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Dear Brands, Quit Trying to Be My Best Friend

I don’t want Free People or Capsule to love me; I just want to buy a T-shirt.

Photo: Bud Force/Getty Images

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The first time someone said “I love you” to me, I was 16. The words set off a maelstrom of emotion, including but not limited to elation, intoxication, and anxiety. The impact of those three little words hasn’t diminished, no matter how many times I’ve heard them since.

Then, just last week, I was riding the subway and I noticed an ad for a company called Capsule that described itself thusly: “A pharmacy where you’re more likely to hear ‘I love you’ than ‘next please.’” Now, like I said, I’m a sucker for a good “I love you.” But why on earth would I ever want my pharmacist to say it?

This is the kind of question I find myself asking more and more often as brands and stores employ the kind of overly solicitous marketing messaging that not only leaves me cold, but also creeps me out. It’s like that needy friend you had in high school who would ask you to go to the bathroom with her, just for company; or the guy you went on one date with who won’t stop calling you; or the cult leader that won’t stop banging down your door.

Take a quick perusal of the “about” pages of fashion and lifestyle brands — particularly ones launched in the past few years — and you’ll notice the following words appear at a disturbing clip: “community,” “revolution,” “movement,” “empower,”and yes, “love.” Take this, for instance, from lingerie startup Lively’s website: “Lively is not just about the products it offers, it is about a mindset we want to share with women around the world. One that reminds, empowers and enables us all to live life doing what we love, with the people we love!”

Or, from athleisure brand Kit & Ace: “We are working toward something bigger than ourselves — we are creating products and experiences that keep you moving forward.”

Or, from Free People: “Our sales team is in love with the Free People customer, and constantly searches for accounts who believe in our aesthetic and want us to be part of their lives.”

The message is basically: “Hey guys, we’re cool, we swear, and we’re totally not trying to sell you anything, just trying to facilitate a better world over here. Now, come buy some stuff you probably don’t need.”

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not looking for a best friend or a confidante, and if I wanted to get involved in a cause greater than myself, I certainly wouldn’t be looking for it at a clothing store. So what gives? Why do companies think we’re into this stuff? It reminded me of something I read in consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow’s book, Decoding the New Consumer Mind: According to Yarrow, besides supplying us with the goods we need, shopping also fulfills an important social need. Since humans first began gathering, we’ve gone to the marketplace to connect with others. But now that many of us are shopping online — alone, right from our couch — we’re missing out on that sense of human connection. Which is why, perhaps, brands have found some success appealing to our hearts.

“People are really hungry for the antidote to their online world, and that antidote is more emotion wrapped up in their transactions,” explained Yarrow, who I caught up with last week. “Companies are making these emotional appeals, rather than rational appeals.”

Basically, the thinking is that American consumers feel so lonely and isolated that they’ve turned to the capitalistic companies trying to sell them things for love and friendship. Yep, we’re at that level. And it’s depressing as all get-out.

Another slightly less horrifying reason Yarrow thinks companies have amped up the overly affectionate tone in which they speak to consumers is that “trust is at very abysmally low levels right now.”

“If a business says ‘we love you, we care about you,’ I think what they’re trying to communicate is that they are more trustworthy,” said Yarrow. “They’re trying to say, ‘let down your guard, you can trust us because we love you.’”

My reaction? Yuck. Yarrow tends to agree. “It’s so disingenuous,” she said. “Because a business is not a human being, a business cannot love anything or have emotion of any sort.” It’s really a shame we have to explain this to brands: You are not a revolution. You are not a lifestyle. You are not my best friend. You are a clothing brand. And I just want to buy a T-shirt, okay?