It’s All About the Image

When I was a lad, I remember the days when all comedians wore evening dress. Actually, most of them wore velvet jackets and frilly shirts with unfeasibly large purple velvet bow ties. 

arti11Strange but true! Then came the age of the alternative stand-up. Jeans and t-shirts became the rage. Comedians decided that they were no longer to be part of the regimented penguin brigade beloved of the Wheeltappers and Shunters social club. They not only shunned the mother-in-law jokes and the racial stereotypical humour audiences were used to (Charlie Williams was the worst offender) they radiated a new confidence, born of anger with the system, frustration with those who governed them and resentment against the old ideas of ‘knowing one’s place.’ One or two, like the brilliant Eddie Izzard, wore women’s clothes and make-up. In the case of Izzard, the cross-dressing genius was not looking for a cheap gimmick, he was ‘standing up’ for the freedom of self-expression we all aspired to, but were too frightened to rock the boat. Even the street magicians put away their tailed-coats and spangled assistants and donned their new streetwise leather jackets and jeans. And it worked. What they were saying was “I know I have something to say and I’m confident enough to say it and let it stand on its own!”

The only ‘acts’ that seemed to be impervious to change were the stage hypnotists. Stage hypnotism in the 1960’s was dominated by the old guard; Peter Casson, Edwin Heath, Johnny Hillyard, Nigel Ellery, Tony Sands, to name the very few. By the end of the 1970’s, they were all but retired: the social clubs, the British Legions and the workingmen’s clubs were in decline, and so was stage hypnotism.

So when the new boys arrived in the early 1980’s, they remained stubbornly wedded to their suits and ties. The new breed of stage hypnotists continue to set themselves apart from their audiences, and with good reason. After all, the success (or failure) of stage hypnosis and the attendant exigencies of authority, expectation and social compliance, depends on the impression the hypnotist makes on the audience.

I recently did a tour of New Zealand, on stage attired in jeans and a trendy shirt. Even so, some nights I played it safe and took the precaution of wearing a jacket – retreating to the safety and authority of what works best.

So… does formal attire lend an air of wealth and status and therefore authority to the performer? Er… yes it does. Performers usually do ‘dress up’ to perform their acts. (By the way, have you ever noticed how secondary school science teachers have beards and patches sown on the elbows of their tweed jackets?)

What would impression would David Bowie make without the skin-tight body stocking; Suzi Quatro without the leather bomber jacket, or Roy Wood without all that hair? Even an early Derren Brown sported a slightly creepy Dr. Strange look. Anyway, speciality acts are renowned for looking the part. And most of us would look ridiculous in show-biz fancy dress (as indeed would most show-biz types off stage.) Even Danny La Rue looked relatively normal away from the theatre.

Time for a bit of Mythbusters style research! As far as the rest of us are concerned these days, it’s not really the design of the clothing but the label. Step forward Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. They have found in their experimental research, which mostly consists of getting people to meet other people togged out in designer clothes such as Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger, that designer clothes elicit cooperation from others, but be warned, this only works when the label is obvious.

Volunteers for the experiment were shown pictures of people wearing both non-designer and designer clothes. In most cases the label had been digitally removed. Those taking part had no prior knowledge of what the experimenters were trying to find out, so when they were asked to rate the status of the person in the photograph, they did so unconsciously. On a 5 point scale, the difference was a staggering 2.91 for no logo, to 3.5 with logo, in terms of status and wealth. Quite a difference.

Another experiment consisted of a woman attempting to stop strangers in a shopping mall, ostensibly for a survey. With the designer logo in evidence, 25% of shoppers were willing to answer question, as opposed to only 13% when there was no logo. The same happened when volunteers watched a film of a man being interviewed for a job. The interviewee on the film got a 9% higher rating when the logo was in evidence. In real life, a lot of Japanese men do not remove the sleeve label on an expensive suit. In some countries and cultures, this would be looked upon as showing off, but it is perfectly acceptable in the Land of the Rising Sun apparently.

Women collecting for charity earned nearly twice as much when their designer logos were obvious (I hope you get the irony there!) especially when that activity involved door-to-door work. It seems that the brain is tricked into associating this ostentatious display with an underlying yet unspoken quality.

And what if the logo is fake? Bad news if you are caught out on this one. The perceived value or quality goes for nothing. Tough luck, you have just been found out and you credibility rating takes an immediate dive. Avant Garde artiste Tracey Emin sold her unmade bet as a work of art for, well… a small fortune, but only because it had her name on it. Anyone else’s collection of bedroom souvenirs would be worthless.

So, want to impress? An unhealthy complexion and bad teeth won’t do the trick, but even a fake Louis Vuitton will. It seems the human evolutionary survival strategy that has developed our ability to weigh up biological perfection doesn’t work with artefacts. Humans can’t see past the superficial, even when what lies beneath the label is pure dross. Maybe that’s why Paul McKenna keeps telling people how rich he is.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.