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The Approval Economy (zandercutt.com)
113 points by imartin2k 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments



I’d argue that before Pepsi it was actually the diamond industry who really perfected this “better version of ourselves” advertising. They literally convinced the world that diamonds made their lives better, first as an indicator of love and commitment, then later as a sign of success. Not that this detracts from anything else in the post, but I do feel it’s important to call out earlier examples to further convey the point the author was making.


I'd argue that before that dye Royal Purple.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrian_purple#History


Clearly the downhill spiral started with ocher. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/artist-paints/prehistoric-co...


I think this article is fundamentally correct, and speaking about an unacknowledged but universal force.

I remember when I was young, a lot of guys I knew didn't openly support gay-marriage because they were afraid that other people would assume they were un-masculine or gay themselves if they supported it. Once it hit the tipping point, where it wasn't a statement about you to support it, the floodgates opened and it was overwhelmingly supported.

Same thing with weed. Speaking up in defense of marijuana, when only 10% of people support it, is akin to making yourself look like you personally are a rebel/stoner. Speaking up in defense when the majority support it does not. So again, we saw a massive swing there.

I think this type of tactic is sometimes deliberately used (e.g. "You don't support the war? Do you hate America/the-soldiers?") for political ends too, on both sides (e.g. virtue signaling just how wildly progressive I am).

If anything, it should make us ask ourselves why we let this happen to us. Why, when I see somebody who has a very expensive car, do I not say "Wow, there's a guy who's paying tens of thousands of dollars to try to buy approval... yikes." ?


What immediately came to my mind reading this was William Gibson's Ant trilogy. Gibson really has a talent for putting a finger on how advertisement shapes and informs our aesthetic views from the outside in. It's both part of the narrative of the book as well as part of the prose.

Also noteworthy to point out that the first book in the trilogy appeared in 2003, as usual, he was a little bit ahead of his time.

Also, really good article.


It doesn’t make the article wrong, but the Kevin Spacey movie is a terrible example to use here:

“I’d argue that this paltry opening has nothing to do with the objective quality of the film, but rather with no one wanting to be seen as the person they believe people would perceive them as if it were known that they paid to watch a movie starring an accused serial sexual abuser. Further, I’d argue that this film will do moderately well once it moves out of theaters, as those who are curious — but not curious enough to risk being perceived as Spacey sympathizers — will watch it in their homes, out of sight of the approval economy.”

Quite obviously the film made no money because there was no promotion and almost no distribution. There was no attempt to make money.

And equally obvious, of course more people will see it once it’s available outside of that tiny handful of theaters. That will be the first time any of those people will be able to see it at all.


It's actually been on video for a while. It's also supposedly not a good movie. But your basic points stand.


I don't know, reminds me a lot of that old concept: we are a combination of 3 things, who we are, who we think we are and who we want to be. I can't find any reference to it, but to me it seems more accurate than the article explanation about the "better version of oneself".


Seems to me the article claims there is a fourth (and maybe most influential), "who we think other people think we are"


Reminds me of [1]:

3. Rich man in the car paradox.

When you see someone driving a nice car, you rarely think, “Wow, the guy driving that car is cool.” Instead, you think, “Wow, if I had that car people would think I’m cool.” Subconscious or not, this is how people think.

The paradox of wealth is that people tend to want it to signal to others that they should be liked and admired. But in reality those other people bypass admiring you, not because they don’t think wealth is admirable, but because they use your wealth solely as a benchmark for their own desire to be liked and admired.

[1] http://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/the-psychology-of-mone...


It depends a lot on where you are. Driving a riced out car in the suburbs carries a subtly different status message than driving a Maserati in the center of town.

You absolutely can signal status with a car in a way that will convey what you want. Look at me, I'm interesting, I'm worthy of getting to know. Admire me.

It's just a lot more expensive than the attention is worth. That's the only real problem with cars. A watch and a pair of nice shoes sends that message for way way cheaper.

And even then, it's only one brick in the wall. You also need personal style, and interpersonal style as well. Somebody who is really status conscious will weave all those things together in a way that is so compelling to look at, it's really like you're looking at a movie star that just stepped out of a screen. You can't look away, it's enthralling. Magic happens around them.

Yes, the car you drive matters when you're playing at that level.


> Yes, the car you drive matters when you're playing at that level.

Do you really think that status conscious people are playing at a higher level than others? Personally I go out of my way to avoid people who poster for attention in these ways. And people who only seem interested in me because my way of life signals status to them for that matter.


That's where your location comes into play. Different parts of a city have different vibes. The status signals still exist, but are different in your part.

Yesterday at lunch a guy walked past with an extremely 'regal' air. Literally the whole team turned and watched him walk, then we had a conversation about what he was representing, the consensus being that of a plantation gentleman. Seersucker suit, short tweed hat. And it was clean. He didn't look like a homeless person, he looked like he stepped out of a 1800s storybook.

That's status. Paying that much attention to the message you're sending through your actions and bearing. It's non-verbal communication that you absolutely can learn and master, you can even take classes in it, they're called acting classes.

It's what separates Emperor Norton from a random homeless guy.


>It's what separates Emperor Norton from a random homeless guy.

This, I think, is the key to the whole thing, and the disconnect between you and many of the others here.

I mean, yes, if you are the sort of person who values appearances, then yes, status is very important. that's kind of the point.

If you are the sort of person who doesn't value appearances over abilities, the story of emperor Norton is just the story of people making fun of a mentally ill homeless guy.

Of course, most of us in real life are between those two extremes; but I'm more in the latter camp than the former, and it sounds like you are probably more in the former than the latter. It's two different ways of looking at the world and two different ways of choosing leaders.


There were no plantation gentlemen, just slave owners


Not sure if all people think that way. Some people might be jealous?


Yeah, something like: "You're not who you think you are. Nor are you what other people think you are. You are what you think other people think you are."

I find some truth in that perspective. We're such social animals, deriving identity from how we believe ourselves to be perceived.


I'm sure there's a way to map this to id, ego and super-ego somehow.


Great article - I highly recommend reading it.

The most powerful force in our lives isn't gravity, it's manufactured consent.


There has to be some mechanic always in place for consent. It's mechanical by nature.

The most powerful belief you can have is owning a core understanding that you have choice. That doesn't mean ignore valid points. The needs of the many... Always important to be aware of.


If people were to become more introverted (or at least participate less in in outside activities and spend more time removed from real-life interactions) would this mean in a two-tiered system people will act "themselves" when they can hide tastes and behavior and seek approval in other domains? Or, will they carry over the veneer to seek approval even in situations where it's pointless?


The key is the signaling aspect of it. If we buy stuff that in common imagination is linked to something - then people will perceive us linked to it as well. So it is not a mind trick - it really works - we pay for being perceived in a better light.


"Approval is a helluva drug". And like any drug we need to overcome it. Quit cold turkey, so we can see it for what it is. Sure, you can dip yourself into it from time to time, but you'll be less of a victim. We have enough of those already


For the most part, this article is switching cause and effect. Advertisers cannot create demand out of thin air - they can only find out what (certain) people want, and present messaging that says, "X fills your existing want because of Y"

Well before advertising, people aimed to increase their status or be different than they are now. These things have largely always been cosmetic, like a peacock's feathers. It's only a problem if whatever you're selling is harmful, like non-diet soda or tobacco.

Pretty much any succesful company is going to have some sort of product positioning, whether that's aspirational or value. Big examples of aspirational are Apple, Uber, Tesla, etc.


Isnt this what is very concisely called ‘virtue signaling’ ? Hacker news is very very, very guilty of it


"Virtue signaling" is a term usually used to dismiss the arguments of other people without bothering to address the content of the argument.

So sure, if you use the term that way, you probably think this article is about virtue signaling.

Most people who don't like the term would probably think the article is about "keeping up with the Joneses", a concept that can be deployed without accusing people you disagree with of being hypocrites.


Regardless of how it is used , the term is exact and describes well what the article talks about. Ironically, bashing people about their use of the term is a form of virtual signaling itself, and is associated with one political identiry


> Ironically, bashing people about their use of the term is a form of virtual signaling itself, and is associated with one political identiry.

Considering that someone who feels unease with the term “virtue signalling” might come from a country with vastly different politics to your own, and perhaps with a wide array of parties instead of the limited two-party system in, say, the USA or UK, it seems to a reach to claim that such sentiments are associated with one political identity.


i don't know. check sibling thread. In abstract the term "signaling" is well understood, and "virtue" is what is being signaled, instead of e.g. wealth. However in English-speaking word it is being used as a pejorative term for socially-concerned left-leaning people it seems.


The term doesn't describe what I think the article is about, because I don't think "keeping up with the Joneses" is the same as being a hypocrite. I'm fine with you having a different idea of what the term means.

Also, are you sure I intended to bash anyone? Because I didn't, and wasn't. Sorry if you saw it that way.


> are you sure I intended to bash anyone?

of course you did. you said everyone who uses the term uses it to avoid valid arguments (while the term in abstract has no connection to such interpretation)


I didn't say "everyone", I said "usually". Also, I said it was used to avoid discussing the argument, not that the arguments were valid.

I don't think the term exists "in abstract", it exists in common usage, and usually, I find it's used the way I described.

You're free to disagree, of course, but it's probably better if you can do that without misrepresenting what I actually said. And really, I wasn't intending to bash anyone.


I think the sense in which you use it is fringe. the term is valid without political connotations. Also , the article was not about keeping up with the joneses, but about being perceived as doing so.


I've never heard anyone use "Keeping up with the Joneses" in any sense other than the perceptions of others.




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