Why Does it Offend Us?
Why does it seem so offensive?
You’re walking down the street and you spot someone breezily walking past you wearing a great band shirt which would usually warrant a polite now but there’s something slightly off… somehow you can tell that they either don’t listen to the artist or have never even heard of the band they’re unknowingly promoting…
I know I’m not alone in this snap judgment and it sometimes proves difficult to admit we do this because it can be perceived as snobbery, in fact… it is a little elitist.
Who am I to judge that they don’t listen to that music. I have no facts to tell me so. All I have is the visual cues which tell me that there is an inconsistency of ‘social codes’ which don’t quite ring true to what I think the artist’s brand represents… and all that happens viscerally in an instant… so what is happening here?
Somewhere, somehow, it became okay to use the brand of a music act without regard of the culture it communicated. Because, when clothing companies like Top Man or Primark decide to sell Ramones T-shirts or jumpers with David Bowie on, they’re not just selling to fans of these artists, they’re selling to people who are fans of Top Man, and that’s a market of people who wish to communicate an edgy, grungy, or rebellious image by using the image of an artist without any knowledge of the actual significance.
But why does it seem to offend people?
A sense of belonging is a core need – this is not a new invention, it goes all the way back to our caveman roots when we had nomadic tribes and clubbed people over the head with sticks for disagreeing with us. But it’s more interesting than just that, because, at the same time as having this longing to feel connection, we also need to feel significant and uniquely different from one another.
It’s a little contradictory…
By looking around and spotting other people we should be able to feel a total and sublime connection right here and now; and that’s being apart of a massive, global and dominant species. But we don’t. In fact, the larger the population grows, the lonelier we can feel. The denser the city we live in, the higher the chance of depression – but still, the possibility of connection has increased, so how do we actually build a connection which empowers us?
We talk to each other. We recognise patterns. We associate ourselves with certain people who mirror similar values and understandings of the world and then network and filter into larger (or smaller) groups.
If we look at aboriginal tribes, clans, groups, and gangs, we can visually see the differences that tell each of them apart. It could be simple symbolism, colour, language, a dance, and it all communicates outwardly and inwardly its values, stories, and cultures.
This sort of thing comes to us all naturally and is hardly ever ‘planned’. We do it because, when we find ‘our group’ it lets us make sense of the world around us, it helps us understand our own place in the world and where we belong. Conversely, when we decode a group as ‘not our group’ it also gives us a further understanding of who we believe we are and how we fit into our community.
Quickly bringing that into today’s context of brand culture, if you see someone wearing an all-white pair of Nike Air Force 1’s, you can ultimately make either three snap decisions: This person is likely to understand me, this person is unlikely to understand me, or just see the shoe for a shoe and continue to talk to that person tabla rasa.
The latter is a person who has not been brought up in an environment where all-white Nike Air Force 1’s have been socially significant and just appear as their utility of which they ultimately are: A pair of shoes.
It’s this strange conflict of belonging and individual significance that has led to the noise of over-coloured brands that fill our supermarket walls, the compulsive sub-genre-ing of music, and the stress of what table to sit on at lunchtime in high school – or now, for some.
So when you get a group of sensitive kids with bad skin getting angry at Kendall Jenner for wearing a Slayer T-Shirt, it’s not just because she’s not a fan of the music, it’s because Kendall Jenner’s brand and what she stands for is almost totally opposite and opposed to the culture and values that Slayer fans are drawn to – It’s like sticking a flag in the wrong piece of land, you can start a war.
What’s more, the smaller or more marginalised the group is, the more passionate and powerful they seem to be. When the iPod first came out, the trademark white earbuds was all you needed to know that that other person crossing you on the subway was part of the ‘tech elite’, and so you can give a quick polite tilt of the head to signify that you both “got” each other and were part of the same elitist group. Of course, then the white earbuds became overwhelming popular and now doing this will literally have the opposite effect and most likely result in alienation – especially on the London Underground.
The same happens when two ‘Classic Mini’ drivers meet on the road – a quick flash of the lights to telegraph, “we understand each other” and they feel a little bit better about their day – they made what they feel is a real connection. Of course, it’s totally absurd, that other mini driver could be a sex offender. You don’t know, he could be. He’s driving an old larger coloured Mini Cooper. And has a wispy moustache.
And the same also happens when someone sees a person wearing the same niched band shirt in their local shopping mall. But all that is ruined if people start wearing the same band shirts without what seems like an authentic connection to that group; the symbol becomes soiled and it no longer can be used to align a marginalised group of spotty teens.
So when people get angry at this seemingly trivial incident, it’s actually coming from a feeling that their sense of belonging and their self-worth is being diminished, all because another tribe, who get their self-worth from being in VIP queues outside Pryzm, have unknowingly hijacked a symbol which flags a different personal set of values and traditions. And of course the latter tribe ultimately win because they have bigger arms and aren’t afraid of conflict; justifying their clothing choice with, “What are you on about! I got it in Top Man, mate.”
For more on this phenomenon: