Signaling Consumption

I still remember how aghast my dad was when the Nike Swoosh became prominently displayed on apparel. “I can’t believe people are paying money to be walking advertisements!” he said in disbelief, “Nike should be paying them!”

No one bats an eye at such branding any longer. A brand stands not just for the product itself, it is a social signal, marketing not just the company, but the consumer.[i]

“Nowadays you shouldn’t have a company that is not contributing in some fashion or form or sense to a cause, because the people today who buy a product, they want to know what you have done for somebody else lately,”[ii] Fubu’s Daymond John reflected on his experience investing through Shark Tank.

As powerful as the Nike Swoosh was in signaling that the owner and wearer of the shoes and shirt in 1988 had the means to purchase the matching outfit, today’s signaling is even more potent. Packed into every purchase is a flare that is sent up.

We no longer just buy things. A choice to purchase your groceries at Whole Foods, to eat at Chic-Fil-A, to wear TOMS shoes communicates something to everyone watching. Brands are tripping over themselves to signal the loudest. My own rough count had no less than a third of the Super Bowl ads engaged in social signaling. From Budweiser’s pro-immigrant “Born the Hard Way” ads, to Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” diversity ad, to Airbnb’s “We Accept” ad, companies tripped over themselves to promote not their product, but a socially relevant message they wanted their consumers to identify with their product. Just how important is this social signaling to these companies? We can put a price tag on it: $5M per 30 seconds.

How far we’ve come. The choice we have as those living in a free-market society is unparalleled. Consider life a mere 250 years ago. In the year 1767 there was virtually no person on earth who could choose what meal they ate (most people ate primarily meager vegetarian diets along with cheese and intermittent game),[iii] what clothes they wore, what transportation they had, or their education. Today we make more choices in a week, maybe a day, that a 18th century peasant made in a lifetime.

We don’t just consume. We signal. And we don’t just signal, we identify. The products we buy have incredible power in shaping our identity. As Jamie Smith riffed, “I shop therefore I am.” As the aphorism says, “you are what you eat.” Has that ever been more true than today? We are what we consume.  

Today, as we bring this series to a close, let me offer two points of encouragement as we consider what it means that our consumption so deeply shapes our identity as inhabitants of 21st century America. As a way forward, I will first push back on our identity as consumers and then embrace our identity as consumers.

If we are to be shaped first by the gospel and not by our culture, we have to get our identity right. Our identity cannot be fundamentally formed by our consumeristic signaling. Woe to us when our identity is in any way anchored by the flotsam of cars and sports teams and hobbies and clothes and food. We, friends, are God’s image-bearers,[iv] we are sons of God,[v] united with Christ,[vi] and part of his body,[vii] and raised by Christ himself![viii] When we grasp our identity as his children, then and only then we will be salty salt, the light of the world, the city set on a hill.[ix]

But we are also consumers. To have life, we must be consumers of the true food. To the crowds, Jesus invited, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[x] And “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”[xi] What will we consume? Our consumption and identity are transformed as we eat the true bread and drink the true wine.

Consume, sons of God, the true consumable. That which satisfies. That which quenches. As we consume the consuming fire we will find ourselves.



Photo credit: Eddie Lackmann/Unsplash


[i] Though certainly not the first to make the connection, I appreciated Trevin Wax’s thoughtful post on this topic.



[iv] Genesis 1:27

[v] Ephesians 1:5

[vi] 1 Corinthians 6:17

[vii] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[viii] Colossians 3:1-3

[ix] Matthew 5:11-16

[x] John 6:54

[xi] John 6:66

For more on the Consumers series, see:

Part 1: We are Consumers

Part 2: Consumers at the Mall

Part 3: Consumers at Church, part I

Part 4: Consumers at Church, part II

Part 5: Consuming Alone

Part 6: Consuming Worship

Part 7: Signaling Consumption