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Abstract

This article proposes a critical perspectives on brands based on recent developments within Marxist thought. It argues that brands build on the immaterial labour of consumers: their ability to create an ethical surplus (a social bond, a shared experience, a common identity) through productive communication. This labour is generally free in the sense that it is both un-paid and more or less autonomous. Contemporary brand management consists in a series of techniques by means of which such free labor is managed so that it comes to produce desirable and valuable outcomes. By thus making productive communication unfold on the plateau of brands, the enhanced ability of the contemporary multitude to produce a common social world is exploited as a source of surplus value.
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Journal of Consumer Culture
DOI: 10.1177/1469540505053093
2005; 5; 235 Journal of Consumer Culture
Adam Arvidsson
Brands: A critical perspective
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235
ARTICLE
Brands
A critical perspective
ADAM ARVIDSSON
University of Copenhagen
Abstract. This article proposes a critical perspectives on brands based on recent
developments within Marxist thought. It argues that brands build on the immaterial
labour of consumers: their ability to create an ethical surplus (a social bond, a shared
experience, a common identity) through productive communication. This labour is
generally free in the sense that it is both un-paid and more or less autonomous.
Contemporary brand management consists in a series of techniques by means of
which such free labor is managed so that it comes to produce desirable and valuable
outcomes. By thus making productive communication unfold on the plateau of
brands, the enhanced ability of the contemporary multitude to produce a common
social world is exploited as a source of surplus value.
Key words
autonomous Marxism
brands consumption critical theory multitude
WHEN MARTHA STEWART THE SUCCESSFUL American lifestyle icon –
appeared to salute her fans following her prison sentence in July 2004, she
urged them to stay faithful to her brand. She stressed how their continued
belief in its values, and their continued commitment to the community that
it embodied, was the only thing that could prevent the shares from
plunging.
1
Mrs Stewart’s appeal to her customers to ‘keep believing’ might
seem the natural reaction of any businessperson who sees her reputation
sullied. But it also expresses a more profound sociological truth. Today, the
value of brands like Martha Stewart’s builds only in part on the qualities of
Journal of Consumer Culture
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products. To a great extent it is also based on values, commitments and
forms of community sustained by consumers. This way, brands are
mechanisms that enable a direct valorization (in the form of share prices,
for example) of people’s ability to create trust, affect and shared meanings:
their ability to create something in common.
2
To some extent this has of course always been the case. Any business-
person would probably agree with long marginalized (and recently
rediscovered) sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s (1902) insight: that the public
construction of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and ‘utility’ are important factors that
contribute to establishing the economic value of goods and services. But
today this link between public communication and economic value has
acquired an unprecedented centrality. For companies like McDonald’s,
Coca-Cola or Nike, the most valuable asset is the public standing of their
brands; the place that these have acquired in the life-world of consumers.
3
In the form of ‘brand value’, the dynamics of public communicative inter-
action have a direct impact on the value of shares traded on financial
markets. Consequently the management of public communicative action
has become a central element to economic governance (both for market-
ing and for management, where the concept of the ‘organizational brand’
now plays a central part). Public opinion, affect and sentiment have entered
as central parameters in contemporary shareholder oriented corporate
governance (Williams, 2000).
The other side to this fusion of public communication and the produc-
tion of economic value is that our everyday life-world is filled with
attempts to manage and steer how we actually produce truth, beauty and
utility around goods. The instruments of brand management permeate our
life-world: advertising in all its forms, product placements in films, video
games and other media products, corporate sponsorship of everything from
sport events to exhibitions and children’s schoolbooks, and not least, the
ubiquitous ‘logos’ that adorn our bodies and that work, some say, as a kind
of pre-structuring of our movements through time and space (Lury, 1999).
We end up living in a well nigh all-encompassing brand-space, within a
kind of ‘ambient television’ (McCarthy, 2001), where our ability to look,
fantasize, sympathize, be fascinated, or sometimes simply to act and feel, can
constantly be invited to give attention to a particular brand, and thus
contribute to sustaining the immaterial qualities that form the basis of its
value. In the context of contemporary, image-saturated capitalism more
generally, Jonathan Beller claims that ‘looking is posited by capital as labour’
(Beller, 2002: 61).
Recent analyses of the brand as an institution have been informed by
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the suspicion that it is the meaning-making activity of consumers that
forms the basis of brand value. In a recent article Douglas Holt claims that
what he calls ‘postmodern brand management’ builds not on attempts to
foster and impose particular consumer practices, but rather offers brands as
‘cultural resources’, and then capitalizes on what consumers produce with
those resources: ‘The market today thrives on consumers [who act as]
unruly bricoleurs who engage in nonconformist producerly consumer
practices’ (Holt, 2002: 94). Similarly, in her successful anti-branding
manifesto No Logo (2000), Naomi Klein denounces brands for (among
other things) their tendency to colonize public space, insert themselves in
all walks of life, and demand and capture attention and affect. Although
both Holt and Klein make a connection between the creativity or agency
of consumers and the value of brands, neither of them spell this out
theoretically. That is the purpose of this article. I will suggest a model for
how ‘looking’ can be conceptualized as ‘labour’. Or, to put it in my terms:
how the human ability to create what I will call an ethical surplus – a social
relation, a shared meaning, an emotional involvement that was not there
before – around a brand can be understood as the direct basis of its
economic value.
In presenting the relation between consumption and brands in these
terms, I will depart from contemporary re-readings of Marx as they have
evolved within the primarily French and Italian school of ‘autonomist’
Marxism (for an English overview, see Dyer-Withford, 1999;Wright, 2002).
This tradition has developed as a response to the social transformations that
have accompanied the movement from a Fordist,factory-centred production
process to the more diffuse and expanded systems of production that charac-
terize post-Fordism, where social interaction and communication enter as
directly productive elements. Drawing on insights from this tradition, I will
offer an argument that expands Marx’s model of the capitalist production
process to include both what many consumer researchers have argued to
be the productive aspects of consumption (cf. Firat and Dholakia, 1998),
and what some critical theorists have seen as the controlling or even
exploitative aspects of brands and of the new ‘means of consumption’ in
general (Ritzer, 1999). To make this argument, some rethinking of the
categories of ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ will be needed.
The next section will offer a short description of how brands actually
figure in the contemporary accounting literature as a form of capital, as a
resource that (from the point of view of capital) generates value. The
following section goes on to speculate on what kind of labour can be the
source of such brand value. I suggest that consumption can fruitfully be
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conceptualized as one manifestation of the ‘immaterial labour’ that contem-
porary Marxists (and non) see as increasingly central to post-Fordist capi-
talism (cf. Gorz, 2003; Hardt and Negri, 2004; Lazzarato, 1997). After that
I re-examine how brands can function as capital, not only formally (as in
their place on accounting sheets) but also in reality: how they function as
capital within the immaterial production process that consumers engage in.
Here I argue that brands provide different kinds of mediatic spaces that
pre-structure and anticipate the immaterial production of consumers:
spaces where it unfolds as the production of a particular form of life. In
the third section I tie the two parts together and show how brand-capital
actually generates value from consumption-labour. Here I draw on Marx’s
famous model for the reproduction of capital (the M-C-M’ formula). I go
on to analyse how brands can be said to exploit consumers. In the
conclusion I suggest that the relation between brands and consumption can
be understood as exemplary of how capitalism has responded to the
condition of post-modernity.
BRAND VALUE
Like the intangible value embodied in the legal constructs of patents and
copyrights, brand value – protected by the legal construct of trademark law
– represents an important immaterial asset in contemporary capitalism. It
is difficult to give exact figures for the overall economic weight of brand
value, but estimates suggest that this has increased continuously over the last
20 years. During the mergers and acquisitions wave of the 1980s about 20
percent of most bid prices were motivated by the value of brands. Today
that figure is closer to 70 percent in some sectors (Sampson, 1997: 176).
Similarly, the importance of brands for earnings in the airline industry is
estimated to have grown from five percent in 1960 to 30 percent in 2000
(Perrier, 1997). At the same time there has been a movement in trademark
legislation towards a recognition of the brand, not only as a symbol of
something else – the quality of a product or the identity of the producer
– but as an object of property in its own right (Lury, 2004: 108 ff.). Accord-
ing to Interbrand (2001), a London consulting firm whose brand valuation
method has been established as standard practice, the value of the world’s
100 most precious brands was estimated to be $434 billion in 2001, roughly
four percent of US GDP (at $10,400 billion in 2002), and almost three
times total US advertising expenditure (at $132 billion in 2000).
What do these figures represent? There are different measurements, but
all have one thing in common. Brand value represents the present value of
predictable future earnings generated by the brand. This is net of tax,
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operational costs and costs for the material production of goods. In
accounting,brands thus figure as a kind of capital, as an asset that is expected
to generate value. Furthermore, brands figure as immaterial capital. Brand
earnings are understood to be based not on the objects themselves, but on
their ‘brand equity’, which is made up of their subjective meanings or social
functions. As David Aaker puts it in his classic management manual,
Building Strong Brands: ‘A common pitfall [for brand managers] is to focus
on the product attributes and tangible benefits of a brand’; instead one
should consider the ‘emotional and self-expressive benefits as well as func-
tional benefits’ (Aaker, 1996: 25). Building brand equity is about fostering
a number of possible attachments around the brand, be these experiences,
emotions, attitudes, lifestyles or, most importantly perhaps, loyalty. From a
managerial perspective brand value represents the monetary value of what
a brand can mean to consumers (cf. Keller, 2001). Brands are ‘monetizable
symbolic values’ (Gorz, 2003: 60).
But who produces these immaterial assets? The business literature is
remarkably unclear on this question. The origins of brand equity are often
attributed to diffuse factors like tradition, coincidence or luck. One sugges-
tion could be that the immaterial assets of the brand are produced by brand
managers. Brands are built through advertising, marketing, product place-
ments, staged events and a number of other strategies devised by the various
‘symbol analysts’ that the brand-owning company employs. This is indeed
the perspective of prominent brand equity theorists like Keller and Aaker.
Certainly, skilled brand managers, advertising artists and other symbol
analysts are likely to produce some of the immaterial qualities on which
brand values are based. But do they produce all of them?
The recent emphasis on the productivity of contemporary consumer
practices has led some marketing scholars to suggest that to some extent, a
brand’s assets are produced by consumers themselves, beyond the direct
control of the salaried organization (Bengtson and Östberg, 2004). As the
following two sections will show, this suggestion also goes well with both
recent theories of the contemporary labour process, and with the actual
practice of brand management. In pursuing my investigation, I will thus
begin with the hypothesis that some of the value of brands derives from
the productive practice of consumers.
CONSUMPTION AS IMMATERIAL LABOUR
If consumption is to be considered a form of labour, that is, an activity that
produces value, it is obvious that both its place and its phenomenology are
radically different from the factory work that we are used to thinking of as
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the paradigmatic example of labour.
4
First of all, consumption is an activity
that occurs in what Marxists refer to as the domain of circulation, and not
the domain of production. In traditional Marxism, the circulation of
commodities distributes the wealth produced and realizes value, but it does
not produce value. This position has been criticized by feminist economists
who have pointed at the value of (mostly female) reproductive household
work. Since then a more general process of theoretical revision has been
under way. In their classic work on post-Fordist capitalism Economies of Signs
and Symbols, Lash and Urry (1994) suggested that an adequate understand-
ing of the contemporary production process must include, or indeed
privilege, circulation (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000; Lee and LiPuma,
2002). This inclusion of circulation, or perhaps better, the blurring of the
boundaries between circulation and production, has perhaps been most
prominent in analyses of the information economy. Information, its core
substance, is not used up as it is ‘consumed’. Rather, much of the use-value
of information lies in its ability to be passed on in some form. This passing
on of information generally involves some re-elaboration that adds to or
alters its content (Castells, 1996; Lash, 2002). In this way the circulation of
information is also the production of information. The ‘information
economy’ is thus one important example of the fusion of communication
and production.
The integration of ‘production’ and ‘circulation’ has been investigated
in more general terms by the (mostly French and Italian) tradition of
‘autonomist’ Marxism. Since the 1970s, thinkers like Antonio Negri and
Romano Alquati have argued that the integration of communication and
production is a central characteristic of the post-Fordist labour process. In
new automated factories and in the new ‘industrial districts’ of northern
and central Italy, productive labour was built on qualities that had previ-
ously been relegated to the domain of circulation. Material labour was no
longer enough, rather productive workers had to be able to use their
communicative and social skills to organize their own productive process.
Negri (1989) talked about the emergence of a new form of worker that
he called the ‘socializing worker’ (operaio sociale
5
) whose main productive
asset was his or her ability to put communicative action to work in
producing a meaningful framework for the production process. With the
‘socializing worker’ communication belongs an integral element of the
production process, and the production process has itself expanded to invest
a series of social practices that transpired outside of the factory floor.
This idea of an extended, communicative production process has
been developed in Maurizio Lazzarato’s (1997) more recent concept of
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‘immaterial labour’. With ‘immaterial labour’ Lazzarato refers to the prac-
tices that produce either the immaterial content of commodities, or the
social context of production itself. The product designer engages in imma-
terial labour. So does the member of the flexible organization who
produces his or her inclusion in a project-based team. Immaterial labour
works with language in the wide sense of the term. It utilizes a common
ability to interact and socialize, and a common symbolic framework, a set
of shared knowledges and competences,to produce a social relation (Virno,
2004). The art director uses a common knowledge of styles and fashions
shared with ‘her’ peers. The team worker uses a common jargon spiced up
with references to pop culture to construct a, however temporary and tran-
sitory,‘community’ with ‘his’ co-workers. These common competences are
ultimately based in a generally available symbolic repertoire diffused by a
virtually omnipresent media culture. Lazzarato uses Marx’s term ‘General
Intellect’ to refer to this ubiquitous symbolic resource, employed as a means
of production by immaterial labour.
6
In deploying this ‘General Intellect’,
immaterial labour produces what Lazzarato calls an ‘ethical surplus’. It
produces a social relation, a shared meaning, or a sense of belonging; what
Hardt and Negri (2004) have more recently called a common, that feeds into
the post-Fordist production process by providing a temporary context that
makes the production or the realization of value possible.
7
Surplus value
becomes (partially) based on the ability of immaterial labour to produce
‘surplus community’ (Lazzarato, 1997: 13).
To Lazzarato, immaterial labour takes place both inside and outside the
organization. On the one hand, it is the business of new kinds of
professionals, the ‘symbol analysts’ (Reich, 1991) who work with infor-
mation, signs and social relations. But their work draws on, indeed
presupposes an ethical surplus generated outside the organization. In the
contemporary organization the unpaid, social life of employees is thought
of as a core resource for organizational identity (Hochschild, 1997).
Alternatively, the art director directly draws on knowledge, contacts and
social relations that ‘she’ mobilizes in the ‘network sociality’ (Wittel, 2001)
of ‘her’ leisure time. Indeed, according to Lazzarato, the ‘cycle of
immaterial production’ presupposes the existence of a ‘socialized and
autonomous labour force’ that can be drawn upon (Lazzarato, 1997: 24).
This way, the post-Fordist production process directly exploits the
communitarian dimension of social life.
According to Lazzarato, one of the most important instances of
immaterial labour transpiring outside of salaried organization is consump-
tion. Contemporary consumers do not simply use up resources, rather they
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produce a social relation (a ‘relation of consumption’, Lazzarato, 1997: 42)
within which goods can make sense; they produce a context of consump-
tion that a post-modern, highly mediatized lifeworld no longer self-
evidently provides (cf. Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998; Beck et al.,
1994), within which goods can acquire meaning and use-value (Miranda,
1998).
Similar suggestions have been frequent in contemporary consumer
studies. Historians have argued that modern consumers should not be
understood as the passive victims of producer interests, but that they have
actively engaged in the social construction of the value of consumer goods,
and thus functioned as part of the very productive dynamic that has driven
capitalist development (cf. Brewer and Porter, 1993;Sassatelli, 2004).Within
cultural studies, anthropology (Miller, 1998) and the relatively new field of
critical consumer studies (an off-shoot of academic marketing) it is now
standard practice to view consumption as a productive activity. Consump-
tion is a ‘critical site in which identities, boundaries and shared meanings
are forged’(Kates, 2002: 385). Consumer goods function as ‘linking devices’
that enable the crystallization of however transitory (or even ‘neo-tribal’,
Maffesoli, 1996) forms of community (Cova, 1997; Cova and Cova, 2001).
In short, consumption produces a common in the form of a community, a
shared identity or even a short lived ‘experience’ that adds dimensions of
use-value to the object (Celsi et al., 1993; Kates, 1998; Kozinets, 2001;
Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; O’Guinn and Belk, 1989; Thompson and
Troester, 2002).
Consumption thus contains aspects that enable it to function as a form
of immaterial labour. Consumers use goods, and the ‘general intellect’
available to them in the form of a commonly accessible media culture, to
produce a common framework in which goods can have a use-value. This
is not just a matter of reproducing a pre-structured framework for
consumption, a ‘code of value’ to use Jean Baudrillard’s (1970) old term,
provided by advertising and other forms of commercial persuasion. Rather
the existing literature insists that the productivity of consumers generally
possesses a high degree of autonomy in relation to the attempted program-
ming of marketing and advertising, and the common that is produced
generally takes unanticipated forms. The immaterial productivity that
consumers engage in is ‘free’, not only in the sense that it is unpaid, but
also in the sense that it is generally beyond the direct control of capital
(Terranova, 2004). It is this creative autonomy that makes it valuable.
This poses a further question for our analysis. We can perhaps agree
that consumption is a productive activity, that it produces a common that
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can work as a context within which goods can acquire (new dimensions
of) use-value. But this is not enough for consumption to function as
immaterial labour. For an activity to function as labour the local and specific
use-values that it produces must be translated into a general value form (see
note 4): it must be subsumed under capital. In the next section I shall argue
that, in the form of brand management, marketing has developed a series
of techniques to accomplish precisely this.
BRAND MANAGEMENT
The fact that consumers produce a meaningful context in which goods can
have value is no novelty to marketing. In all times, vendors have known
that the public perception of an object contributes to establishing its market
price. However, modern, or Fordist marketing was centred on an attempt
to take control of this productivity of consumers. Like its equivalent on the
factory floor – Taylorism – Fordist ‘scientific’ marketing aimed at trans-
forming consumer practice into the simple reproduction of a standardized
‘consumption norm’ (Aglietta, 1978) or ‘code of value’ (Baudrillard, 1970),
imposed through advertising and other marketing techniques (Ewen, 1976;
Marchand, 1985), and through the agency of the state apparatus (Cohen,
2004).While these attempts met with varying degrees of success (e.g. Peiss,
1986), it is clear that the intent was to discipline consumers (in Foucault’s
[1975] sense of the term), and to educate or ‘rationalize’ their tastes and
desires (Holt, 2002).
Marketing’s disciplinary paradigm (Holt uses the term ‘social engineer-
ing’) began to fragment in the mid 1950s under the combined pressures of
increasing product differentiation, a new media environment, new forms of
market research and, most importantly, new patterns of consumer behav-
iour. New forms of ‘expressive’ middle-class consumer patterns (Dichter,
1960; Martineau, 1957) and the booming youth culture (Frank, 1997)
pointed at more diversified consumer culture where tastes and desires that
could not be contained within a common, society-wide ‘norm’ or ‘code’.
Consumers had to be granted a certain degree of autonomy. The tech-
niques that marketing developed to deal with this new situation centred on
the concept of the brand.
The concept of the ‘brand’ itself has a long history within marketing
thought and practice (Koehn, 2001). Now, however, there was a notable
shift of emphasis. Originally brands had referred to producers. They had
generally served as a trademark or a ‘maker’s mark’ that worked to
guarantee quality or to give the potentially anonymous mass-produced
commodity an identity by linking it to an identifiable (if often entirely
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fictional) producer or inventor or a particular physical place. Now the
brand, or the ‘brand image’, began to refer instead to the significance that
commodities acquired in the minds of consumers (cf. Gardner and Levy,
1955).
In its contemporary use, the brand refers not primarily to the product,
but to the context of consumption. It stands for a specific way of using the
object, a propertied form of life to be realized in consumption. In their
productive agency, consumers employ this propertied context as capital in
the obvious sense of a means of production. Brands supply a virtual
(Shields, 2003) context that facilitates or enables the production of a
particular kind of common. The brand is a ‘platform for action’ that antici-
pates certain activities and certain modalities of relating to those activities
(cf. Lury, 2004: 1). Cooking with Jamie Oliver is different from cooking
by yourself. The virtual nature of the branded context means that it only
exists in so far as consumers take it seriously.‘The power of a brand is what
resides in the minds of customers’ (Keller, 2001: 14). The brand has to be
enacted. Consequently, in the form of brand management, marketing has
developed a series of techniques to ensure consumers do enact the intended
brand identity (Cochoy, 1999): to make the brand function as a program-
ming device (Lury, 2004: 8).
The fact that brands only exist – only offer resistance, to use the
Latourian/Deleuzian definition of existence – as long as consumers act on
them introduces a tricky problem. In so far as consumers’ reproduction of
the form of life that the brand stands for tends to introduce an element of
diversity, an ironic twist, or simply an unanticipated development, manage-
ment must allow for a certain mobility of the brand image: the brand is an
‘open-ended object’ (Lury, 2004: 151). At the same time this mobility must
be controlled and kept within the boundaries of the intended brand
identity.
8
This necessity to balance between innovation and conservation
means that brand management contains two sets of techniques: those that
aim at the selective appropriation of consumer innovation, and those that
aim to make consumers’ use of branded goods serve to reproduce the forms
of life that the brand embodies. Even in this latter case it is not a matter of
imposing a particular meaning or message,or of fostering a particular model
of consumption to simply be reproduced by consumers. Brand manage-
ment is not a disciplinary practice. It does not seek to impose a certain
structure of tastes or desires, not even a certain manner of relating to goods.
And there are seldom sanctions. Rather, brand management works by
enabling or empowering the freedom of consumers so that it is likely to evolve
in particular directions.
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In its present form, brand management recognizes the autonomy of
consumers. It aims at providing an environment,an ambience,which antici-
pates and programs the agency of consumers. Brand management says not
‘You Must!’ It says ‘You May!’ (Barry, 2001; Z
ˇ
izˇek, 1999).
These efforts at anticipation move at different levels of abstraction. At
the most abstract level we find the management of the media image of the
brand. To a large extent brands are built through investments in media
culture, in advertising, product placements, sponsorship and co-branding
(cf. Janson, 2002; Kellner, 1995). The media strategy of brand management
differs from Fordist advertising, and not only in its frequent recourse to an
ironic approach that positions viewers as reflexive and ‘knowing’ inter-
preters. More significantly, brand management does not so much aim at
sending a ‘message’ about the product (however ironic) to consumers.
Rather it aims at defining the contours of what the brand can mean, by
creating inter-textual links in media culture. Brand management aims at
creating what Marshall (2002) has called an ‘inter-textual commodity’: a
mediatic space that anticipates the agency of consumers and situates it
within a number of more or less precise coordinates. Within those coordi-
nates consumers are free to produce the shared meanings and social relations
that the branded good will help create in their life. Marshall cites Nintendo
as an early example of this strategy. Starting in the late 1980s, Nintendo
licensed a wide range of gadgets around its successful core products, the
videogames SuperMario Bros. and Zelda. T-shirts, watches, cereal, sleeping
bags, dolls, magazines, cartoons, wallpaper, snacks and a film (The Wizard,
Provenzo, 1991: 15 ff.). ‘Kids’ could use these objects as a kind of raw
material for their play with and around Nintendo’s video games. In their
play they would create a common in the form of a local and specific
Nintendo world, partially – but not entirely – determined by the coordi-
nates of the brand space. Today many companies use similar strategies to
define the contours of a form of life to be acted out in more concrete ways
by consumers.Through its sponsorship of action movies of the James Bond
and John Woo kind, BMW anticipates different kinds of actions and self
presentation than Mercedes, that sponsors art-house films and features
gadgets with more advanced design (through their alliance with Swiss
watch-maker Swatch, among other things). These coordinates all move at
the very abstract level of ‘mood’ and ‘feeling’. Unlike Fordist advertising,
what to do with the object, how precisely the BMW or Mercedes is
supposed to enter social relations is never explicitly spelled out. Rather it
is a matter of making the object resist certain uses, and invite others.
Consequently, media politics is about policing the public visibility of
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undesirable uses, as in the case of the censorship exercised over films and
other media products by commercial sponsors (Wasko, 1994).
At a more concrete level we find the management of consumers’ lived
interaction with the branded environment (Moor, 2003). Here brands
function as capital in the less obvious sense of an instrument of govern-
ance. Like many other instances of contemporary capitalism, brand
management makes use of bio-political governance: a governance that
works from below by shaping the context in which freedom is exercised,
and by providing the raw materials that it employs (Dean, 1999; Hardt and
Negri, 2000; Rose, 1999). In the case of brand management this occurs
mainly through the construction of particular ambiences that aim to shape
what consumers produce.
There are many ways of doing this. Physical space is one medium that
has gained in popularity recently. The use of architecture and design to
provide a particular commercial ambience certainly has its precedents. It
goes back to the construction of 19th century department stores, the design
of British 18th century shops, and perhaps even the elaborate spaces of the
Ottoman bazaar (Bowlby, 2000). The systematic connection between
design and brand management can in turn be traced back to the ‘corpor-
ate image’ work performed by design bureaus like Lippincott & Margulies
in the 1950s. The most important precursor for the use of physical space
in contemporary brand management has probably been Disney. In Disney’s
theme parks (as in the Disney residential community Celebration) customer
movement, interaction and ‘mood’ is heavily orchestrated to make it
produce a particular ambience and experience. As George Ritzer (1999:
90) has shown, this fusion of entertainment and commerce is a growing
trend in contemporary consumer culture. He also shows how most such
‘new means of consumption’ rely on the active involvement of consumers
to produce the desired experience. In places like Starbucks and McDonald’s
customers contribute to the production of the actual service they consume
– by clearing trays, filling up drinks and such, but not only. The built
environment and the schooled attitudes of personnel also aim to make
customers interact in a certain way so as to produce a particular mood or
experience (Pine and Gilmore, 1999). At McDonald’s, clowns, brightly
coloured uniforms and Disney toys with your Happy Meal encourage the
performance of wholesome family fun. At Starbucks, the smoke-free
environment, the schooled Zen-like attitude of the ‘baristas’, blues music
and books from Oprah Winfrey’s book club encourage the performance of
a laid back attitude appropriate to a west coast urban intellectual of the low
to middle-brow kind (Elliott, 2001). In super-stores like the Chicago
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Niketown the primary scope of the environment is the involvement of
consumers in the construction of an experience. They are invited to try on
shoes, test athletic gear, to use the indoor basketball court, and to interact
with and around the brand. In fact, the primary purpose of the store is not
to sell Nike products (as this would give other retailers unfair competition)
but rather to provide a space where consumers can interact to perform an
experience of the brand as somehow important to, or even part of, their
ordinary lives. As Sherry argues: ‘Nike’s brand essence is both embodied in
the built environment and realized in apprehension, in an act of co-
creation . . . (Sherry, 1998: 138; Peñaloza, 1999). The purpose of these
spaces is to make consumers produce a particular relationship to the brand.
Similarly, many brand owners have invested in the construction of
branded communities. Pioneers in this respect have been British super-
markets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s that in the 1980s created spaces for
customer socialization through events like cooking courses,gourmet dinners
and wine tasting. Other brands like Jeep and Harley Davidson routinely
organize ‘brandfests’ where users can come together, improve their skills at
using the product and,most importantly,socialize and create community ties
(McAlexander and Shouten, 1998;Wolf, 1999). Similar strategies of involv-
ing consumers in producing a dimension of trust or authenticity to be added
to the brand are frequent on the Internet. The auction site eBay owes much
of its success to the sense of trust generated by a particular rating system
by means of which users come to constitute themselves as a community in
which social standing and peer appreciation matter. Similarly, amazon.com
actively seeks to make users add value by reviewing books and participating
in discussions. Future applications promise to take this even further. With
a functioning mobile Internet, applications like ‘Real Space’ interactive
games will enable users to create a web of alliances and hostilities that
evolves in a pre-structured space, both virtual and real. Thus the branded
phone (or the provider) can be employed in the production of a new and
different kind of ethical surplus (Haig, 2002).
An important part of brand management consists of building inter-
textual, physical and virtual spaces that pre-structure and anticipate the
agency of consumers. Within these spaces consumers are given contours of
and raw material for the exercise of their productive agency. Consumers
are free to themselves produce a set of social relations and shared meanings
– a common. This can be a matter of participating in the creation of a
collectively shared experience (like at Starbucks), of adding a dimension of
trust to a service (like in the case of eBay) or of creating a local and
specific meaningful dimension that contextualizes the branded good in a
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particular life situation (as in the case of a particular enactment of a general
BMW-style) or that makes it possible to experience the brand as endowed
with an authentic meaning in one’s own life-history. (A fond family
memory articulated around the Nike brand, a childhood birthday party at
McDonald’s.) Brands work as platforms for action that enable the produc-
tion of particular immaterial use-values: an experience, a shared emotion,
a sense of community. This way, brands work as a kind of ubiquitous means
of production that are inserted within the socialized production process
that consumers engage in. The idea on the part of brand management is
that what consumers produce by means of the brand will contribute to
strengthening the position that the brand occupies in their life-world.
Indeed, it is often argued that attainment of the superior dimensions of
brand equity is contingent on this interactive element. It is not the brand
itself that counts, but what you can do with it, what you can be with it
(Schmitt, 1999). While it is not impossible for consumers to use branded
goods in unanticipated ways, the purpose of brand management is precisely
to anticipate the ways in which consumers use goods; to inscribe certain
ways of acting and relating in them (Lury, 1999). This way, managerial
power becomes an immanent component of the very environment in
which consumers act. As they become subjects, brands become valuable.
It is not always necessary or even desirable to anticipate consumer
agency. Among some consumer groups, like American ‘urban cultures’,
global ‘hub-culture’ (Stalnaker, 2002) and among American (and to some
extent European and Asian) high school kids (Quart, 2003), the produc-
tion of social relations and shared meanings quite naturally transpires by
means of branded consumer goods, and with high degrees of expertise.
These forms of productive sociality can be used as a kind of natural resource
for brand managers. Through various forms of ‘guerrilla’,‘viral’ or ‘stealth’
marketing, goods can be inserted in ‘trend setting’ social circles. It is hoped
that ‘hype’ about them will subsequently diffuse naturally. These kinds of
marketing techniques are frequently used for cultural goods like records,
restaurants and night venues and alcoholic drinks. Alternatively, a branded
product can be inserted into a particularly attractive cultural universe,
hoping that some of that attraction will rub off. Absolute vodka has done
this with American urban gay culture, Nike and Reebok with urban
‘ghetto’ culture. Finally,‘trend scouting’ uses social life as it naturally evolves
through branded consumer goods as a sort of ‘living lab’ from which
inspiration and information is gathered and sold on as feed-back to advertis-
ing agencies and design companies. In these techniques that aim at working
directly with social relations (and which Holt,2002 privileges in his account
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of the post-modern ‘branding paradigm’) the autonomous immaterial
productivity of consumers is simply commodified as it unfolds ‘naturally’.
This can occur either by ‘farming out’ the diffusion of a branded good, or
the construction of a sign value, to a particularly influential or attractive
group. Or, as in the case of trend scouting, it occurs through the use of
consumer practice as a source of innovation.
Both as innovation and as reproduction, the productivity of consumers
adds to the propertied form of life that is the brand. In both cases brand
management feeds off the ‘reservoir’ of autonomous immaterial labour
that evolves outside of the domain of the firm. By thus subsuming the
productivity of the social, brand management works to ensure that the
productivity of consumers becomes productive labour. To Marx, ‘subsump-
tion’ denotes the moment in which the ‘labour process becomes the
instrument of the valorization process, the self-valorization of capital’
(1990[1933]: 1019). This entails a transformation of the production process
so that it is acted out on the premises of the brand. First, brands are inserted
into the life-world as means of production, and consumers are encouraged
to use them in their production of an ethical surplus. Then two strategies
are possible: one, it is ensured that the ethical surplus thus produced evolves
in particular directions, towards the reproduction of particular forms of life
that can be embodied and anticipated by the brand and its logo; two, the
autonomous productivity of consumers is used as a source of innovation.
Most brands use a plurality of techniques to thus ‘farm out’ the production
and reproduction of the form of life that they embody to the productivity
of the social. For the big brands, with a lot of resources at their disposal,
the ideal is ubiquity: To make the brand part of the biopolitical environ-
ment of life itself, no different from water and electricity, and to thus make
life in all its walks contribute to its continuous and dynamic reproduction.
As Ira Herbert, former marketing director of the Coca-Cola company,
described this strategy: ‘the ideal outcome . . . is for consumers to see Coca
Cola as woven into their local context, an integral part of their everyday
world’ (Curtin, 1996: 187).
HOW BRANDS GENERATE VALUE
So far we have concluded two things. First, contemporary consumers tend
to engage in activities that can potentially function as immaterial labour.
They deploy consumer goods and a generally available media culture to
produce an ethical surplus in the form of a social relation, a shared
meaning or, more generally, a common. Second, brand management
contains a series of techniques by means of which this autonomous
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productivity is posited as immaterial labour. It is made to add to the form
of life that the brand embodies, either through innovation or through
reproduction. If we can agree on this, we can now go on to investigate how
brands generate value.
This entails looking at the process from the point of view of the self-
valorization of capital. Marx describes this process with the M-C-M’
formula, where M represents money (or liquid assets) invested into capital
(C) that generates more money (M’). The surplus value (M’-M) derives
from the subsumption of some form of human activity and its positioning
as labour power. In the case of brands the M-C phase would represent
investments in the construction of brands as a virtual entity. This would
include the design and production of products, the organization of distri-
bution, advertising and other media strategies, investments necessary for the
construction and running of themed environments, and the salaries of
brand managers to organize and run the brand. To some extent the labour
of brand managers and other symbol analysts directly contributes to the
value of the brand. (Oliviero Toscani’s photographs directly add to the value
of the Benetton brand.) But in most cases the task of brand managers is to
manage a production process that goes on beyond their direct control; they
organize the construction of different kinds of ambiences and use the infor-
mation gathered through trend scouting and other kinds of market research
to ensure that the ethical surplus produced by consumers adds dimensions
of use-value to the branded good. How then are these use-values trans-
lated into a general value form?
There are two main mechanisms of valorization. First, successful brands
can extract a ‘premium price’. The ‘premium price’ represents what
consumers are prepared to pay extra for the branded good in relation to
other comparable goods. It represents the monetary value of the use-value
of the brand. For example, I might be prepared to pay extra for a pair of
Nike shoes if those shoes allow me to perform a high-status personality in
the high-school peer culture of which I am a member. Second, brand value
is realized on financial markets in the form of share prices or easier access
to capital. This mechanism of valorization builds on measurements of the
attention devoted to the brand. ‘Brand valuators’ measure things like ‘brand
awareness’ (how many people know about a brand),‘brand associations’ (if
the brand gives rise to positive associations) and ‘brand loyalty’. These
measurements are usually built on some combination of trend indexes, data
mined from credit cards and bar-code scans, and surveys. They attempt to
measure the standing of the brand in the life-world of consumers. It is then
estimated how much the (measurable) attention accumulated by the brand
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adds to its value, by either reducing marketing costs or boosting sales, or,
alternatively, raising the attraction of the brand for investors.
Brand values usually build on combined estimates of the future value
of premium price and brand attention. In so far as these are greater than
the combined investments of brand management, in so far as M’ > M, then
some form of surplus value has been extracted.
9
But what is the substance
of this surplus value, and consequently, in what sense can brand managers
be said to exploit consumers? If we assume, as this article has, that the
substance of the surplus value is the ethical surplus, or the surplus
community that consumers produce, then the exploitation process can be
said to have both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. From a quanti-
tative point of view it is simply a matter of absorbing the free time of
consumers. Schor (1998) among others argues that Americans tend to
devote an increasing amount of time to shopping, or otherwise comparing,
discussing or caring about brands, at the expense of other pursuits, at the
same time as their perceived quality of life deteriorates (Quart, 2003, and
to some extent, Putnam, 2000, reach similar results). This time devoted to
brands is one source of the surplus value appropriated by brands. But such
a purely quantitative approach misses one important point. The branding
of life does not so much replace communal or collective pursuits with the
individualized pleasures of shopping, as much as it tends to make sociality
and the production of a common evolve through and on the premises of
brands. People might ‘bowl alone’, but, as Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) have
documented, they create brand communities. Brand management is also a
matter of altering the quality of the common produced through communi-
cative interaction. The qualitative dimension of exploitation thus consists
in making the productive sociality of consumers evolve on the premises of
brands; to make it unfold through branded consumer goods in such ways
that makes it produce measurable (and hence valuable) forms of attention.
But this transfer of consumer agency to the ‘desireable and preferable
plateau’ of the brand (cf. Terranova, 2004: 122) also entails a reduction of
its qualitative complexity. It entails filtering the creativity of consumers,
depriving it of certain undesirable qualities, McDonaldizing it, to use
Ritzer’s (1993) expression. Anti-branding activists have realized this and
attempt to undermine the power of brands by introducing elements of
incompatibility, like having the word ‘sweatshop’ written on your Nikes
(Peretti, 2001).
10
In so far as branding becomes ubiquitous, this means that
an increasing amount of productive communication will evolve on this
filtered plateau of the brand. In this sense the branded world is artificial, in
the same sense as a computer game is artificial, it engages its user as less
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than a whole person, less than what he or she could be (Manovich, 2001).
The critical point here is not, as Adorno (1991) might have argued, that
this reduces the beauty of some imaginary or ideal human existence to the
one-dimensionality or artificiality of the branded world, but rather that
such filtering impedes the very real productive potential of contemporary
social relations. According to Hardt and Negri (2004) new forms of
mediatization together with new forms of social organization have radi-
cally enhanced the capacity of social actors, or, to use their term, of the
‘net-worked multitude’ as a whole, to produce an ethical surplus in the
form of a common. This empowerment has also rendered the production
of a common immanently political. A different world is not only possible,
but actually realized in new forms of productive co-operation like file-
sharing communities, open source software and the self-organization of
slums (Appadurai, 2002; Z
ˇ
izˇek, 2005). By pushing this production of an
ethical surplus to the artificial plateau of the brand, and hence depriving it
of its real potentiality, brand management thus becomes a conservative or
even reactive practice. It comes to work against the productive potential of
the social, on which it ultimately builds.
CONCLUSION
Recently the concept of the brand has spread far beyond consumer market-
ing where it originated, to enter into management (corporate branding),
welfare, politics and the construction of local identities (Olins, 2003; Van
Ham, 2001). Indeed, some argue that brands should be understood as para-
digmatic of the post-Fordist mode of production. Like the factory in times
of Fordism they present an exemplary embodiment of the prevailing logic
of capital (Lash, 2002: 142). This logic consists in an extended recourse to
forms of unpaid immaterial labour as a source of surplus value. This way,
brands can be understood as exemplary of a capitalist response to the
condition of post-modernity, marked by an intensified mediatization of the
social and a concomitant rendering reflexive, transitory and mobile of
things like identity and community. Here again, pop-management books
contain precious grains of truth. Brands, British branding guru John Grant
(1999) argues (drawing on Anthony Giddens’ [1991] work), satisfy
consumers’ desire for stable elements to be used in the construction of an
identity that the social environment no longer provides. He forgets to add
that the process of identity production is subsequently subsumed as a source
of surplus value. In the form of the brand, the unstable and reflexive nature
of post-modern social relations works as a precondition for the self-
valorization of immaterial capital. Capital feeds directly off life itself.
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Acknowledgements
This article was completed during the author’s tenure as Visiting International Fellow
at the Culture of Consumption program at Birkbeck College, University of London.
The author would like to thank that program, and in particular the program director,
Dr Frank Trentmann, for hosting him and supporting his research.
Notes
1. In fact, the shares rose slightly after Mrs Stewart’s appearance. As the sentence was
shorter than expected, and as people continued to show their support ‘by buying
our products and subscribing to our magazine’, it was estimated that the impact of
the scandal was less than what had initially been feared (Financial Times, 17 July
2004).
2. The term ‘affect’ finds its origins in Spinoza where it denotes the subject’s
potentiality, its ‘power to act’. It has subsequently been taken up by Deleuze who
uses it as a general term for the potential of a body: what it can become through
the involvements, linkages and networks that it forms with the Socius.‘Affect’
here denotes the potential for self-transformation through the involvement with
others. Antonio Negri has subsequently used the term to denote the central
characteristic of contemporary immaterial labour (see the section on
Consumption and Immaterial Labour): its capacity to produce an ‘ethical surplus’
through transformative collective involvement: ‘its power of self-valorization
through all the pores of singular and collective bodies’ (Negri, 1999: 80).
3. For these three companies brand value represented 61 percent (Coca-Cola) and
66 percent (McDonald’s and Nike) of total market capitalization in 2001. Other
famous companies with a ratio of brand value to market capitalization exceeding
60 percent were Ford, BMW, Kodak, Xerox, Apple, Gucci, Tiffany, amazon.com,
and Polo Ralph Lauren (cf. World’s Most Valuable Brands, www. interbrand.com).
4. Although traditional Marxism has tended to identify ‘labour’ in general with
(white, male) factory work, there is nothing in Marxian theory that prescribes
such a narrow definition of labour. Rather, Marx defines labour functionally. In
order to function as ‘productive labour’ human activity must fulfil two
requirements. One, it must produce something that has some kind of, however
local or specific, (use) value. Two, these local and specific use-values must be
translatable: it must be possible to convert them into a more general value form
that can be realized on markets. To take one of Marx’s own examples: Milton, who
wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. Because the particular use-value of
that artefact was not immediately translatable into a general value form. (This
changed, of course, once someone acquired the copyright to Paradise Lost and
began to publish it commercially.) On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for
his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Because the use values that ‘he’
produces (short segments of an Alexander Dumas adventure, for example) are
immediately translatable into a general value form: the novel as a commodity. It
follows that the translatability of use-values are an effect of how a productive
activity is organized, or to use the Marxist terminology: how labour is subsumed
under capital. A human activity thus becomes productive labour by being
subsumed by capital, by being made to produce something that is, or can be
turned into, a commodity (cf. Marx,1990[1933]: 1044 ff.).
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5. Operaio sociale means ‘social worker’ in English. This is a direct reference to Marx’s
term ‘social individual’. In the ‘Passage on Machinery’ in the Grundrisse, Marx
argues that with the emergence of large scale industry, the key productive power
becomes the ‘general social knowledge’ that is embodied in the factory
environment. The worker has access to this, not on account of his individual
merit, but on account of his simple existence as a social individual. ‘[I]t is, in a
word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great
foundation stone of production and of wealth’ (Marx, 1973[1939]: 705). For
Negri, the social worker employs the general communicative capacity that he or
she has access to by virtue of his simple existence as a member of society, as a
‘social individual’. I use the term ‘socializing worker’ to make things less confusing
to the English reader.
6. With ‘General Intellect’ Marx refers to the ‘general social knowledge’ that
becomes a productive force in advanced capitalism (see note 4). To Marx the
General Intellect was confined to the knowledges and competences embodied in
the factory environment, in machines, in social organization, in tacit knowledge.
Lazzarato,Virno, Negri and other Italian Marxists argue that today the General
Intellect should be identified with the knowledges and competences that are
intrinsic to the mediated lifeworld in general, and not just the factory
environment. In our communicative construction of the social, we employ a
General Intellect in the form of common cognitive, communicative and social
competences, as well as a common reservoir of knowledge, cultural and social
capital. Most of this is available to us through media culture. (Through the
commercial mediatization of life, the factory has expanded to include all social
relations.)
7. They define the common ‘not as a preconstituted entity and not as an organic
substance that is a by-product of the national community, or gemeinschaft, but
rather as the productive activity of singularities in the multitude’ (Hardt and
Negri, 2004: 206).
8. Generally ‘brand image’ denotes consumers’ perception of a brand, while ‘brand
identity’ denotes the perception that management intends it to have (cf. Aaker,
1991).
9. As Dallas Smythe (1981) showed in his analysis of the audience commodity and
its work, it is not necessary that the productive subjects (the workers) be paid a
wage for surplus value to be extracted. Smythe treated the use-value of television
programs as a form of immaterial wage and calculated surplus value as advertising
revenues minus production costs. Similarly, I suggest to treat the use-values
derived from the productive use of brands (including, brand-sponsored media
discourses and cultural events, freebies, cheaper access to material goods like
cellular phones, etc.) as a form of immaterial wage. Surplus value is thus
calculated as the difference between the direct production costs of the brand
(M-C) and the revenue derived through appropriation and commodification of
the attention that consumers produce (C-M).
10. Contemporary ‘critical’ or ‘post-modern’ marketing scholars have not taken up
this point. Rather they sometimes equate the creativity that consumers exercise
on the programmed arena of brands with human agency and liberatory potential
in general (cf. Firat and Venkatesh, 1995).
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Adam Arvidsson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Department of Media,
Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. He has worked on the history
of advertising and marketing. His work on the history of the Italian advertising industry,
Marketing Modernity: Italian Advertising from Fascism to the Postmodern was published with
Routledge in 2003. Another book, which expands on the argument in this article is
forthcoming with the same publisher later on in 2005, and will be titled Brands: Meaning and
Value in Media Culture. Address: Department of Media and Communication, University of
Copenhagen, Njalsgade 80, 2100 Copenhagen 5, Denmark. [email: arvidsson@hum.ku.dk]
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... In this sense, Web 2.0 made it possible to increase the co-creation of value (C15), based on the dynamics and reach of virtual spaces (Arvidsson, 2005;Beighton, 2017;Dellaert, 2018;Figueiredo & Scaraboto, 2016;Grönroos & Voima, 2013;Troye & Supphellen, 2012;Sugihartati, 2017;Zhang, 2017), and through the possibility of creating content (Eden, 2017;Morreale, 2014;Roberts & Cremin, 2019). Brands take advantage of this scenario to integrate the prosumer into their business strategies (Bonsu et al., 2010;Ritzer & Jurgenson, 2010;Schau et al., 2009). ...
... Online communities, in turn, allow consumers to produce and share experiences with each other (C11), through productive communication (Arvidsson, 2005;Pitt et al., 2006;Sugihartati, 2017). Seraj (2012) states that the virtual environment has become a relevant tool for sharing experiences since individuals are actively engaged and producing content for the entire community in which they are inserted. ...
... Virtual communities also provide the production of symbols and meanings (C16) in which, through an interpretive and dynamic process, new meanings are developed around a particular brand (Ahuvia & Izberk-Bilgin, 2011;Akaka et al., 2012;Arvidsson, 2005;Eden, 2017;Pitt et al., 2006). Consumers interpret and produce content around the products and services consumed, generating new meanings and modifying existing ones (Andrews & Ritzer, 2018;Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2017;Sugihartati, 2017). ...
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