How a simple object can mean so much?

Is it not amazing how the human mind can imbue so much meaning into a simple object. Take magnets for example – apparently something so ordinary. But for women in Russia those magnets commonly placed on refrigerators hold a much deeper meaning. They symbolized their aspiration to travel to exotic European locations across France, Italy and Switzerland. They aspired so because they believed that by going there they would be free to indulge, to be irresponsible, to use their time as they would like. In essence those magnets captured their desire to escape. What’s driving them to a seek a escape in the first place? For one life can be hard in Russia. Alcoholism among men in Russia is a huge problem. 25% of all men under the age of 55 die because of a liver disease caused by excess alcohol consumption. It is their way of dealing with economic drudgery it seems. Men find their escape with their friends while drinking alcohol. With limited opportunities to prosper a lot of men work long hours in labor intensive jobs like mining, oil and forestry. This leaves Russian women in a precarious position to hold the mantle of the household and in some ways take on the role of both parents. This drives these women to exhibit toughness and maleness in their behavior. At the same time this also creates an emotional imbalance. While they present themselves as being firm and in control they internally desire to be their feminine self. Unable to do so they express their femininity through the way they dress up by applying makeup in excess at least by Western standards – red lipstick and all. While their appearance is in sharp contrast to their reality they do so to feel some sense of femininity in their life. That’s not the only aspect of their life that’s awry. There is certainly more evidence of this repression. For example Russian homes have a strange dearth of mirrors. The desire to look at oneself is so instinctively human. Why were they denying themselves of any opportunity for self-admiration? They were clearly overwhelmed by their circumstances. At the same time they struggled to not only be a responsible, nurturing mother but to be true to themselves in some way as well. Digging deeper however it seems that their repression goes beyond just their need to feel like a woman. Further evidence of this came from playgrounds. Typically the wear and tear on the rope of swing would be where a child would hold it from. In Russia this wear and tear is more higher, where an adult would hold the rope to swing. It was mothers who would use the swing more – to be child like, carefree and without responsibility. Therefore these refrigerator magnets of landmark European cities were not an imaginative play for their kids but a repository of their own dreams and aspirations.

Surprisingly Russian women are not the only ones collecting refrigerator magnets of famous European destinations. Saudi Arabian women too have a collection on display in their homes, with London and Paris being the most popular. Unlike Russians, Saudis are far more affluent and these mementos are more like tokens to remind them of their travel experiences. For them travel is a escape too. But it’s not a escape from economic drudgery. It’s more of a cultural escape. Owing to the restrictive public lifestyle prevalent across the Kingdom locals seek travel as a way to experience freedom without fear of being reprimanded. This fear is not overt. There are subtle signs of this. It is expressed in their frustration from the strictness of the local committee responsible for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. This frustration manifests in some through a desire to relocate elsewhere. For many from the affluent class this frustration is relieved through frequent travel. For perspective 4.5 million Saudis take a holiday at least once a year. In total they spend about $17 billion and on average spend about 6 times more than a Western tourist. What’s driving so much travel? Is it really because they can afford to? Or simply because it’s a desert country after all and the terrain doesn’t really offer much in terms of natural respite. If so then why the sales of toys related to emergency services like the police and fire department are 49% higher in Saudi Arabia compared to anywhere else in the world. For something like toothbrushes global research from Colgate indicates that about 40% of all the toothbrushes sold worldwide are red. However that number is about 2% in Saudi Arabia. So why the aversion to red? One of the most commonly held fears among locals is getting burned to death from a fire in a building. Why the fear of fire? Has this fear been ingrained by the ‘religious police’ through their constant reminders of the hell fire? Is that the reason why the common themes of paintings in Saudi homes are related to images of water. They say blue is the color of longing for the distances that we as humans can never reach. Are these the streams from heaven that they subconsciously desire? Perhaps a counter balance to their fear of fire. Another observation that supports this idea is the fact that Arabic speakers use flower and plant emoticons four times more often then other speakers. Another sign of imbalance offset through their expressions.

So what’s the point? In both cases the object is a simple magnet but it’s imbued with so much meaning. For one it symbolizes an escape from economic drudgery while for the other it symbolizes an escape from cultural restrictions. The point is why do we as humans give so much meaning to objects. Take fragrances for example. While not an object but isn’t it something we can all relate to when a certain smell can transport you to a specific  place or event in your life. It is this ability of an object to transcend beyond it’s physical dimensions is what marketers aspire to do for their brands. To not just a sell a product but to enable experiences that create certain memories and associations with a brand and therefore trigger consumption every time someone experiences a similar moment or event in their life.

The bigger question is why do we as humans externalize the meaning of our life to objects. Is that OK? Or is it a symptom of a deeper issue? Answering this question probably requires delving into defining human consciousness. A topic for another post for sure. But it’s conclusion may not bode so well for marketing. What if all marketing today is just really feeding off a human weakness. What could be the implications of this on marketing going forward? More on this soon!

Inspired by the book “Small Data” by Marin Lindstrom

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