If you want to insult someone, one of the primary ways for accomplishing this task is to compare the object of insult to something inherently bad; like feces, or being a Yankees fan. A secondary route for insulting an individual is to insult his/her family by implying occurrence of unsavory taboo relations in that person’s family. And finally, one can take the tertiary route in insulting an individual by insulting his/her favorite brands. This last tactic in denigrating someone seems ridiculous on paper because why should one care if someone has a low opinion of a brand that one likes? Why should it matter if someone doesn’t like the brand of toothpaste that one likes, the brand of car that one drives, the brand of shoes that one wears, or the brad of food that one eats?
There are two answers to this question. One is simple to comprehend and the other, not so much. The simple answer, as recently revealed by Lisjak, Lee, and Gardner (2012), researchers at Northwestern University, U.S., is that people with a fragile self-concept have an inclination to defend brands that they find themselves closely identifying with. Lisjak, Lee, and Gardner (2012) came to this conclusion by asking 155 participants to first take self-esteem tests and then report their attitude towards Starbucks, a famous coffee brand, on a different survey. Afterwards, the participants were either asked to describe three personality traits that they possessed, thus making overt their sense of self, or asked to describe three characteristics of a chair. Finally, all participants were asked to read an article portraying Starbucks in a negative light and subsequently report if their opinions about Starbucks had undergone any changes.
The results of this simple and clear study revealed that those who initially had expressed themselves closely identifying with Starbucks were less inclined to change their attitude towards this brand after reading the negative opinion piece on it. This was an expected outcome. The more interesting piece of the result was that individuals with low implicit self-esteem were inclined to adopt an even greater positive attitude towards Starbucks after reading the article undermining Starbucks’ moral character compared to individuals with high implicit self-esteem. This attitude change occurred only with participants whose sense of self had been made overt. For the sake of robustness this experimental procedure was repeated in a second study with Facebook as the brand of interest and the results were congruent with Starbucks experiment.
In an age where Freudian psychoanalytic ideas are an integral part of the popular culture, the finding that people who ferociously defend their favorite brands do so because they are low on implicit (i.e. unconscious) self-esteem makes immediate sense. Why else would one care if her/his favorite brand was insulted? It must be because she/he has a fragile sense of self and it is via defending her/his favorite brands she/he is keeping herself together.
This simple narrative, albeit true, is only half of the story. The more important and complex takeaway of this study is challenging the everyday understanding of what a sense of “self” is. Where should one draw the line on when the “self” ends and the environment begins? Of course physically our sense of self is the body that we inhabit. But our psychological sense of self knows no bounds. When someone insults one’s family members one feels this insult directly because of emotional attachment with one’s family members. But depending on whom one talks to, this sense of feeling directly insulted increase in size to include one’s neighborhood, one’s ethnicity, one’s nationality, one’s favorite team, and even one’s favorite movie characters. A defender of the common sense view of the self might argue that there is a difference between what “I like” and what “I am”. An individual’s preference for certain brands is merely reflective of what one likes to watch, read, wear, eat, drink, drive in, etc. A sense of self is who one really is. But what, after all, is one’s “self” if nothing more than a narrative of what one likes to watch, read, wear, eat, drink, drive in, and so on?
Lisjak, M., Lee, A.Y., & Gardner, W.L. (2012). When a threat to the brand is a threat to the self: The importance of brand identification and implicit self-esteem in predicting defensiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1120-1132.