Signaling Conspiracies

Low- and high-end fashion products tend to have less conspicuous brand markers than midprice goods, according to a paper soon to be published in The Journal of Consumer Research.

Rather than rely on obvious logos, expensive products use more discreet markers, such as distinctive design or detailing. High-end consumers prefer markers of status that are not decipherable by the mainstream. These signal group identity only to others with the connoisseurship to recognize their insider standing.

In one study, fashion students were more likely than regular students to favor subtle signals for products visible to others, like handbags. But for private products less relevant to identity, like underwear and socks, there was no difference between the groups. (more; HT Nicholas Walker)

This is one of the factors that makes signaling hard to study – signals are often designed to be hard for ordinary folks to discern.  And that fact makes it easy to be skeptical that any signaling is going on at all.  Skeptics can say “signals, what signals?”

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  • Psychohistorian

    This also rather kills the fallacious concept of there being a single continuum of status. If there were only one form of universal status, then you’d always want people to recognize your status. This reinforces the fact that there are distinct subgroups. People who seriously care about fashion only care what other similar people think, not what people in general think.

    I would be very surprised if this is limited to the high-end. I would imagine most subgroups have signals they respect and don’t. The skater kids and the goth kids and the preppy kids all have specific brands they do or don’t approve of and certain actions and achievements they think are cool or uncool which the other subgroups may be wholly unaware of.

  • http://www.modeledbehavior.com Niklas Blanchard

    I seem to remember Paul Fussell telling me a similar story (from back in the 80’s!). Only what Fussell says is that the “class” of a piece of attire has in inverse relationship with the legibility of writing that appears on it.

    At the very top of the high-class clothing, there are no markings at all.

  • rd

    this is just empirical support for the rick harbaugh paper on counter-signaling, which i’m sure you know – which provides a theory that addresses question you ask at end of post – ie even if different people signal in different ways, can still be sustained (and be informative) in equilibrium