March 25, 2004

A Useless Rant Against The Consumer Culture

by Jeremy Blachman

Book Review
Trading Up: The New American Luxury, by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske

The authors of "Trading Up" should be forced to "Trade Down" and go live in a housing project for a couple of years. The book is a well-researched, well-written, nauseating celebration of the wasteful and overindulgent consumer culture in America. Victoria's Secret. Panera Bread. Williams-Sonoma. Belvedere Vodka. What these companies (and more) have in common is that they're of marginally higher quality than their competitors, but through manipulative branding that takes advantage of people's emotional needs and desires, they're able to raise their price points and "rocket" to huge profits off the demand curve. I don't dispute the book -- I think the authors have done a fantastic job identifying what it is companies like The Cheesecake Factory and Callaway Golf and Samuel Adams beer are doing: making high-quality products, and pitching them as lifestyle choices, as more than just "things you buy" but as part of what gives you an identity and what makes you feel good about your consumption -- but the tone of the book is kind of sickening; it's a celebration of consumer manipulation and of shrewd branding that makes people feel like consumer products can change their lives. "They are my little mechanical buddies;" "They are part of my family" -- these are people talking about their $2,000 Whirlpool washer and dryer. It's disturbing and sad -- but the book uses these quotes to illustrate a success story. Okay -- it is a success story. But not for society, and not for these people who, because of broader societal issues, are left to rely on their appliances for emotional support. Buying a $50 pair of tongs at Williams-Sonoma does not make me happy, and I think if it does make people happy, then we have things to worry about and shouldn't just be applauding Williams-Sonoma on making consumers believe that their neighbors will think less of them if they buy their tongs at K-Mart. I give the book credit for being awfully thought-provoking -- for getting me to think about these issues, and realize that there are certainly products I buy that I could just as easily buy the generic version of and it wouldn't make a difference. Shampoo comes to mind, actually, although it's an awfully negligible expense in the scheme of things -- not that what I buy is such a luxury brand, but still, I could save $2.00 if I bought the CVS bottle next to it, and I'm sure there's a negligible difference if any. But reading this book makes me want to never buy a brand name anything again, and scold people for reaching for the finely milled pet food when Walmart's Ol' Red will do just fine, and actually makes me angry that we live in a world where the thought of consumer products filling emotional needs is lauded and not shamefully disturbing.

March 25, 2004 10:59 PM | TrackBack

Hmm. You should read No Logo, then. It's the exact opposite. Pretty much nonsense, but you'll feel rage at pointless consumer culture.

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 25, 2004 11:17 PM

I just gave this book to a friend of mine--an MBA type guy running his own business (who's also read No Logo, and thought it middling). I read through a good chunk of it in the bookstore & had much the same reaction. I found it fascinating, but also slightly disturbing.

I was very surprised to learn that Victoria's Secret began life as a dingy set of stores in SF that catered mainly to guys wanting to buy ridiculously over-elaborate/skanky lingerie. Anyhow, it looked like the book would contain a number of interesting case studies, altho any "big picture" analysis would be sorely lacking.

Another book along these lines that I think might have a more thoughtful, nuanced approach that takes on some of the implications of our society, is the book "A Consumer's Republic." (link).

I haven't actually read it yet, or even bought it, but it's always one i look at when I'm in the bookstore.

Posted by: Visible Hand at March 25, 2004 11:30 PM

I recognize the cover -- I've seen that in the bookstore. I remember my quick glance made me think the angle was more about history than implications for today, but maybe not. I'll add it to my amazon wish list, which amazon would not be happy to know I use almost entirely to keep track of library call numbers and when the Harvard system gets the books in. :)

Posted by: Jeremy at March 25, 2004 11:40 PM

I've been watching TV for over 50 years. I read several newspapers each day. I scan the Internet's bloggersville for about two hours each day, at least. There are ads all over the place. But I ignore them for the most part. Buy that CVS brand of shampoo; it is probably manufactured by the same firm as the expensive brand name shampoo and private labelled. (For anti-trust students, look up the Robinson-Patman Act.) Now both the CVS and the brand name shampoo instruct the user to apply the shampoo, rinse, apply again and let it sit for abour 3-5 minutes before the final rinse. I used to follow these instructions. Now, I apply once, rinse promptly to protect my eyes, and go ahead and finish my shower in less time so that I can then go and hit the law books again. Since being in the legal field, I don't do any heavy lifting and so cut down my shampoos from daily to twice a week, which gives me even more time to hit the books. So wash those chemicals out of your hair and hit the books!

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at March 26, 2004 06:37 AM

"But reading this book makes me want to never buy a brand name anything again, and scold people for reaching for the finely milled pet food when Walmart's Ol' Red will do just fine, and actually makes me angry that we live in a world where the thought of consumer products filling emotional needs is lauded and not shamefully disturbing."

Just embrace it. We could make the same argument as to why people bother going to law school where they could probably have made a more significant difference in people's lives if they joined the Peace Corps or became a high school teacher. I dare say there are few prospective law students that aren't somewhat infected by the idea that getting a law degree makes them part of a certain lifestyle.

If you check out real estate in the Virgin Islands, you'll find some pretty affordable housing. You could probably be a cab driver there, live in a modest house but still be living in paradise. But no, people want the Park Avenue co-op and just a time-share in the islands.

I buy Ralph Lauren shirts -- in mitigation, I never buy them unless they are on sale -- instead of regular department store shirts I could get for a fifth the price. I always laugh when I see Polo clothes without the trademark polo pony on it because I _know_ I'm paying the extra $30 to $40 for the pony and nothing else.

Posted by: Brian at March 26, 2004 11:03 AM

That's one reason why protecting one's rights in a trademark is so important. Many consumers will not care about the product that the trademark represents; the trademark itself, i.e., the Polo Pony, is what they want to purchase. The mark has then become extremely valuable.

Posted by: Sean S at March 26, 2004 11:57 AM

That and girls will think I'm cooooooooool. ;)

Posted by: Brian at March 26, 2004 02:27 PM

Well--yeah, that goes without saying. What girl could resist a polo pony. :)

Posted by: Sean S at March 27, 2004 06:33 PM

Oh, sure. Polo pony = instant luv. Or lust. Whichever you prefer.

All the girls agree on this.

Posted by: Heidi at March 27, 2004 07:08 PM

Aha! There you have it: actual scientific confirmation.

Posted by: Brian at March 27, 2004 07:47 PM

But reading this book makes me want to never buy a brand name anything again, and scold people for reaching for the finely milled pet food when Walmart's Ol' Red will do just fine

I think it's more morally objectional to buy Wal-Mart brand products than the regular brand products, because Wal-Mart is a truly horrendous operation. I shop there as little as possible--but if I do have to go in there, I buy non-Walmart brands. May as well reduce their profit margins.

Posted by: Maureen at March 29, 2004 12:37 AM
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