Recent news that consumers in Adelaide are willing to pay $400 for a taste of Wagyu steak sounds ridiculous, but in reality, wanting something that others in your particular group can’t have is part of being human.
Have you ever bought an expensive perfume, or some exclusive jewellery; a pair of designer shoes or an Elk bag?
Are you into Wagnerian operas? Do you only stay in “good” hotels?
Do you own an Audi or drink Stella Artois (talk to a German or Brit about these brands)?
Many of these products may not be considered by you to be luxury products, but they are certainly a product of desire. In reality, nobody “needs” a $700 pair of shoes, or a retro $2000 fridge (although we all need a $6000 toaster), but these products transcend their rational utility. They have meaning beyond their function. They are objects of desire that help us to communicate to ourselves and others who we are.
Desire, status and luxury are concepts that have been explored for hundreds of years. Probably one of the best known books about this topic was by sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen, called “The Theory of the Leisure Class“, published in 1899. Veblen suggested that the act of buying expensive things was a means for people to communicate their social status to others. He suggested that the purchase of luxury goods, expensive houses, or attending exclusive soirees was a form of “wealth signaling”, or what others have called “peacocking”.
French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu took this interpretation a step further in 1979, in his book, “Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste”, by suggesting that what we buy is a product of our social conditioning. He argued that the objects and things we consume are a means of communicating to others a symbolic hierarchy as a means to enforce our distance or distinction from other classes of society.
It’s even arguable that our contemporary predeliction for all things authentic, artisanal, and bespoke is an attempt at acquiring some of meaning in the things we consume.
Consumer preferences are rarely the outcome of some innate, individualistic choices of the human intellect, but a more complex, somewhat unclear desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Consumption does not occur in a vacuum. The things we buy, the things we do, the people we associate with, the places we live and the places we visit all possess meaning for us as human beings. Even our homes are replete with meaning; many of the things that we own provide meaning for both our self-identity and our social identity.
Research can tell us a lot about the contradictions in consumer behaviour when it comes to the purchase of luxury and desired goods. In a study by Hudders and Pandelaere (2014), purchasing designer handbags and shoes was found to be a means for women to express their style, boost self-esteem, or even signal status. Their research suggested that some women also seek these luxury items to prevent other women from stealing their man. A surprising finding in the paper was that feelings of jealousy triggered a desire for luxury products not just for women in committed relationships but also for single women. Many single women obviously want designer products, but instead of these products saying back off my current man, the single woman is saying back off my future man. Conspicuous consumption for many, but not all, women has a lot to do with subtle status within the female group.
That isn’t to say that only women desire luxury goods. Men, women, old people, young people, poor and rich people, all desire things that others can’t have. For most of us the desire to distinguish ourselves as individuals, amongst our peers, is built into our DNA. And what we consume, helps to make clear that distinction.
The reality is that humans will always want something that others in our groups don’t have. The fact that we are exposed to, and seek out stories about, success and wealth, has been shown to actually influence how badly we want luxury items. A study from Arizona University published in 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that simply reading a success story increased a desire for luxury brands amongst participants. What was interesting about this study was that this exposure to success didn’t necessarily play out in all circumstances. The desire for luxury brands only seemed to be present when the participants read a success story about people that they saw as similar to themselves. In their study, the authors found that the participants only desired products and outcomes that they could see themselves achieving, by comparing themselves to “people like us”.
An interesting element of many of these studies is that media portrayals of wealth on TV, on the news, and even in social media have been shown to define consumers’ worlds by creating an image in their minds, that biases their views of reality, toward the norms, values and social perceptions represented in the media that we consume. In one study, the researchers found that people who watched more television assumed higher estimates of the average level of wealth and affluence in the US, and led them to believe that they were missing out on the tennis courts, private planes and swimming pools that they saw represented in the media.
But even for those on low incomes, products are more significant than their simple utilitarian capacity. We buy goods to enhance our lives. We consume to make ourselves feel better. We give the brands we buy meaning by incorporating them into our day-to-day existence. But we do it predominantly to fit in with our group, whether it’s a $2000 pair of shoes, or a spoiler for our hotted up car. We use our products to fit in, but also to remind ourselves that we are just a little better than most of our group.
We’re a product of the culture in which we live, and we purchase products to reinforce our connection to that culture. What we desire and what motivates us to buy luxury goods can only be understood by considering bigger human questions.
Viewed through a rational lens, it is pretty tricky to explain why someone would pay $3000 to watch an opera that finishes where it began (Wagner’s Ring Cycle), or $400 for a steak full of intramuscular fat (Wagyu), or $1.4 million for a red car that allegedly goes very fast (Ferrari LaFerrari).
But being human is more than being rational.