Thursday, August 18, 2011

Disloyalty Programs (25 April 2011)

This morning I opened a tub of yogurt and was confronted with the above image...

I was somewhat skeptical. If rewards are easy to get, maybe they are not actually rewards at all, and the word reward is being used to disguise what is really going on. At first I was thinking this was just another example of advertisers luring me into a species of magical thinking in which my specialness (that the company has somehow managed to recognize) allows me to take shortcuts not available to all the other losers out there. It tempts me to believe that what is true for me is different from what is true for the others, because after all, it is my world and the others are bit players in it. Almost all ads play on that sort of solipsism, dissolving the reality of other people's claims, the interdependencies of society, to present a far more convenient world where our consumer decisions are sovereign in the broadest sense -- the only kind of power that is real and worth exerting.

In this particular case, it seems that the yogurt company is wedding the promise of convenience to something that strikes me as rather inconvenient, logging personal information and participating in an online marketing scheme rather than eating yogurt and then going about one's business in life. A reward that comes easy is probably more accurately described as a gift (or even a "free gift"), but this yogurt company wants me to believe that I have somehow already earned the "rewards" they promise, and I all I have to do is enroll in their loyalty program and dutifully record the serial numbers of every tub of yogurt I eat henceforth. I show my loyalty to the yogurt company by reporting on myself to its website, but I don't earn the company's loyalty to me (in the form of coupons on their yogurt) until I have purchased enough of their product.

It seems to me that this is something of a disloyalty program. The yogurt company demands unearned fidelity from me up-front and then teaches me that "loyalty" should be repaid with systematically doled out rewards intended to make loyalty worth one's while. It teaches me the error of being loyal without a reward program; it teaches me that companies don't see themselves as owing anything to the occasional customer, and thus you shouldn't bother to patronize any particular company until they afford an opportunity for you to enroll you and acknowledge your special diligence. I am reminded that the market is not a sphere of inherent trust between parties who share ethical mores about fairness, but instead a sphere of competing loyalties where savvy players are subsidized by suckers who aren't negotiating special favors on the basis of their past behavior. The market doesn't situate us on a level playing field in which the usefulness of what we bring determines its value; instead it is a place where we leverage our reputation and engage in a kind of competitive self-reporting. The market doesn't let one escape the past and it doesn't offer equal opportunities or a level playing field -- it's a place where class advantages and social capital tilt outcomes; it's a place where the burden of the past is reiterated and reinforced, reinscribed again and again so that the pre-existing imbalances between negotiating parties can be reproduced if not exacerbated.

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