Mixed Signals

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Human behaviour, as Björk pointed out, can be confusing.

People who wish to be perceived as wealthy often wear clothes that are known to be expensive. This helps explain why Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts are popular with the aspirational throughout the world.

It also helps explain why their iconic logo has grown to kingsize proportions on their range of casual wear in recent years. All the better for showing off prosperity.

Unless, of course, you want to avoid being mistaken for the nouveau riche. This is why aristocrats and those with inherited wealth often choose to dress down. Designer labels are unnecessary if people know you have a big house in the country.

Labels are frowned upon by many fashionistas too. After all, those in the know do not need anything as gauche as a logo to identify which designer someone is wearing.

It follows that visible brands on clothes tend to get larger until a certain price point, after which they get smaller and then disappear entirely.

Welcome to the world of signalling, a kind of dance we all engage in, consciously or otherwise, as we try to convey something about ourselves.

This might be through the products we buy, the activities we do, or even the things we say.

And it is inescapable. Wearing an expensive watch and driving an executive car certainly conveys one message, but choosing to forgo a watch and ride a fixed gear bike says something too.

Brands know this, and product lines and experiences have sprung up to serve every possible micro niche to help facilitate our desire to differentiate ourselves from one another, though ironically we can still end up all looking the same.

As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed in a café full of men with beards, tattoos and thick framed glasses, “If they were really hipsters, how could there be so many of them?”

And signalling does not always go to plan.

In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is at the opening of a museum wing. Feeling pleased with himself he admires the plaque: “Donated by Larry David.” That is, until he realises it stands adjacent to a wing that reads: “Donated By Anonymous” – and that everyone knows “anonymous” is Ted Danson.

This article first appeared as part of a weekly column in newspapers including the Lancashire Evening Post, the Lancaster Guardian and the Blackpool Gazette.

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