“No! Where am I supposed to go to buy cheap goods now?!” read the comment on a link posted by one of my friends on Facebook. The posted link opened to a breaking news story about the recent scandal surrounding Target Corporation, the home goods darling of young liberals and hipsters alike. Back in August, Target came under fire after it was revealed that the corporation had donated $150,000 to MN Forward, a political action group supporting Tom Emmer in the race for Minnesota’s next governor. This revelation took its toll on Target because Emmer is a vocally anti-gay Republican candidate who at first glance seems to be a stark contradiction to Target’s notable pro-queer hiring practices and employee benefits.
When I read the comment my friend posted in conjunction with a link to the related story, I immediately wondered why Target was perceived as such an angel in the first place. As corporations go, it is after all not much different from Wal-Mart or KMart. They sell the same kinds of things. In fact, they sell many of the same exact things. Yet, Target holds such a different place in our consumer psyche. So what gives? What is so special about Target?
My friends from Minnesota fiercely defended the corporation when I brought this up. One pointed out that Target has blazed the trail in hiring and promoting queer employees, and in extending benefits to queer families. Another pointed to Target’s history of quietly donating to arts organizations in the Twin Cities as evidence of the company’s commitment to investing in their home community (Target was originally founded as Dayton Dry Goods Company in Minneapolis in 1902).
What these defenses of Target speak to is the level of its cultural capital. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu coined the term to refer to caché or value attributed to cultural markers of status. Bourdieu emphasized that traditional education and degrees are key components of cultural capital in modern society, as are knowledge, skills, and other things, like participation in high culture, including theater, music, and the arts. Thus, having a certain aesthetic and behaving in a certain way, like acting philanthropically, signify cultural capital.
Target is perceived as hip, trendy, and as the place for liberals and progressives to shop because it has, up until just recently, crafted and maintained a high level of cultural capital that appeals to those who flock to its stores and scour its website. Its history of investing in community and the arts, its protection and advancement of the rights of queer people, and the chic aesthetic of its good as compared to its rival, Wal-Mart, have resulted in an image that appeals to many. Its partnership with well known and up-and-coming fashion designers to produce low-cost and highly sought after clothes, shoes, and accessories bolsters the company’s cultural capital too. It is no coincidence that the same friend of mine who lauded Target’s commitment to the arts in the Twin Cities dispatched her mother to her local Target store to secure a pair of high fashion, limited availability rain boots. This friend appreciates both the arts and fashion, and Target has successfully responded to this nexus of interests. Because of the artsy, cosmopolitan image Target has produced many speak the name in a French inflected way: “Tar-jey.” After all, from the American point of view, there is no one more chicer than the French.
Let’s not forget that the goods are cheap. Target has done a great job of attracting those who either have or seek high cultural capital, yet who have low to moderate levels of economic capital (cold, hard cash). They set up shop near colleges and universities and for many students are the one and only source for college-life gear. Back in 1998 when I started college in southern California, I excitedly furnished and decorated my dorm room and stocked up on toiletries and cleaning supplies on my first ever visit to Target. Target to me at that time was a dream. It gave me style I could afford, and the convenience of everything I needed all under one roof.
When I moved out of a shared house last February I proudly registered for a host of items that I knew would make my new apartment feel like me and look fantastic. I reveled in the arrival of a silver faux-fur blanket under which I would take fabulous naps, and squealed with glee when I first dug my toes into a taupe colored sheepskin bath mat. I even went so far as to congratulate myself on the responsible and affordable purchase of a step-ladder that granted easy access to the kitchen cabinets otherwise out of my reach.
I know that I am not alone in responding emotionally to new purchases. The satisfaction of leaving Target with a bounty for under $200 is familiar to many in my generation. Social theorists who study consumption argue that the goods we purchase both reflect and reinforce our individual identities, and so buying new things is often a very exciting and gratifying experience. Yet it is important to recognize that the satisfaction we feel when leaving Target is due not only to what Target symbolizes, but also due to what it does not. Notably, Target is not Wal-Mart.
At Wal-Mart you might get duped into buying something labeled organic that isn’t actually organic. At Wal-Mart you will not find high-fashion inspired home goods and clothing, but you will find clothes that have been revealed to have been made by children laboring overseas. Further, there is an undeniable association of Wal-Mart with poverty, a social position to which none aspire.
In contrast, Target is where hip people shop. You won’t find a Wal-Mart in West Hollywood, but you will find a prominent Target store on Santa Monica Boulevard that beckons drivers-by, and where paparazzi favorites like actor Jessica Alba have been snapped shopping with the masses. Target is not only hip and cosmopolitan, but it is not those things that Wal-Mart represents.
The same goes for Trader Joe’s, another national corporation whose reputation was recently damaged by a rather boring and soft expose by Fortune. The big revelation of the piece was that Trader Joe’s tasty and much loved pita chips are made by a subsidiary of the Frito-Lay corporation. For anyone who knows anything about how grocery store chain production and distribution works, this “revelation” amounts to no more reaction than, “No, duh.” But for many, this revelation was shocking and disturbing, and that is singularly because, much like Target, Trader Joe’s has developed a well crafted image and attendant level of cultural capital that appeals to educated, cosmopolitan folks looking for value.
The article by Fortune revealed that Trader Joe’s picks store locations based on education levels of the population (they seek the highly educated), and by readership levels of travel and food magazines. They then appeal to these people by offering goods that appear to come from far and wide, because after all, when you shop there you are supposedly at a crossroads of trade. They invoke travel by cleverly ethnicizing their trademark name for certain products: “Trader Giotto’s” for Italian fare, “Trader José’s” for Mexican, and “Trader Ming’s” for Chinese. They offer adventure to far-flung lands without the hassle and cost of actually traveling.
So why the furor over Target’s political contribution and the secret origin of Trader Joe’s pita chips? Because such practices go against the grain of the cultivated image that makes these establishments appealing to so many people in the first place. Shopping at Target gives people the satisfaction of acquiring cheap goods without acquiescing to Wal-Mart. Shopping at Trader Joe’s gives those with adventurous and cultivated palates the peace of mind of knowing that they made more interesting and affordable food choices than their neighbor who shops at Ralph’s or Safeway. It follows then that what’s disturbing to people about these revelations is not only that the company is not what you thought, but that you yourself are not what you thought. The consumer identity that people were proudly able to wear as Target and Trader Joe’s shoppers was disrupted by these recent news events.
But really, neither of these revelations should be shocking, because the fact of the matter is that both of these entities are corporations working within a capitalist economic system and the primary goal of both is to continually increase profit by whatever legal means available. Target Corporation’s donation to MN Forward in support of Tom Emmers’s campaign undoubtedly has nothing to do with a secret anti-gay agenda; it has to do with their bottom line, plain and simple.
Right now Republicans are vehemently fighting for further deregulation and decreased oversight of corporations, even going so far as to assert that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens. Those who have defended Target’s donation in the press, including Emmer himself, have consistently invoked the First Amendment, justifying the donation as Target’s right to free speech. Target doesn’t care that Emmers is anti-gay. They care that he is a Republican and thus is assumed to be a benefit to Target Corporation’s bottom line and profitability. Similarly, Trader Joe’s secretive German owners don’t care about your bourgeois bohemian desires–they care about maximizing profit on pita chips.
So where, Facebook friends, can you go to buy your cheap goods and feel good about it? The answer is nowhere. No corporation comes without seedy strings, and this should really not come as a surprise to us. Corporations are in the business of making money, not of fighting for civil liberties or enriching your cool. You can’t buy from a multinational grocery chain and expect your purchases to be the result of hand-crafted, artisanal baking. It simply does not work that way. Trader Joe’s can offer you the low prices that it does because of its massive corporate reach and integration. And while Target may practice queer-supportive employee management and fund Twin Cities Pride, they are able to sell the cheap goods we so crave because they are made overseas by people who suffer in poor labor conditions and whose standard of living would make any of us cringe. It is high time to take stock of how much we rely on corporations to construct and validate our identities. We can learn a lot about ourselves as consumers if we think deeply about what upsets us versus what we are willing to ignore.