Why Everyone Has Merch Now (Including Us)

Why Everyone Has Merch Now (Including Us)

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- This video is brought to you by Raycon. (light music) What's up, guys? Michael here. In case you've been trapped in a Weezer-branded snuggie since 2009, allow us to bring you up to speed. Everyone is obsessed with merch. There's the McDonald's chicken nugget pillow. There's A24's film-themed candles and logo-emblazoned packing tape. There's merch for your favorite radio station, your favorite art museum, even your favorite fake girl boss. Hell, there's even merch that lets you loudly and proudly identify as a salt aficionado. It hasn't always been this way. Merch used to be something we bought to remember that Green Day concert where we almost made out with our crush. Almost. Or it was that ugly/depressing swag thrust upon us by everyone from Citibank to the Humane Society. But, as journalist Adam Bluestein observes in a recent Marker article, "People are now not only willing "to adorn themselves in branded merch, "they actually go to great lengths "to seek it out "and want to pay for it." So what explains the merch revolution? What does it mean when we actively seek out a plate from our favorite restaurant
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or shorts from our favorite billionaire? Are we in heaven, hell, or a swag-ified purgatory? Let's bravely find out in this Wisecrack Edition: Why Everything is Merch Now. But before we get into it, I want to talk about today's sponsor, Raycon. Raycon makes earbuds that lets you listen to the sound of my voice, or any other voice, whether you're at home or on the go. I mean, that's what I use mine for. Listening to Wisecrack videos and podcasts 24/7. Whether you're cool like me or whether you actually have other interest, like in music or movies, you can still enjoy Raycon's 32-hour battery life with eight hours of play time. That's enough time to watch "Space Jam 2" 4.17 times totally uninterrupted. But if you do get interrupted, say by an incoming phone call, you can pick up with the press of a button and chat with the built-in mic. Raycon earbuds also straight up look good as well. Especially now that they have an improved rubber oil look. And they also feel good thanks to optimized gel tips that ensure a perfect fit. Another awesome thing about Raycons is that they start at half the price
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of other premium audio brands. But you can't really tell the difference. Well, except for the happier state of your bank account, that is. And speaking of good vibes, Raycon's 45-day happiness guarantee lets you make sure these earbuds are totally right for you. So click the link in the description or go to buyraycon.com/wisecrack to unlock exclusive deals like up to 20% off your Raycon order. That's buyraycon.com/wisecrack to get a sweet deal on some new earbuds. And now, back to the show. Now, for simplicity's sake, we're gonna define merch as products, often shirts, hats, or tote bags, that advertise a brand or company which typically doesn't make shirts, hats, or tote bags. So, your capital-G Gucci belt? Not merch. Your T-shirt proudly showing off your favorite egg salad sandwich? Totally merch. And a real thing. On a basic level, the concept of merch is pretty simple. It conveys taste, whether in film distributors, makeup, music, and even iced tea. But for merch to fully emerge
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as such a cornerstone of contemporary consumption, a few things had to happen. First off, what constitutes high-status spending had to change dramatically. See, for most of human history, producing consumer goods required artisan handiwork, and was thus very expensive. So, it was easy for the very wealthy to show off via luxurious spending on items most people could never dream of affording. In early Pompeii, that meant hiring an artist to painstakingly craft a mosaic for your wall. In Victorian England, it hilariously meant displaying medicine in your parlor to show you could afford to see a doctor. Less wealthy people would then find cheaper ways to copy rich people's spending habits, via shortcuts like wallpaper, or painting porcelain to look like gold. In 1899, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed these wealth-establishing purchases by the "leisure class" conspicuous consumption. These were any goods purchased in large part to convey high socioeconomic status. Now, a lot has changed since 1899. The Second Industrial Revolution,
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coupled with increasingly sophisticated manufacturing practices, dramatically decreased the cost of consumer goods. Since then, buying fancy hair ribbons, or leather-bound encyclopedias has become a lot less expensive. This made it increasingly easy for less wealthy folks to copy the consumption habits of the uber-wealthy. They signaled aspirational wealth through dress, home decor, and so on. Nowadays, in fact, poor and middle-class folks spend proportionately much more on conspicuous consumption than the wealthy do. This poses a problem, as scholar Elizabeth Currid-Halkett explains in her book, "The Sum of Small Things." She asks, "If acquisition of material goods "is now fairly accessible to all, "how do wealthy elites maintain their status?" According to Currid-Halkett, the answer can be seen in the rise of the "aspirational class," which has effectively replaced the "leisure class." The aspirational class is defined less by wealth than by cultural capital. Like knowing which Ethiopian restaurant to go to, or which magazine to read. As brand strategist Ana Andjelic writes in her recent book,
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"The Business of Aspiration," "Modern aspiration is not about "having money to buy things, "but having the taste to know what to buy." That is to say, members of the aspirational class don't choose to consume goods and services based on what will make them look rich. Rather, they choose based on what conforms to their taste, which is largely based on their values. That's in part because a lot of aspirational class members aren't even rich in the first place. They're merely culturally savvy. They buy products based on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called "objectified cultural capital." I.e., the way certain objects accrue cultural and symbolic value, rather than simple monetary value. As Currid-Halkett elaborates, the aspirational class "finds subtle symbols, cultural capital, "and language to distinguish itself "from other groups." And if those "subtle symbols" include an ironic dad hat, all the better. But let's leave the aspirational class aside for a second. Because innovation in manufacturing also allowed for one other big consumer shift. The rise of merch. The core of the merch industry
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has long been that classic printed T-shirt. Cheap to make and typically cheap to buy. Printed shirts were probably first used for the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz." In the film, workers in the Emerald City wear shirts that read "Oz" as they restuff the Scarecrow. Printed shirts went political in 1948, urging you to vote for noted never-president Thomas E. Dewey. Who did not invent the Dewey decimal system. That's when printing businesses in Miami started manufacturing screen-printed T-shirts and towels adorned with popular vacation resorts' logos. We found evidence of a similar racket in 1950s Cincinnati. One of those companies scored the license for merchandising Disney, and things would escalate. But what really changed the future of merch was technology. Specifically, innovations in screen printing in the 60s. Couple that with the youth cultural revolution, and merch was poised to explode. As the British rock invasion captivated the hearts and ears of the youth, buying band merch became a prime way to express your hipness. Importantly, printed shirts also quickly became a major tool
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of the counterculture to signal alignment with protest groups and social causes. But merch wouldn't stay stuck in the counterculture. In the 1970s, the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino wondered, what if merch could become a bigger business than our actual business? They were almost right. Merch now accounts for up to 40% of their revenue. This is indicative of something else that was also happening. See, throughout the 70s and 80s, increasingly-cutthroat competition amongst similar brands would change marketing forever. Suddenly, brands had to start selling consumers not on quality and/or innovation, but on the brand itself. As researchers wrote for Management Communication Quarterly, this was "the elevation of branding's importance "as a communication strategy "in navigating a crowded market." In other words, brands became less about what they made and more about who they were. The easiest way to be someone cool? Copy the counterculture, of course. Scholar Paul Clements notes that marketers in the 80s and 90s had grown up during the height of the counterculture. They savvily copied that era's "impression of rebellion and revolt"
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in their marketing. Remember that final scene of Mad Men? ♪ I'd like to buy the world a home ♪ - In post-Draper years, that also looked like Burger King declaring that "Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules." Or Toyota calling their new Subra "revolutionary." Over the following decades, corporate branding, and with it corporate merch, would continue to pull from countercultures to maintain their cool image. They'd especially take inspiration from skateboarding, rap, and internet communities, grabbing font styles and other design elements. In recent years, brands like makeup company Glossier would also start to "borrow" streetwear brand Supreme's marketing style. They, too, manufacture scarcity for popular merch in order to generate hype. And over the past 10 years, merch has become more important than ever, increasingly infiltrating fashion and culture at large. This has been helped along, again, by increasingly streamlined manufacturing and distribution, as well as, you guessed it, the internet. And these days, you don't have to be Disney for merch to be profitable. The rise of micromerch
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catering to niche markets now sustains everyone from musicians to podcasters to makeup influencers. Many creators now supplement their incomes with genuinely cool merch, some of which might even feature a certain monocle-wearing jackass. During the pandemic, merch became especially vital for those local bars, restaurants, and bookstores with enough cache to sell you on a cute tank-top, branded weed grinder, or a pair of earrings shaped like a sandwich. The entangled phenomena of the value-obsessed aspirational class, the value-laden brand, and of course, cheap manufacturing, all converged to facilitate the rise of merch. As Amanda Mull writes in The Atlantic, "For decades, Americans have been trained "to see logos and slogans "as a primary means of self-expression "and even as a way of telegraphing values." And nothing does so more clearly than merch. But what is merch really doing, on a deeper level? To understand, let's return to the aspirational class. The way we see it, merch has become a new kind of conspicuous consumption. Rather than showing off how wealthy you are, though, it acts as a potent flex
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about your cultural savviness and your values. Merch is the natural culmination of consumption as an expression of identity. And if that consumption happens to be just a little bit ironic, a la the KFC crocs that sold out in 30 minutes, well, that's all the better. Some of this is the result of successful marketing. Over the past decade, as brand competition has increased even more than it did in the 80s, branding has increasingly shifted to become more value-oriented. As Andjelic writes, "Brands shifted from increasing "value of their products through utility, "competitive comparison, and creative advertising." Instead, she explains, they focus on things like sustainability, artisanship, and community "in order to give their products "identity and singularity." You're not wearing a Moon Juice shirt because it fits better, you're wearing it to show you value wellness, clean living and crystals. Lighting up an A24 Horror candle shows that you value independent cinema. Even if you, like me, are too scared to actually watch "Midsommar." Their cultural potency can render merch even more desirable than the "real" brand products themselves.
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As Bluestein notes, "Whether or not they are actually "buying your core product, "merch with a point of view can resonate "with people who are somehow "finding it to be a form of self-expression." Merch, in representing a brand or artist's cultural cache, confers that same status onto the buyer. People are telegraphing their values and tastes by associating themselves with Jstor over Lexis Nexis or with Cashapp over Venmo. But to really understand why a New Yorker tote bag means so much to so many people, let's return to what brands as a whole mean. As media scholar Adam Arvidsson writes in his book, "Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture," "Although brands have a long history "as a commercial institution, "reaching as far back as the 18th century, "their position as central components "of the social fabric "was established in the 1980s." As we noted earlier, this was around the time when branding became less about the product and more about the story or "personality" of the brand itself. The result was powerful. As Arvidsson elaborates,
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"Brands now became something "of an omnipresent tool "by means of which identity, "social relations and shared experiences "could be constructed." The web of modern brands thus helps establish a "common social world" that we all inhabit. This happened at the same time as the late 20th century collapse of community, amidst widespread urbanization, privatization of public spaces, and so on. So you maybe used to identify largely as a Catholic, or a Dane, or a New Yorker. But the erosion of religious, ethnic, cultural, and other public communities also erodes the significance of that identity. As Andjelic writes, "We are going through "the imagined community renaissance, "thanks to modern brands stepping in "as the social constructs of belonging "left vacant by traditional institutions." She notes that, "Increasingly, "brands target communities over customers." Merch is an obvious way of telegraphing your membership to a branded community, whether via tote bag or koozie. And for the aspirational class, distinguished not by furs and jewels
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but by their taste, belonging to the right branded communities is paramount. Lighting a dinnertime candle in Victorian England meant you had access to something rare and expensive. Today, sprinkling responsibly-sourced spices on your dinner isn't about conferring wealth, which few of us have anyway. It's more about living your taste and values. It's not about "prestige and exclusivity" but about "identity and belonging" to certain taste communities. And because humans are very literal creatures, we've fixated on the most literal way to do this. Buy merch that spells out your taste for everyone to see. And this isn't inherently sinister. Here at Wisecrack, we love good merch. In fact, each of us owns an estimated average of 1.75 Grateful Dead T-shirts, although I kind of skew the curve on that. But this one is like colored, and this one is like a whiter thing. This one has a totally different font and it's from a different tour, and this one was limited edition. Okay, they're all the same. But we think it's interesting
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that as young peoples' economic opportunities become less and less plentiful, our consumption habits are becoming increasingly important to our identities. As Andjelic notes, "Unable to succeed economically, "millennials are turning their attention "to everyday things with an almost obsessive, "laser-like focus." It's why really liking coffee or doing the right type of yoga can almost constitute an entire personality these days. But, what if our obsession with taste, and thus, with cool merch, really has much more to do with what we can't afford? You know, the little things like houses, cars, advanced degrees, and quality medical care. Unable to achieve the markers of success that our parents and grandparents aspired to, we've found other ways to make our lives feel richer and more meaningful. And more power to us for that. But merch has emerged as an easy and relatively inexpensive way to accrue social capital. Especially in a world where most of us might never have, you know, capital-capital. It's enough to make you want to take a nice long hit from your limited-edition
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Seth-Rogen-sculpted pipe. But what do you guys think? Is the popularity of merch a sinister indicator of how much is wrong with our economy? Or is it just a fun way to signal that you, too, enjoy eating Oreos? Let us know in the comments. Big thanks to our patrons for aligning yourselves with the Wisecrack brand. And be sure to check out our podcasts. Hit subscribe like it's the checkout button on a Supreme drop day, and don't forget to ring that bell. And as always, thanks for watching. Later. (upbeat music)

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