Boycotts And Buycotts: How We Use Money To Express Ourselves

Apr 24, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 4:45 pm

Americans have long expressed their political views with their wallets, but in recent months, this phenomenon has made national news. A campaign called #grabyourwallet has targeted brands affiliated with Donald Trump. And the Trump camp has responded in kind, with one of his closest aides encouraging people to support his daughter Ivanka's brand.

Neeru Paharia is a researcher at Georgetown University, and she says this kind of economic activity can make us feel powerful.

"It seems like people are a little fed up and disillusioned with conventional political channels," Paharia says. "In the absence of that legitimacy there has been sort of a rise in political consumerism."

We might think that we use money mostly to satisfy economic needs, but Paharia has found in her research that we often aim to satisfy psychological ones — whether that means driving a fancy car to show off our social status, or buying coffee at the local shop instead of a chain to express our moral values.

But while we do use money to support causes we believe in, we are often selective about when we express those beliefs — and when we ignore them.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Americans have long expressed their political views with their wallets. In recent months, this has ramped up with boycotts and with buycotts. That's where people express support by buying a company's products.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For months now, Nordstrom has been on a list of Trump-affiliated companies to boycott.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is just - it's a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully - I'm going to just give it - I'm going to give it free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I believe Uber recently due to what happened at JFK Airport when it appeared that Uber was essentially trying to break the strike...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fueled the outrage and led to some people to call for a boycott of the airline.

NEERU PAHARIA: It seems like people are a little fed up and disillusioned with sort of conventional political channels where they would normally sort of express their political views. And so in the absence of that legitimacy, there's been sort of a rise in political consumerism.

VEDANTAM: Neeru Paharia is a marketing professor at Georgetown University. She studies how consumer behavior often serves psychological needs, rather than economic needs. When we think about the way we spend money, we may think about the comfort of a nice pair of shoes while the pleasure of a great meal.

But money also serves a deeper purpose. We use money to express our feelings, to project our status, to defend our values. The products we buy tell stories, stories that we tell others, stories that we tell ourselves.

PAHARIA: For a small coffee shop, people don't really think much of the political situation. But as soon as you put a large competitor in next door - say, you put a Starbucks in next door, all of a sudden it becomes this fight between the little guy and the big guy.

VEDANTAM: How Money Can Talk, this week on Hidden Brain. Neeru Paharia says she first became interested in the psychological power of consumer products because of the diamond industry.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The diamond engagement ring - how else could two months salary last forever?

PAHARIA: I studied economics as an undergraduate, and one thing they tell you as an economics major is that people are rational.

VEDANTAM: But as far as Neeru could tell, there was nothing particularly rational about buying a diamond. Now, you can argue that diamonds are beautiful, but there are cheaper stones that are just as pretty.

PAHARIA: So then the question is why are people spending so much money on these shiny rocks that have no intrinsic value? You know, there's effectively a perfect substitute, and then it seemed like it was all this kind of psychological stuff that people wanted to express their status. People wanted to kind of fit in with sort of the normative practices in terms of marriage.

And it's just sort of dawned on me that products have all this psychological value and that's worth real money. I mean, a whole industry is based on just sort of pure kind of signaling and psychological value. And I found that to be really interesting and sort of at odds with this notion that people are rational.

VEDANTAM: This idea made Neeru think about the other ways we use money as a signaling device to express our beliefs and our values.

PAHARIA: We enact our political will usually by voting or supporting different kinds of legislations and things like that. So it's kind of interesting when people start taking that civic actions - these kind of civic actions into the market and then start by calling or boycotting a certain brand or a certain company in order to express their view.

And you can kind of think about it in terms of what ends up being more tangible? So if we think about voting, it's sort of an abstract process. It's not very public, whereas when you buy a product or avoid buying a product it's very tangible.

VEDANTAM: If you are someone who doesn't buy flashy jewelry, you may say, OK, I'm not one of those people who uses money to talk - maybe. Or maybe you just don't use diamonds to talk, you use coffee.

PAHARIA: I've studied the situations between small coffee shops and large coffee shops. And so I have a paper where we show that for a small coffee shop, if it's just sitting there by itself, people, you know - people don't really think much of the political situation. They just think more about the coffee sort of about the more rational economic features and attributes of the product.

But as soon as you put a large competitor in next door - say, you put a Starbucks in next door - all of a sudden it becomes this fight between the little guy and the big guy. And then buying your cup of coffee is really meaningful. All of a sudden, it's a symbol of what you believe in. It's a symbol of you supporting the little guy, of you supporting the underdog and trying to stick it to the man. And it's so tangible.

And I just find it so fascinating that that's sort of how we kind of express our political views on a daily basis, and we feel, you know, powerful in a sense that we actually sort of have a say in the situation.

VEDANTAM: Companies, of course, pay attention to what consumers want. They understand that people don't just want to buy a cup of coffee or a computer, they want the right story to go with that cup of coffee or computer. This is why so many Silicon Valley companies that are worth billions of dollars spend so much time telling us about their origin stories, how two kids dropped out of college to explore a dream in someone's garage.

PAHARIA: So this is what we call - we have another paper around underdog brand biographies and this sort of idea of kind of starting in a garage from humble beginnings, but overcoming obstacles to kind of fulfill your dream, that's a really compelling narrative especially to Americans I think because of the whole kind of pull yourself up from your bootstraps and this whole notion of the American dream.

And so companies that take advantage of that narrative, and if they use it effectively even as they grow, can kind of remind consumers that, you know, this was a small company, and they might, you know, identify with it more and less, you know, like penalize them less for being a large company. There tends to be sort of a - kind of an aversion or a disdain for large companies. People tend to kind of identify a lot more with smaller companies.

VEDANTAM: And you tell the story of Nantucket Nectars which also has the same sort of start-up story.

PAHARIA: A lot of companies, they talk about how Nantucket Nectars in particular talks about how they started with a blender and a dream. And Clif Bar talks about how, you know, they started in their garage with - he was living with his dog and his skis and, you know, was cooking.

And is, you know, it's a sort of underdog narrative that makes use of this sort of external disadvantages, but really, you know, trying hard - and I think people really find that story resonating because I think we all on some level feel like underdogs. And so it sort of is - can be motivating to us.

VEDANTAM: Companies are also extremely skilled at selling us things that are tied to a certain sense of identity. I remember this set of ads that Apple was running some years ago where they basically suggested that people who bought Macs were hipper and cooler than people who bought PCs.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Hello. I'm a Mac.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: I'm afraid to ask.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Well, I was sitting on my desk.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Someone walked by, carelessly tripped over my power cord, yanked me straight down to the ground. Bam.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Yikes. Macbooks come with this power cord that connects magnetically So when it gets pulled, it just pops right off, and everything's just kind of thought out. You know, like the tiny built-in eyesight camera...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: My life is flashing before my eyes. I see a sunset in a field of beautiful wheat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Isn't that your screen saver?


VEDANTAM: They were basically saying if you buy this kind of computer, it sends a signal of the kind of person you are. It's not so much about your status, but how cool you are.

PAHARIA: Yeah. And I think being cool is also a form of status. You know? You want to - and there's actually recent research on this by Warren and Campbell. And they talk about how coolness is essentially another way of kind of signaling your status which can be very compelling to certain groups of consumers who want to signal their autonomy, that they're not just drones and just kind of following the masses, but they - that they're autonomous, that they have kind of control and are kind of independently minded.

VEDANTAM: There is some irony here in an advertising campaign by a major company trying to convince people that if you buy products made by that company, you're actually acting independently and autonomously when in fact the advertising is actually making you do what the company wants you to do.

PAHARIA: Yeah, it is interesting. I mean, I remember in high school that there was a whole group of kids who would wear Metallica shirts, and they were trying to show how different they were. But yet they were all wearing Metallica shirts, and so they were sort of - it sort of defeated the purpose on some level. But it wasn't a - it wasn't immediately apparent to them.

VEDANTAM: One thing that Neeru has found is that consumers are attracted not just to high-end brands, but to powerful brands. Wal-Mart can be a status symbol.

PAHARIA: Yeah. It's kind of interesting. So there's this relationship between status and power and so status is a way - is sort of what we get when we have power. And so when we think about power, we can think about Wal-Mart as being a really powerful brand.

It has a lot of strength in the marketplace and so that strength, that kind of access to power having a lot of resources as a brand in itself even though it's kind of a low-end brand, if you compare it to other low-end brands that can be kind of attractive to people who care about status.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to speak to Neeru about how we use money not just to express our values but to ignore them. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Many of us understand the economic choices we make can have real ethical consequences. The products we buy can adversely affect the environment or take advantage of poor people in distant countries. We can buy stuff from stores that treat their employees well or we can buy things sometimes at a cheaper price from stores that treat their employees poorly.

Often after a big news story about conditions in sweatshops or the use of child labor, there's public outrage. But as Neeru Paharia has explored, our actions don't always match our rhetoric. She once wrote a paper on the subject titled "Sweatshop Labor Is Wrong Unless The Shoes Are Cute."

PAHARIA: The idea there is that you kind of decide how much you like something and so you really like a pair of shoes. And so then kind of the moral reasoning starts from there. It doesn't start from kind of a neutral place where you're like - you say, oh, sweatshop labor is wrong. You know, under any circumstances, I don't want to subject people to these unfortunate working conditions. It actually starts at a place where you're like, well, the products are really nice. And the shoes look really good on me. And then you start reasoning about it, and that's called motivated reasoning. So rather than think about morality in terms of this kind of objective thing, we kind of think about it more like a lawyer. So we decide what we want and then we kind of come up with the reasons to support it. So we may say, oh, if we see a pair of shoes that we don't like, we may say, oh, sweatshop labor is wrong. I don't like sweatshop labor. I don't approve.

But if the shoes are cute, you might say something like, oh, it's OK because people need jobs or companies need to make money. So you'll be more likely to agree with these things because you're motivated in a sense the shoes are really cute. You really want them and so you want to find a way to kind of reconcile your kind of distaste for this situation and the kind of the reality of it.

VEDANTAM: And you've actually conducted experiments which showed that people are more likely to reach for these kinds of rationalizations when they actually like a product.

PAHARIA: Yes. Exactly. So if they like a product if you show them sort of an attractive pair of shoes, they'll be more likely to agree with these economic justifications. If you show them an unattractive pair of shoes, all of a sudden they become these kind of moral animals who say, oh, no, it's wrong. And so the idea is that we just decide what is moral based on how much we want something.

VEDANTAM: One thing you've looked at is that we're often willing to go along with products that are ethically problematic, so long as we can come up with a way to distance ourselves from the unethical behavior that produced it. The more distance we can put between ourselves and the unethical behavior or the unethical action, the easier it becomes to perform.

So this goes to the idea that if I went to the grocery store and asked for a chicken, and they went out and killed a chicken for me, I would feel worse about that than if I was just picking up the chicken from, you know - from a tray. And, of course, in both cases, a chicken had to be killed, but in one case I feel like I have actually asked for the chicken to be killed. In the other case, the dirty work has already been done.

PAHARIA: Yeah. So there's a number of things that sort of enable us to not feel so close to the harm. I mean, essentially you're buying a product from a company, but what you're doing is you're hiring them to do kind of this dirty work for you. So, say, any clothing company - they're the ones who hire, you know, a child and maybe, you know, under some unfortunate conditions. You're not directly actually hiring that person, but I think the second thing that happens is this idea of the order of how kind of supply and demand happens.

So we live in an economy where most items are produced first, and so they're already produced. They're already in the store. And so when you go to the store, the damage has been done so to speak. So it's already been done. It's already happened. But imagine that you went into that same store, and you had to order your chicken or your clothes on demand. So if you order it on demand, you know, they - then they will put a child, you know, have them work under these unfortunate conditions and then you start feeling responsible and guilty for this situation, where when it's already happened, you feel like, oh, well, it's already happened. And I'm not responsible for it.

And I think people don't really kind of see this broader role that consumers have in creating demand for these kinds of products. They don't see that A causes B because it sort of happens backwards, that they actually make the product first and then you decide if you want it.

But if we lived in an economy that was all on demand, then it would happen the other way. You would decide you want it, and then they would make it. And then there would be a stronger connection kind of a stronger cause-and-effect connection that I think people would then feel a bit more responsible and a bit more guilty for these kinds of situations.

VEDANTAM: I can imagine that people would feel horrible if they said I want a shirt, and they have to send some poor 9-year-old kid into the basement to make the shirt for the next six hours. I mean, people would feel awful about that.

PAHARIA: Yeah. And I think people wouldn't do it. And so then it kind of gets to this question of does the economic structure and the structure of how goods are made - does the kind of logistical structure impact how we think about ethics and how we think about our own role in enabling these kinds of harms?

VEDANTAM: The companies who make stuff for us are run by people, and those people have minds that work like our minds. So it should come as no surprise that just as consumers would rather have companies do the dirty work for them to distance themselves from the ethical consequences of their economic actions, companies often choose to do exactly the same thing.

Rather than run a factory that makes clothing under awful working conditions, why not outsource the dirty work to someone else? If a reporter unearths details of poor working conditions, you can now plausibly say I didn't know about it.

PAHARIA: In many cases, companies actually do outsource the harm, so rather than own the factory that makes the clothing under, you know, these terrible conditions, we outsource them to other firms that are owned by other entities. So a lot of these companies do try and claim that they had no knowledge of this. This did not happen within the boundaries of my firm.

VEDANTAM: It turns out that both individuals and companies often prefer to be kept in the dark about unethical practices that are further up the supply chain.

PAHARIA: So there was an really. Really interesting paper by Julie Irwin and some other colleagues who wrote a paper on this idea of willful ignorance. And the idea was that you had a product and you had access to a whole bunch of different pieces of information. And one of them was the labor conditions or the environmental conditions. And the question was do people actually ask for this information? And you can look at it if you want, but you could decide not to look at it. And it turns out people didn't want to look at that information because they didn't really want to be confronted with this kind of conflict between their beliefs and, you know, what they really wanted. And they found this effect was stronger for people who cared more about labor issues, who cared more about environmental issues. They were more likely to avoid, you know - avoid this information in order to kind of avoid this conflict.

VEDANTAM: Think of the deep irony of what Neeru just said. The folks who care the most about ethics might be most willing to turn a blind eye to unethical business practices because they know if they found out about those practices, they would feel obliged to do something about it.

We've talked about the many ways in which consumers and companies play games with one another using products to speak on their behalf while using products behind which they can hide. But there's one dimension of economic activity we haven't explored, and that's time I asked Neeru how some of us use our calendars to broadcast our social status. It used to be that people once broadcast their social status by being idle, but that idea has been turned on its head in the United States.

PAHARIA: It turns out nowadays that people who are busier actually seem to have more social status. So rather than somebody who is very wealthy who could waste their time, take fancy vacations, you know, invest in learning these kind of archaic mannerisms, it turns out the person who works really hard, who's really busy, who's very effortful is the one who seemed to have more social status. And I think in part that is because we live in a society that values social mobility.

So we actually conducted the study in the U.S., and we conducted the same study in Italy. And we found that for Italian people they thought the person who was living a life of leisure had more status. Of course, they have so much money. They can just relax all the time. Whereas in the U.S., they thought the person who was working all the time actually had more status. And I think what was going on was that in the U.S. people sort of value this sense of earned status, so status can be earned in the U.S. where I think in Italy it's more of a society where status is inherited.

So, for example, my co-author is Italian, and she's always talking about how people come from good families or not. And so there's very much this idea that your status isn't necessarily something that you earn, but you inherit. And so in that sense, working hard really wouldn't get you anywhere, whereas in America, you have this sense that you can actually climb the ladder.

VEDANTAM: And so celebrities, for example, might say - instead of saying, you know, I make one movie every year and I get to hang out on the beach for the other 10 months of the year, they actually are suggesting, oh, my God, I'm so overworked.

PAHARIA: Yeah. So we actually looked at tweets of celebrities who were tagged with this hashtag #humblebrag, this idea of bragging but sort of disguising it as a complaint. And a lot of the ones - a lot of the tweets we found had to do with being busy. So, you know, I have to be in the recording studio this morning, and then I have a book meeting in the afternoon. And then they have to travel to New York in the evening and #Ihavenolife. You know?

These kinds of tweets - you're trying to say something about yourself. You're busy. You're really important. You don't have time to do other things, and so you see that on social media that's kind of an acceptable and effective way to show your status by telling people how busy you are.

VEDANTAM: You - I want to ask about your own life, which is why I understand that growing up, you came from a family that in some ways prized not demonstrating its commitment to status that actually prized not buying the expensive things as a way to show off my.

PAHARIA: So I'm of East Indian origin, and my parents immigrated to this country. And it turns out in East Indian communities, showing your social status is a very, very important thing. So people are really, really motivated to show their status. And when I was growing up, that was happening through buying, you know, really expensive cars. So a lot of my parents' friends - they had Jaguars, and they had Mercedes. And I remember we went to a friend's house one time, and they had a Jaguar. She was also Indian, and I asked her - she was complaining about her mom kind of being frugal about different things. And I said, oh, that's so strange because, you know, she's frugal, and yet you have a Jaguar. And she said, oh, well, that's just to show off.

And I just - the candidness of that moment really, really, you know, sparked something in my mind. Like, wow, people are just trying to show off. And my my mom also would often complain about how all her friends would buy these expensive cars and the only reason they were doing it was to show off. And so I just - I kind of got really fascinated with the idea of showing your social status. And I think kind of an evidence of how things are shifting now towards - maybe towards something like busyness, now all her friends are retired.

And they all brag about how busy they are. And now my mom complains about how everyone talks about how busy they are all the time. So I think, you know, it's sort of an evolving - kind of an evolving mechanism.

VEDANTAM: Neeru Paharia is a marketing professor at Georgetown University. Neeru, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

PAHARIA: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen and Renee Klahr. A special shout-out to our amazing winter intern Chloe Connelly, who's off to new adventures this week. Best of luck, Chloe. We're going to miss you.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also listen to my stories each week on your local public radio station. Our unsung hero this week is Steve Inskeep. He's the host of Morning Edition, and he played a vital role in developing HIDDEN BRAIN on the radio. He loves learning new things, and he approaches every story with an enthusiasm that's infectious.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Shankar, I'm so honored that you were willing to take a little bit of your very precious time.

VEDANTAM: I barely have time to say thanks, Steve.

I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.