The Curious Case of Commodity Fetishism

By Priyadharshini Ahrumugam, Lecturer – Department of Communication, School of Arts, Sunway University

Recently, the media highlighted a global public furore triggered by a watch frenzy thanks to a collaboration between two au courant sister brands. The lines queuing up to purchase these newly released watches had stretched far and yonder in many places. It is remarkable indeed, considering that the 11 series collection, according to its makers, was not even meant to be a limited edition! So, why then the public’s craze to get their hands on it, that too at the earliest possibility by die-hard fans?  

                Perhaps we should look towards the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ to shed light on this phenomenon. For starters, what does this striking term actually mean? ‘Commodity fetishism’ is when material consumer objects (such as luxury cars and high fashion) and cultural products (such as movies and popular music) are given very high and desirable symbolic value in society. This term, to be fair, was borrowed from the Marxist tradition and adapted by Judith Williamson, who particularly analysed commercials in the 1970s. In Williamson’s discovery, she mentions that advertisers offer us the chance to purchase not only an object but also, together with it, an identity based on the symbolic values fixed upon that very commodity. Yes, you read it right – the fact now being, our identities, it would seem, are interwoven with the things we own and display in and to society! This plausibly explains why most people develop a passionate gravitational attraction for luxury goods and products despite their exorbitant price tags.

                Douglas Kellner, a scholar whose works centre on media and culture, deems that our identity is foremost as consumers. And that, we go all out to buy commodities to achieve happiness and fulfilment in our lives. To some, his claim may sound absurd or far-fetched. Yet, just a couple of weeks ago, the countless tweets and Insta stories by fans and the general consumers alike boasting about the excitement and gratification felt at their successful planetary-themed watch purchases surely only serves to validate Kellner’s point? If you find your curiosity piqued thus far, especially over symbolic values, let me go a step further to explain these qualities briefly. Symbolic values are usually exemplified through being confident, edgy, graceful, youthful, sophisticated, flamboyant and more. Intriguingly, such associations made by a product’s branding (or brand association) can be an extension of one’s identity. To illustrate, when one is seen owning or wearing the very voguish watch in discussion here, the consumer’s identity instinctively becomes synonymous with affluence, chicness, excellence, innovation and precision. By some means, there is an ideological role at play in the construction of symbolic values in which material consumer objects are associated, particularly when someone owns costly commodities that simultaneously symbolise and measure one’s success in society. But then again, let’s keep that debate for another day.

                How do we then approach commodity fetishism in society? Upon reflection, one way to do that would be to gradually bring a change to our media consumption and consumer culture. This requires a deep knowledge among the public that an ideological message of advertising encourages commodity fetishism. As consumers, we need to be discerning, and what’s greatly needed is the ability to be evaluative of our own consumer behaviours and be selective with our purchases. This is by no means to indicate that a luxury market should cease to exist or for anyone to impose sanctions. Still, just that as a society, we should not possess idée fixe that the value of our identities is based on the commodities that we own or don’t!      

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