Message in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening

Why does a diploma from Harvard cost $100,000 more than a similar piece of paper from City College? Why might a BMW cost $25,000 more than a Subaru WRX with equally fast acceleration? Why do “sophisticated” consumers demand 16-gigabyte iPhones and “fair trade” coffee from Starbucks?
If you ask market researchers or advertising executives, you might hear about the difference between “rational” and “emotional” buying decisions, or about products falling into categories like “hedonic” or “utilitarian” or “positional.” But Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, says that even the slickest minds on Madison Avenue are still in the prescientific dark ages.
Suppose, during a date, you casually say, “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.” Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:
“My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.”
Or suppose a young man, after listening to the specifications of the newest iPhone or hearing about a BMW’s “Servotronic variable-ratio power steering,” says to himself, “Those features sound awesome.” Here’s Dr. Miller’s translation:
“Those features can be talked about in ways that will display my general intelligence to potential mates and friends, who will bow down before my godlike technopowers, which rival those of Iron Man himself.”
But once you’ve spent the money, once you’ve got the personality-appropriate appliance or watch or handbag, how much good are these signals actually doing you? Not much, Dr. Miller says. The fundamental consumerist delusion, as he calls it, is that purchases affect the way we’re treated.
The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?

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