It takes a lot of energy to be a consumer in post-millennial America. I have to sort out what I need amid competing solicitations to my wants and desires and meet my needs without breaking the bank. Beyond those basics, however, I have to select those items that reflect my values from a bewildering array of consumer products, symbol-laden totems that express my identity - my own personal brand - to the world. Meanwhile, everyone around me is doing the same thing and we're all watching each other, decoding each other's class aspirations while avoiding the faux pas of appearing "downmarket."
Sorta makes a day at the mall seem like an episode of Survivor, doesn't it?
Are American consumers the dupes of Madison Avenue or are we all just engaging in the open expressions of a free market? Or does reality lie somewhere between the two poles? That's the question addressed by James Twitchell in Living It Up: America's Love Affair With Luxury. Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising (fascinating combination) at the University of Florida, argues that "the democratization of luxury has had a unifying effect on culture." The luxuries of a century ago - motorized transportation, indoor plumbing - are now necessities as each succeeding generation comes to expect what its grandparents could hardly imagine. So it is that luxuries continue to make their way down the marketing chain, moving from gallery to upscale retailer to K-Mart.
Twitchell refuses to join the academic chorus criticizing consumer culture; from economic, psychological and sociological perspectives, he defends so-called New Luxury by comparing Americans' material wealth now with that of a century ago.
"Are we better off for living in a culture in which luxuries are turned into necessities?" he asks rhetorically before answering unequivocally, yes. "If decreasing pain and discomfort is a goal, then consumption of the 'finer things' has indeed done what governments, churches, schools, and even laws have promised. Far more than these other systems, betterment through consumption has delivered the goods."
Far from being a defender of corporate greed, Twitchell makes a compelling argument for the moral neutrality of consumption. Unfortunately, he specifically avoids any discussion of the impact of mass consumer culture on the environment, on the growing permanence of an underclass and on the social ills that plague our culture, positing weakly that the luxury of time and reflection may help resolve some of the negative effects of consumption. Despite dodging perhaps the toughest questions, the book is witty and briskly readable. He trolls the ephemera of pop culture history and delivers some wicked captions to ubiquitous advertisements, such as, "The frigid vampire women of Versace wait for dinner." As a companion in the aisles of what he calls "opuluxe," Twitchell is self-aware and a lot of fun.
Like a lot of people within my demographic group, I try to shop carefully, and I know what I want. I'll pay a premium price for a boutique cup of coffee because it tastes better; I buy a particular brand of cookware because I like the results when I cook with it. I buy mostly locally grown organic vegetables, not just because they taste good but because doing so aligns with my values. And sometimes I buy myself a true indulgence - a new scarf, say, or a piece of jewelry - just because it makes me feel good and I like to be associated with the product.
According to the authors of Trading Up: The New American Luxury, I'm a pretty typical American consumer of New Luxury goods. I choose to buy something, they suggest, not just out of necessity but because the product delivers technical features that other products don't, thus improving its functional performance. These tangible benefits combine with the socially-constructed meaning of the brand and the product to engage me emotionally and make me part with my hard-earned cash.
Where Twitchell uses New Luxury as a lens to study contemporary culture, the Trading Up authors - Michael Silverstein, Neil Fiske and John Butman - study the whims of consumers to learn what makes them buy New Luxury products. At the heart of New Luxury, they say, "Masstige" goods occupy the midrange between mass-market and prestige products, commanding a premium price above the mass-market goods and yet remaining affordable for the vast majority of consumers, while conferring an up-market sensibility. As consultants to advertisers and consumer goods companies, they define the category of New Luxury and show marketers how to tap into consumers' yearnings. The book has been critiqued as repetitive, but for those who wish to break into the New Luxury market - or consumers who want some insight into their impulses - its observations are helpful. n
Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury
by James B. Twitchell
(Columbia University Press, 2002; paperback edition, Simon & amp; Schuster, 2003)
Trading Up: The New American Luxury
by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske
A concise summary of the book's material can be found on the Web site of the Boston Consulting Group (www.bcg.com).