March 4, 2009
Branding in Bahia: camarote T-shirts and Spreadable media made (literally) material

For details about how Carnival works in Bahia, please refer to Ana Domb's post.

It's fitting that we're closing in on the end of our Spreadable Media white paper series on the blog just as Ana and I begin to discuss our experiences and research in Brazil, beginning with our time spent in Salvador for Carnival. In Spreadability, we propose a model of thinking about media brands and properties as not only consumer products, but as symbolic goods that circulate and thrive due to the adaptability and customizability of their social value. That is, media is spread when we can make personal and social use of it.

In addition to being an unparallel social and cultural event, it was evident from the 500% hotel mark-ups and tightly and intricately produced events that Carnival is also very much an industry, especially in Salvador. And much of that industry has to do with event-based advertising and sponsorship. Thus, advertising at Carnival serves as a provocative example of precisely this hybrid social/commericial space, as Ana suggested in her post with the notion of "brand syncretism," in which brands provide rich materials for cultural expression and the articulation of community or loose social affiliations.

In particular, the use of the required camarote t-shirts caught my attention as a particular apt example of how to spread "media," or in this case, brands. Referencing Fiske, we suggest that the in part 6 of the spreadable media paper that advertising becomes spreadable when it becomes "producerly," that is, when it tried not only to speak to consumers, but allows for consumers to speak to one another -- communicating community affiliations, performances of identity, social values and so on-- through advertising.

Logo-splattered t-shirts were the required dress for the camarotes (large private tents with capacity into the thousands for viewing the parade) and to ride inside or walk along with the trios (enormous truck riggings that carried bands and dancers), acting as part of your "ticket." Thus each trio or camarote had their own shirts, covered in the logos of their sponsors. Here we already begin to see a merging of brands and social affiliation declaration -- the color of shirt you wore declared your membership to a particular group, and in some cases your devotion to a particular musician or your socioeconomic status (since the availability and price of acquiring these shirts can range).

More interesting, however, was the practice of customizing the shirts. While looking into a crowd, you see a mass of the same t-shirt and same logos, the close-up view shows extraordinary variety and detail. Customizations ranged from basic scissors and safety-pin jobs to professional level alterations with detailed paneling using other fabrics, zippers, draping, and gathering. And while on the whole, the women were more inventive than the men, there were some stand-outs, such as an older gentleman who had not only altered his shirt to fit him perfectly, but had used the excess fabric to construct a dress-shirt collar.

Even more surprising was that within our camarote, there was a station provided by one of the sponsors with several girls who could cut and decorate the shirts of attendees with ribbons and other accessories for those who didn't come with their shirts already customized.

While they had a couple suggested designs on display, most people gave them specific instructions for how they wanted their shirts altered. This transformed our boring t-shirts (which, with our recent arrival and limited resources, we were unable to alter ourselves) into much more lasting symbolic goods that both Ana and I packed up into our already overflowing luggage as we left, fully intent keeping them for good despite, which we would not have otherwise.

Though it might seem trivial to think about how people might alter and customize t-shirts they're forced to wear, this act is an expression of taste and as sociologist Don Slater suggest, "Taste . . . Is seen as a 'cultural arbitrary', a matter not of instrinsic value but of classification grounded in social processes. But it is not socially arbitrary: tastes correlate closely with social division" (Slater 1997, 160). Thus, we are seeing a case in which branded good that are monetarily not terribly valuable are being repurposed into objects of more lasting social value. Not only does the customization provides individuals with the ability to express take and cultural values, but the customization inside the camorotes, during the party, transforms the shirt into a unique artifact of that moment, turning it from a uniform, mass commodity, into something far more meaningful.