All our wants, beyond those which a very moderate income will supply, are purely imaginary.
--Henry St. John, 1743
Things, as such, become goods as soon as the human mind recognizes them as means suitable for the promotion of human purposes.
--Carl Menger, 1871
Sometimes it is best to test academic theory against--gasp!--personal experience. When my daughters were little they would go with me to the grocery store. We would start as friends, and before a few aisles had passed we would be at each other's throats. "Gimme this, I want that, can we have these?"--it would go on and on until, by the vegetables, I would lose control and things would degenerate into Kmart Khaos. "No, no, a thousand nos," I would yell at them. "No, you can't have that. No, I won't buy you that." This didn't work, and by the time we had reached the checkout line, they had gotten much of what they had sought.
To stop the demoralizing defeat I tried to teach them about consumption. I developed a set of shopping axioms I fancifully called The Nerminological Laws of Consumption. The Nermies were a make-believe collection of little people with big-people problems. I drilled these so-called laws into them so that I could later say, "What Nerminological law have you just broken?" whenever they asked for anything.
Here are the rules. First, isolate the need. Do you need this thing or do you just want it? Don't let needs be confused with wants. Second, shop around. Check out the competition. Do your research. Third, can you afford this? Check current and anticipated cash flow. And last, once you have decided, can you read the instructions on how to use it properly? Why buy a toy you can't assemble?
The success of such a system was not so much that it was logical but that it took so long to go through that once they had come to the instruction part, we were out the door.
I would live to regret my explanation of what goes on in the Land of the Nermies ruled by the inexorable Nerminological Laws. It happened about 10 years ago. I bought a Mazda Miata. This is a snappy little red sports car that 12-year-old boys really like, but chubby, balding 50-year-olds usually buy. My daughters like driving it, but better, they like asking me which of the Nerminological Laws I followed when I bought it. Did I need a car since I biked to work? Did I need a car that seats only two? Did I really shop around? Could I afford it on my professor salary? Did I even know how to drive it properly? If so, why did I brake during cornering instead of accelerating? Could I fix it? Did I even know where the battery was hidden? Clearly, they enjoyed seeing me hoisted by my own petard.
Although this car has given me much pleasure, I still can't figure out exactly why I bought it. I know how to buy stuff. I'm fully mature. I contribute regularly to my retirement account. When I was growing up, my parents subscribed to Consumer Reports, and I learned how to read all the little bullseye symbols telling you if this was a good deal or a so-so one. So what happened?
I bought the car because of an advertisement. The ad itself is not complex. In fact, it is the standard "product as hero" ad that we have all seen a thousand times. There, stage center, lit from behind like a haloed angel, is this thing in your garage. If you are middle-aged, the garage is clearly from your early adolescence, when you were moving out of your room and mixing your toys with the stuff of your parents. But wait! That stuff in the pictured garage is not your dad's stuff--those are not his toys, they are yours. Dad didn't grow up with a wiffle ball, a dart board, the teddy bear, the metronome (aargh!), the dollhouse, that bike.
The maudlin text below the icon makes it clear. All this is/was yours:
"It was one of those summer evenings you wished would never end, and the whole neighborhood turned out to see your new car. You answered a million questions, and everyone sat in the driver's seat. They went home long after sunset."
In an interesting kind of temporal dislocation the "you" is in the past tense. This is the you of your childhood, the you who rushed downtown each September to see what the new cars looked like, the you who dreamed about getting an MG, an Austin Healey 3000, or maybe a Triumph. It would be red, or maybe English racing green. When someone had a car like that what could you do but just stand there and look at it? There was really nothing you could say.
The last line in the copy pulls the plug. "But it was still T-shirt warm by the time the kids were in bed. So you came out for one last look." The "you" as observer has become the "you" as owner. It's yours now. This missing part of your past, this thing that always belonged to someone else, is yours. Little wonder the car is positioned and lit like a holy relic. It's coming at you. All you have to do is grasp it.