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The science behind ironic consumption

When I turned 21, my friends brought me to a dive in East Atlanta called the Gravity Pub. The menu offered burnt tater tots, deep fried chili cheese dogs, and donut sandwiches. Happy hour featured rot-gut whiskey, red-eye gin, and one-dollar cans of Schlitz. We listened to Bon Jovi, Spice Girls, and a medley of yacht rock and boy band blue eyed soul crackling through rusty speakers. And we played Bingo. For prizes like Cookie Monster water wings, neon rave sticks, and Bible action figures. Ties were broken via hula-hoop competition.

I was a business student at the time. My marketing textbook told me that consumers seek out products that they like or that they think will help them project a desirable image. But this sounded very different than my experience at the Gravity Pub, where we were eating food, drinking alcohol, and listening to music that we thought was disgusting while playing a game meant for retirees to win prizes meant for children.

What was my textbook missing?

Ironic consumption.

My friends and I were not the first people to consume products ironically and we were certainly not the last. There is a strong dose of irony in every hipster cliché, from teardrop tattoos and prohibition-era mustaches to fanny packs and trucker hats. But ironic consumption isn’t limited to hipsters. You can see it in the popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters. You can see it when Michelin star restaurants serve macaroni and cheese, when movie snobs revel in the shoddy storytelling and production in The Room, and when liberal millennials attend Donald Trump rallies wrapped head-to-toe in MAGA paraphernalia.

What exactly is ironic consumption and why would someone want to use a product ironically rather than simply using a product they actually think is good?

In order to answer these questions, it helps to think about products as symbols that consumers use to communicate their interests and beliefs and to infer those of others. Normally, wearing a wedding ring says, “I’m taken,” listening to Justin Bieber says, “I’m a Belieber” (see the young woman in this cartoon in The New York Times), and getting a “Make America Great Again” tattoo says, “I support Donald Trump.” When consumers use a product ironically, however, they are attempting to reverse the product’s conventional meaning. By ironically wearing a Justin Bieber tee-shirt, the gentleman in the cartoon is emphatically saying that he is not a Belieber.

Image credit: “vegan hat” by Allie Smith. CC0 via Unsplash.

Why go to the trouble of wearing this shirt ironically rather than simply wearing a shirt that says, “I hate Justin Beiber”?

It appears the ambiguity might be part of the appeal. In experiments in which observers are asked how they feel about people displaying certain products like this “Vegan” hat, their reactions depend upon context.

When participants are asked what they thought about the consumer (Do they like her? Do they think she is cool?) as well as why they think she is using the product (Is she being ironic or sincere?), their responses are interesting.

Participants were only likely to think that the consumer was using a product ironically if they were close enough to her to know that her opinions and beliefs are inconsistent with the product’s conventional meaning. For example, if I know that Madison is a carnivore, then I’m more likely to think that she is wearing the “vegan” hat ironically.

When the consumer used a product associated with the participant’s in-group (e.g., if the participant was himself a vegan), participants had less favorable impression of the consumer if they believed she was using the product ironically. Conversely, when the consumer uses a product that is not associated with the participant’s in-group (e.g., if the participant was himself a carnivore), participants had a more favorable impression if they believed the consumer was using the product ironically.

Ironic consumption lets people selectively signal one meaning to an in-group (which is likely to detect irony), and another to out-groups (which are unlikely to detect irony). For example, suppose I’m a meat eater with a handful of close meat-eating friends, and we are surrounded by neighbors who believe that eating meat is wrong. By ironically wearing a “Vegan” hat, I could make a good impression both on my vegetarian neighbors, who will think I am a fellow kale enthusiast, and my friends, who will realize that I am wearing the hat ironically.

The ambiguity associated with ironic consumption can help consumers not only when they are surrounded by people who with different tastes and beliefs, but also when they are uncertain about what message a product is going to signal. Irony offers a shield against anyone who might question your decision to try out an unusual product, like a dress made of balloons.

If your balloon dress catches on, you can claim that you can revel in the status that comes from wearing it before it became cool. If not, you can claim that you were wearing it ironically and thereby avoid the consequences of committing a fashion faux pas.

Featured image credit: “Couple ready for the Christmas time” by gpointstudio. CC0 by public domain via Shutterstock.

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