"The Piles of Cash Were Fake"

I’m guessing Casual Kitchen readers don’t keep all that current with controversies in the world of rap music. But a fascinating thing happened last month with the rapper 50 Cent (otherwise known as Curtis Jackson), and it ties eerily into our many discussions here at Casual Kitchen about branding, identity construction and consumerism.

The controversy centered around Jackson’s bankruptcy filing last year, and the unfortunate fact that he recently posted photographs of himself on social media sitting next to stacks of money.

Of course, when you declare bankruptcy you’re required to state honestly all of your assets and liabilities to the court. Thus the court quite reasonably thought the stacks of cash meant that 50 Cent lied about his financial position.

Which takes us to Fitty’s response: “Just because I am photographed in or next to a certain vehicle, wearing an article of clothing, holding a product, sitting next to what appears to be large sums of money or modeling expensive pieces of jewelry does not meant that I own everything in those photos.”

In other words, 50 Cent inadvertently caught himself in a branding Catch-22. If the money was real, he then shielded assets and lied to the court. If the money was fake, then his “brand” becomes fake to the point of self-parody.

As a quick thought experiment, imagine what else 50 Cent could have done with his stacks of “what appears to be large sums of money.” He could simply count his money, privately. He could take the photograph, but keep it to himself. Or, he could send the photo, quietly, to one or two friends.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Nobody takes a selfie next to a pile of money just to keep the photo to themselves.

Yet somehow putting that same photo on Instagram and broadcasting it to everyone becomes, weirdly, a legitimate act of branding. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more quintessential Veblen-esque * act than photographing yourself next to piles of money and sharing it on social media.

Except! When the money turns out to be fake, your personal brand looks awfully fake too. Equally as fake as, say, the brand on a can of Bumblebee Tuna, or a Sara Lee cake.

So what happens when a brand conflicts so overtly with reality? Well, for one thing, the owner of the brand will want to keep you from finding out the truth. Which is why 50 Cent has to hope his fans don't read too many articles about his problems with the bankruptcy court, and why Bumblebee Tuna has to hope that consumers reading about their recent tuna recall fail to notice all the facts--and fail to put two and two together.

However, those consumers who do find out the truth will no doubt feel cheated, ripped-off, and they'll quickly stop paying a price premium for your products. In fact, they’d be quite justified in no longer buying your products at all.

One last thought. It’s all too easy to criticize a celebrity for doing something like this. But we could ask ourselves similar questions about the things we do, buy and share. Social media was created to fulfill many of our status hierarchy and identity construction needs, and it does it so well that it's almost as if nothing counts any more unless there's some meta-representation of it online. These are self-branding events for us, and honestly, they’re often not all that different from what 50 Cent did.

Our acts of consumption and self-branding--and our sharing of them online--literally make life more difficult for everyone around us. How? By raising the status competition bar for others. Flashy purchases and flashy actions have a blast radius. Your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors exist in that blast radius. When we buy or do flashy things we don't just feed our own insatiable status competition urges. We feed everyone else's too.

Does this make you rethink some of the things you do, buy, and share with others online?

Readers, what do you think?

Read Next: Aspirational Marketing and the Unintended Irony of Pabst Beer

For Further Reading:
1) Thorstein Veblen's difficult but eye-opening book The Theory of the Leisure Class. For a book written in 1899, it's astonishing how predictive it is of modern identity construction and modern consumerism.

2) 50 Cent’s best-known song.

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chacha1 said...

I had not heard of this particular "controversy" but it seems to be rooted in the same fallacy that most internet "controversies" are: that what we see should be taken at face value. There are people who throw a fit at the idea that photos in design magazines like Apartment Therapy are staged, or at the idea that photos of models in Sports Illustrated are retouched.

I don't think the Internet has necessarily made people dumber, but I do think it has opened a divide between people who respond best to verbal stimuli and people who respond best to visual stimuli. That is, between people who read, and comprehend what they are reading, on one side and people who don't. People who read tend to be better at grasping subtext and context.

Pop music of all genres is, and has been for at least fifty years, a predominantly image-driven medium. Any successful pop musician succeeds at least in part on the character s/he creates, and the consistency with which the character is presented through the music and through the associated images. Artists who change their "character" often lose their audience.

It's a little disappointing that a bankruptcy court should have been quite so quick to jump on the "it's in a picture so it must be true" bandwagon.

I don't think I am guilty of much "status" consumption. :-) And I think I have only posted about five personal photos on FB. Sufficiently few, anyway, that when I changed my hair nobody knew until they saw me in person.

Daniel said...

This is a great comment Chacha, thank you. And thanks for pointing out the irony of the *bankruptcy court* falling for the same act of branding... in their own way. Well put.


chacha1 said...

Well I can't help but suspect that the court was predisposed against Mr. 50. He is not the type of person that our court system treats as "innocent until proven guilty."

Honestly, you would think by now that there would be a better body of law, and a better big-picture approach to same, concerning poorly-advised artists and athletes. The financial messes are legendary. Some intelligent law firm out there could clean up by developing a special practice for celebrity finance.

Daniel said...

Sadly, there's a lot more money to be made by *separating* people from their money than from teaching people how to hang onto it.