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Trendy, tacky or trash? It's all in the eye of the consumer, scholar says

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For consumers who plunk down their hard-earned dollars on products of questionable utility like the ShamWow, the Snuggie or the latest fad, Pajama Jeans, it's all in the eye of the beholder, says Cele Otnes, a University of Illinois marketing expert.

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3/16/2011 | Phil Ciciora, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-2177; pciciora@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The ShamWow. The Snuggie. Big-Mouth Billy Bass. And the latest fad, Pajama Jeans.

Are these products winners or worthless? For consumers who plunk down their hard-earned dollars on products of questionable utility, it's all in the eye of the beholder, says a University of Illinois marketing expert.

Cele Otnes, a professor of business administration who studies consumer-buying rituals ranging from weddings to at-home holiday celebrations, says the allure of products hawked on late-night infomercials by breathless pitchmen is the tacit acknowledgement that consumers are in on the joke.

"All of these products that you see on infomercials are all items I would file under the heading, 'Items we buy but don't know why we buy them,' " Otnes said.

Yet they still sell like crazy, which is perplexing given the continued financial struggles of consumers in the Great Recession. But whoever said consumers were rational?

"Culturally, gift-giving is not rational," Otnes said. "In fact, much of consumer behavior, including gift-buying rituals and holidays, is completely irrational."

Owning a piece of pop culture – even if its only value may be as an ironic tchotchke – at the height of a fad indicates to others that you're a hip, lighthearted person, Otnes said.

"Consumers decide to buy this stuff because it signals that they're in on the cultural joke, that they get that tackiness stems from silliness and a mass cultural understanding of boundaries," she said. "These are not high-class objects; people buy them so other people can laugh with them and at this goofy stuff. So there's a winking irony to it, this flaunting of tackiness."

Otnes categorizes products of marginal value and utility into three broad categories: cute, kitsch or trash.

"When something is cute, there's nothing offensive or winking about it," she said. "Cute is something almost nauseatingly attractive to a target audience, particularly younger girls. Hello Kitty products would be a good example of cute."

Kitsch is "tongue-in-cheek, do-you-get-the-joke-about-why-this-is-goofy kind of thing mixed with just a pinch of tacky," Otnes said, while trash is "garage-sale bait in two months."

"If someone gave you trash, the first thing you're thinking is, 'How do I get rid of this in the least amount of time so as not to offend?' " she said.

But kitsch can occasionally veer into trash, and vice versa.

"There are interesting boundaries between kitsch and trash," Otnes said. "Bobblehead dolls can be kitsch or trash, depending on the quality. Trash can be stuff that's maybe a little bit kitschy but you know in the back of your mind probably won't last."

There are quality and price issues with trash, whereas with cute and kitsch, the consumer can spend a lot of money on an item meant to last a lifetime.

"Price plays an important role in perception," Otnes said. "The lower the prices, the more people look at something as trash. The signals that retailers send help consumers determine which category a product is in. So there are fluid boundaries that really depend on consumers' perspectives, and it's useful for marketers to understand what kind of landscape they're aiming for."

If you're going to integrate these products into what Otnes calls one's "constellation of ownership," you have to be careful to strategize and stage the way the items are presented or else it could backfire.

"With some of those products, you almost have to infiltrate them into your identity," she said. "You don't want to be like (the TV character) Michael Scott, who proudly displays a 'World's Best Boss' coffee mug prominently on his desk. Some stuff that you buy the world may never see – that's usually the trash. If you do see it, it has to be surrounded by other things that show everyone else that you get the joke. But you wouldn't want to have just one piece of kitsch, you would want to have a collection, because having more of something at once acknowledges and intensifies the humor and irony of it."

Weddings, holidays and other ritual gift-buying occasions when consumers are allowed to open their wallets in a guilt-free manner are also ripe for all sorts of cultural detritus, Otnes said.

"Just look at the seasonal products big-box retailers sell before holidays," she said. "They just figure that consumers are in a buying frenzy, and that they're receptive to buying, say, a life-size, animatronic jack-o'-lantern in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Never mind that it will just be collecting dust in the garage for the other 50 weeks of the year."

The impending nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton will likely spark more interest in the British royal family – a gap in the market that will no doubt be exploited by retailers.

"There's an entire industry built around the consumption of royalty – tourism, souvenirs, museums," Otnes said. "With the upcoming royal wedding, people are once again going berserk, so expect to see an outpouring of royal-themed products ranging of varying quality."

Although cute, kitsch and trash is ultimately in the eye of the consumer, there may actually be some out there who absolutely love their ShamWow or Snuggie.

"And I'm sure the people who make ShamWows and Snuggies are laughing all the way to the bank," Otnes said.

Editor's note: To contact Cele Otnes, call 217-265-0799; e-mail cotnes@illinois.edu.
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