The Brand And Burger Concerto: Luxury And Poverty For All In The U.S.A.
August 5, 2002 3:10 AM   Subscribe

The Brand And Burger Concerto: Luxury And Poverty For All In The U.S.A. Is luxury becoming democratized? Are ostentation and conspicuous consumption not only tolerated now but demanded of anyone but the poorest and least ambitious? As James B.Twitchell, whose well-off father drove a Plymouth, pithily puts it in this adaptation of his book Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury, would you go to a doctor who drove a Plymouth? Well, he confesses he wouldn't. His essay is full of interesting (though perhaps too easily answered) questions. Are time and philantropy really the two remaining luxuries for the truly wealthy? And is it really true almost anyone can now be king for a day or an hour? [I'd add that what he says about the U.S. is even truer of present-day Western Europe, where the stigma previously attached to ostentation was much more powerful among the middle and upper classes than ever it was with rich American WASPs.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (23 comments total)
And most of what you consume is totally unnecessary yet remarkably well made.

remarkably well made?
This is debatable.
posted by yertledaturtle at 4:11 AM on August 5, 2002

Things are obviously different in North America than Europe..

When asked what brand of automobile they would drive, here’s what they said: BMWs (53.6 percent), Mercedes (50.7), Cadillacs (30.4), Volvos (23.2), Porsches (21.7), Acuras (17.4), and Jaguars (15.9).

Volvos? Since when was Volvo a premium brand of car? lol. Audi is also notable in its absence from this list.

In a strong economy you can spend money on what you want. You either spend hours at work and have a bunch of luxuries and designer clothes.. or you work an hour or two a day, like me, and live on a budget, and get goods for a quarter of what everyone else pays for them.

I have to say, I prefer it my way. I'm using the economy to get more time, not to get more logos or prestige. That said, I'm getting a Mercedes next month, so perhaps I should shut up. ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 5:09 AM on August 5, 2002

Dude, in the States, a Volvo is what you drive if you're too wealthy for a Toyota and too embarrassed to drive a BMW.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:17 AM on August 5, 2002

Wow. In America, Heinekin is a more affluent brand than Budweiser or Coors. In the UK, we do things completely the other way round. (Although Budweiser isn't quite as special as it was a few years back).
posted by seanyboy at 5:36 AM on August 5, 2002

Adamgreenfield, I have co-workers who drive used Volvos. They pay about 2,000.oo $'s for them with a good 50K miles miles to go. But, I would buy a volvo for my wife and kids, safety.
PS, ever notice most movies have one in it.
posted by thomcatspike at 5:40 AM on August 5, 2002

Does this strike anyone else as a blinding glimpse of the obvious? So Americans have a love-affair with "premium brands"; it's not like that's news.

Marketeers have known it for years; that's why they target premium brands at poorer people and minorities. People of limited means tend to have a very high brand-awareness: this is why Nike was basically made by inner-city kids who wouldn't wear anything else even though Nikes were far more expensive.
posted by mrmanley at 5:46 AM on August 5, 2002

ever notice most movies have one in it

At least some people are paying attention.

I'm a SAAB man, myself.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 5:46 AM on August 5, 2002

Watashi mo.

Most movies have Volvos in 'em 'cause most filmmakers have the kind of upper-middleclass roots that correlate nicely with ZIP codes in which you find Volvo dealerships.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:51 AM on August 5, 2002

mrmanley: Isn't that why the poor often stay poor? Because they're too stupid to know how to actually save or make money? If so, I agree.

Re: Volvos. Volvos have the somewhat unfortunate reputation in Britain of being 'boxy' and unstylish cars.. even if they are safe. They're trying to combat this image with some new models and TV ads, but I'm not sure if it's working. They're overpriced for what you get. You could buy a year-old Mercedes C class that has far more prestige (and recently got one of the top safety awards, above Volvo!) for about the same as a new Volvo.

Likewise, I also can't see why people dump £20k on Ford Mondeos when there are better/safer/more economical makes out there for the same price. Even the new Vectra is better.
posted by wackybrit at 5:52 AM on August 5, 2002

adamgreenfield, my Scandinavian friends say that the top of the line Volvo here in the states is about the price they pay for, well the average one in Sweden. I have never been, but you may want to re-evaluate your preclusion. And most drive a stick in Sweden as they are cheaper, so how is that. It's about economics here, more ways than one.

Miguel did you watch 60 minutes last night?, last part of it did a story on trash and how we throw so much of it away(Grapevine right down the road from me). And their bottom line was what this article's bottom line was too.
After all, luxury before all else is a social construction, and understanding its social ramifications may pave the way for a new appreciation of what has become a characteristic contradiction of our time, the necessary consumption of the unnecessary.
or, throwing away wealthy trash.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:06 AM on August 5, 2002

I hope I'm not being too reactionary here but the idea of someone not trusting a doctor who drives the same car as his father did - the aforementioned Plymouth - raised my hackles. There's something disloyal about it. Twitchell seems to be the first victim of his own analysis. I mean, suppose a doctor chose to spend his money in a way that benefitted his patients more (say by reducing his fees and driving a cheaper car).

Then again, I wouldn't trust a doctor who drove a Bentley. I'd figure he was a plastic surgeon on the make or something. So I guess it evens out.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:16 AM on August 5, 2002


I don't know that I'd say that poorer people are too stupid to know how to save (or spend) their money. It's more the environment that poor people live in (and I'm speaking from experience here; when I was a child, my family was dirt-poor). When you are poor, you tend to live in areas that are beseiged with irritants: uncollected trash, scabrous lawns (if any lawns), sidewalks that are crumbling to nothing, cars up on blocks, and lots of dirty kids running around with no supervision because their folks can't afford to hire babysitters. It means working two or three jobs, and living paycheck to paycheck. It means never having quite enough money to cover all the bills.

So it's no suprise that people stuck in this kind of environment crave luxury of any kind, even if it is notional. It gives lots of kids an ego boost to wear Nikes; it's a way of saying, "I might be poor but at least I can wear the same shoes that Michael Jordan does." That's why liquor and cigarette companies always strive to advertise in low-income areas, and only advertise premium brands, never generic stuff.

When you are poor, the whole concept of "money management" is pretty alien -- you have no money to manage once your bills are paid. If you're lucky, you've got ten or twenty bucks to last you until your next payday. If you can get a small taste of what "rich folks" have with that money...well, it's hard to resist that small voice.

I guess it's just because I came from that background, but I never thought the people in my neighborhood were stupid. They just wanted a little bit of the good life.
posted by mrmanley at 6:18 AM on August 5, 2002

James Twitchell's older book, Adcult USA, is really an entertaining and perceptive read. I hadn't realized he had something new out...
posted by ph00dz at 6:32 AM on August 5, 2002

Some people have different priorities. I'd rather retire early than spend my money on high priced toys. I'd rather go on a long vacation than a posh yet short one. I'd be a poor choice for that million dollar per year Chief Technology Officer position, because in under two years I'd have enough money to retire - and I would.

I might still take on interesting projects, but it would have to be pretty interesting since I love to hike and travel. Every year I get the urge to buy a sports car, maybe an Acura NSX. Every year I go through the same thought process. The car will be fun for a year or so, retirement will be fun, barring death by misadventure, a long time.

If I can spend more and get more value I do, but most upscale things don't hold more value, just more prestige.
posted by substrate at 7:11 AM on August 5, 2002

It's easy to imitate the rich, or imitate being rich? Does this guy think he's saying anything original, or anything that hasn't been said for several decades. Just read about the ease with which the "social notables" of the late '50s and early '60s were imitated - consequently leaving their role next to meaningless - in political scientists Robert Dahl's 1961 study of New Haven, Who Governs? He goes on and on about it. Great book. Read it.
posted by raysmj at 7:13 AM on August 5, 2002

Yeah sure, this piece hammers at some obvious points with the obligatory nods to Veblen, Seabrook and Brooks. But you'd think that today's Americans (and Twitchell) could take a cue from the "modest life" sanctioned by Thoreau, while avoiding the kind of callous generalizations of the poor made by wackybrit, who doesn't appear to have bumped around outside his respective class.

People become poor because of life-changing unexpectancies. A single mother could have a kid (with the guy leaving her at the last moment). A young couple could lose their jobs because a factory or a superstore, possibly the sole source of blue-collar employment in a peripheral urban pocket, has closed up shop. Minimum wage jobs could be reduced in hours from full-time to part-time (and if Bush's welfare reform is taken up and passed by the Senate, then this bill will hinder a substantial portion minimum wagers).

Me? I'd rather refuse a doctor hit with a malpractice suit than concentrate on such trivialities as the make of their car. Riddle me this: how does one's brand choice relate to one's class or personality? Why should it relate? When I was a smoker, I knew plenty of gutter types who smoked Exporta.

Luxury is a tenuous variable to measure and is often confused with common sense lifestyle choices. If fifty brands of toothpaste represent the same constituency, flavor and efficacy, then why not go with the cheapest? Conversely, why eat a McDonald's Crappy Meal when you can get better service or flavor at a diner? Sure, it's up to the individual to decide how to live, but I pity anyone who's determined to judge another person based off of the brands they consume. If anything, these people don't even realize just how effectively they've been branded. And they're missing out on a lot of integral life experience in which brands are the least important facet of the situation.

Why concentrate on imitation when identity is the important thing to establish, outside the dark Babel of a thousand products shouting for your attention.
posted by ed at 7:22 AM on August 5, 2002

Stupidest part of the article: Business students at an Ivy League university named brands in specific marketing categories with remarkable accuracy! Stop the presses, already.
posted by raysmj at 7:29 AM on August 5, 2002

I agree that insecure people often use brands to show off. However, one shouldn't overlook the usefulness of brands.

When I buy a McDonald's burger, I know what I'm getting. And that can be useful in some situations, for example when you're sick in China and don't know if it's the local food you can't handle. When browsing shoes I can skip the whole Nike shelf, as those shoes are overpriced. When I don't know what brand spare part to get for my Volvo, I know Volvo branded parts have at least been tested by that company and probably work.

So, bash brand vanity all you want, but don't do away with brands!
posted by Triplanetary at 9:15 AM on August 5, 2002

Well put, ed. I've recently been reading No Logo by Naomi Klein, which makes a good case for a link between the current hyper-branded culture and the less desirable aspects of globalization (sweatshops and so on). It's very well researched and argued; I highly recommend it to people who are interested in the recent history of branding.
posted by whir at 9:24 AM on August 5, 2002

I would add fame as a commodity which is out of the reach of most. Everything else, from exotic holidays to champagne are all now freely available to large swathes of the "developed" world.
posted by johnny novak at 10:21 AM on August 5, 2002

Stupidest part of the article: Business students at an Ivy League university named brands in specific marketing categories with remarkable accuracy! Stop the presses, already.

I go to Rutgers, and, while I'm flattered that you'd place it in the Ivy League, it's still a state school and a lot of its students aren't exactly well-to-do.
posted by alphanerd at 10:21 AM on August 5, 2002

alphanerd: It's not that they were well-to-do, at all. It's that they were business students at Rutgers.
posted by raysmj at 10:30 AM on August 5, 2002

Oh, and sorry about the Ivy part, or excuse me, or whatnot. Rutgers plays those teams a bit, if I remember correctly. Probably what led to my confusion there. (Plenty of Ivy League students aren't well-to-do either, I think it would be safe to presume. Scholarships, loans, etc.)
posted by raysmj at 10:37 AM on August 5, 2002

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