that it locates agency on both the production and consumption side of capitalist society.

Our vantage point on interactive branding comes from our direct relationship with General Motors and Nissan North America and more generally from our professional work conducting ethnographic market research for corporate clients. …

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