The Myth of Ostentation

Rob Walker, New York Times Marketing correspondent, in his book ‘Buying In’ outlines an interesting thesis. His book focuses on the dialogue between individuals and the things they buy. One of his ore ideas is that one of the most important factors for people in deciding what brands they ‘buy into’ is not what these items say to other people about us, but what they say to us about ourselves- think of the middle-manager with the MacBook, assuring himself that he is in some ways creative, more than just an Excel Sheet drone…

Now clearly every product, service or company has a network of associations within culture that effect its brand, and it is the commonality in these that people buy into, which of course means that this isn’t a pure one-to-one dialogue between buyer and brand. (I would actually argue that, a brand ONLY exists in culture- marketers do not position a brand, they shepherd, nudge and cajole a living web of values and equities that inhabit the space between the company & product and the people who buy or use it- as well as those that don’t, but that perhaps is for another time…) However, far too much emphasis is placed on what people are telegraphing to others with their choice of symbols and artifacts that they surround themselves with. Without this reflexive side to the dialogue, how else would we explain designer underwear? (low-slung urban jeans-wearers aside).

Many jaded Brand professionals are particularly quick to criticize the newly rich, and aspirant emerging middle-classes in fast growing emerging economies for their love of branded bling. Often the logos and the Louis, are dismissed simply as a new-world Nouveau Riche display. If we try and see these purchases (legitimate or imitation) through the lens of that reflexive narrative, then it takes on a rather different character. As opposed to a gauche display of new wealth, a keeping up with the Nguyens, da Silvas or Patels, we can read this as a quest for markers and means of finding and understanding ones place in this world.

Newly mass-affluent populations are, in many cases, in uncharted territory. Previous generations may never have had the opportunities to achieve their material comfort that they now possess. Many of these rapidly growing markets were even closed societies that did not afford the opportunity to engage in these consumer interactions. Many of the aspirant individuals we speak to at Flamingo are planning ahead. Saving for homes, marking out milestones, experts at delayed gratification earning and waiting patiently to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Not really the kind of person who is indulging in ostentation for its own sake. What these brands can say to them ( as opposed to telegraph to others) is that, I am doing okay. They can make you feel modern, they provide signposts and markers on this newly trodden path. They can tell the purchaser that they are progressing. Less about ‘I am doing better than you’, much more about ‘I am better than I was before’.  This is not to say there isn’t an element of display involved, but there is also internal dialogue. We must understand that in many ways, Luxury is a necessity.

Consumption and citizenship

Raiding trainer stores, stealing mobile phones, smashing into money stores and pawn shops. As many of the ‘string them up’ lobby has been pointing out online, these people are not stealing to survive. But this is not an audacious raid on Gucci. They have not been forming up in Knightsbridge to try and gain the baubles of the very elite. Nor are they stealing bread to feed their families. What is being stolen are the very middle-class comfortable, quietly aspirational things that we are told now to accept as norms. All the images of life we are bombarded with are of lower middle class to middle class comfort. It is what we should all expect- we are all stakeholders and we are all middle class now, or so we are told. But of course that isn’t the case, and these middle class paradigms of consumption that we are all meant to hold ourselves up to are unfair when actually, we don’t see the Shadow Britain for whom these aspirations aren’t only just out of reach, but a long way.

As marketers, we trade in dissatisfaction- we show people how things can help you self actualise. We actively encourage what Eric Fromm refers to as a ‘having’ mode of existence, rather than a ‘being’ mode. More and more sophisticated marketing encourages individuals to buy, under the assumption that the normative values that, if you want this, you will then have to save, or borrow or work more in order to have. We are in that respect, a pumping circulatory organ of capitalism.

The nature of what these looters have stolen the banal ‘dream small’ nature of stealing phones or non-generic branded tracksuits shows the sucess of our industry. It shows us that advertising has touched these people when society hasn’t. They have the normative values of consumption, without the normative values of what we term civil society. The Pax Accumsan relies on having both these sets of norms- I want those trainers and I will get them through socially and judicially legitimate means. If we all had simply the want impulse, we would be as beasts. Which is the sad thing because ultimately, however much self actualisation we sell, underneath it all is an appeal to the worse side of all our human nature, the selfishness rather than the compassion. But that makes the world go round.

The problem is, that without the societal norms as well as the capitalist/accumulative norms we essentially have South Park’s underpants gnomes, but with bricks and crowbars, and if society can’t reach them, then maybe as responsible marketers we need to be teaching both. A friend of mine commented that ‘The London rioters are teenagers rebelling against the only parent they’ve ever really had: the State.’ Actually I would argue that they are listening to the only guardian or parent they have had, consumption. And unless they engage with society as well as shopping, they only have step one and step three…

What the hell should we sell now?

This thought may need re-visiting. I feel like it is ¾ of an idea that I haven’t puzzled out fully, but keen to get some input, to try and talk this out (and I am lacking an effective foil in the office…)

Some time back, I attempted an analysis of what it is exactly I do, working in advertising, and more specifically, as a planner. My very bad Marxist analysis essentially saw my function as the cholesterol-clogged, hardened artery-ed heart of the late capitalist industrial system, creating desires that means that people continue to buy things, keeping money circulating in the system.

Now I expect to be picked up on this by my economist friends, but despite financial hacks and politicians obsessing about growth or ‘economic output’, the rate of circulation is equally important. MV=PY indicates that amount of cash(M) times how fast it moves (V) is equal to economic output (Y) multiplied by price index (P). I also expect that glibly flitting over this rather fundamental equation may leave me open to further attacks, so maybe we may just take the above as an acknowledgment that I know what an ‘economy’ is and leave it at that. As far as this is relevant to my point, if the money moves faster, people feel richer, people need the money to be moving so that it can come to them, so that they can spend it. Belief that more money will come their way ( and yes… I know I am trying to draw analogous lines between the micro and the macro) means that they will spend more- consumer confidence- a crucial ingredient for the ‘confidence trick’ that is the market.

Society also has a hand in this, making us feel that we need to buy to self actualise- ‘keeping up with the Jones,’ the very idea of ‘status symbols’. So we exploit that, we leverage that toehold- people feel rich so they spend themselves poor to look rich. Products collaborate with business ( they, after all designed them), televisions break after 2 years with alarming alacrity, and the media are complicit to make sure that the next ‘new’ is always being dangled in front of us. What was wrong with the iPhone 3 anyway, what functionality does the 4 have that is going to seriously improve my quality of life, was it really what I had been missing? And for that matter, when is the 5 coming out!

This was something to think about as we spent our time still convincing people to enter into the same Faustian pact, it is after all their own rapaciousness that is giving them the ability to be so rapacious. But this is no longer in any way a sustainable model. Now we are aware of the resources that we were blinding squandering, we must be more careful. The repurchase cycle that sees us buy a new something on a rolling 1- or 2- or 3- year cycle for high ticket items is one that seems to be accelerating the Earths decline. We can produce items that last a lifetime, but that is economic suicide for the current system, and like all robust economic beasts, its self-preservation instinct is what has made it so pervasively successful. Even closed -loop recycling is energy intensive, and very little of our energy is currently clean. ‘Upcycling’ is nice for a pair of shoes made out of car tyres, but what do you do with the car’s in-built CPU- it isn’t going to become the beating heart of the next gen Playstation 4…

So this is the planner railing against buying things? Not really, just how we buy. This century’s successful and enduring brands will be the ones that seek to separate the reasons we buy products from the products themselves. The old mantra that if it ‘floats, flies or f*cks- rent it’ (sorry to be crude) will extend to more and more. I am not quite sure what this means for the widescreen TV (rolling upgrades to the same unit? designing products that can be optimised through software upgrade? purchase a contract for hardware uprating with the set itself?) , but for the car, we can see it in ZipCars; for the DVD, in Netflix- brands which establish an ongoing repurchase cycle without there ever having to be a purchase on the first place. We ‘have’ (buy things) in order to ‘do’ (be), we need to think about how we can supply that desire to ‘do’ without encouraging our outmoded and unsustainable 20th century acquisitiveness.