Needing the Unnecessary

The democratization of luxury

If you want to understand material culture at the beginning of the 21st century, you must understand the overwhelming importance of unnecessary material. If you are looking for the one unambiguous result of modern capitalism, of the industrial revolution, and of marketing, here it is. In the way we live now, you are not what you make. You are what you consume. And most of what you consume is totally unnecessary yet remarkably well made.

The most interesting of those superfluous objects belong in a socially constructed and ever-shifting class called luxury. Consuming those objects, objects as rich in meaning as they are low in utility, causes lots of happiness and distress. As well they should. For one can make the argument that until all necessities are had by all members of a community, no one should have luxury. More complex still is that, since the 1980s, the bulk consumers of luxury have not been the wealthy but the middle class, your next-door neighbors and their kids. And this is happening not just in the West but in many parts of the world.

When I was growing up in the middle class of the 1950s, luxury objects were lightly tainted with shame. You had to be a little cautious if you drove a Cadillac, wore a Rolex, or lived in a house with more than two columns out front. The rich could drip with diamonds, but you should stay dry. Movie stars could drive convertibles; you should keep your top up. If you've got it, don't flaunt it. Remember, the people surrounding you had lived through the Depression, a time that forever lit the bright lines between have-to-have, don't-need-to-have, and have-in-order-to-show-off.

The best definition of this old-style off-limits luxury came to me from my dad. I was just a kid, and it was my first trip to a cafeteria: Morrison's Cafeteria in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 1955. When I got to the desserts, I removed the main course from my tray and loaded up on cake and JELL-O. My dad told me to put all the desserts back but one. I said that wasn't fair. To me the whole idea of cafeteria was to have as much as you want of what you want. My dad said no, that was not the idea of cafeteria. The idea of cafeteria is that you can have just one of many choices.


Look around American culture, and you will see how wrong he was. Almost every set of consumables has a dessert at the top. And you can have as much of it as you can get on your tray or as much of it as your credit card will allow. This is true not just for expensive products like town cars and McMansions but for everyday objects. In bottled water, for instance, there is Evian, advertised as if it were a liquor. In coffee, there's Starbucks; in ice cream, Häagen-Dazs; in sneakers, Nike; in whiskey, Johnnie Walker Blue; in credit cards, American Express Centurian; in wine, Chateau Margaux; in cigars, Arturo Fuente Hemingway; and, well, you know the rest.

Name the category, no matter how mundane, and you'll find a premium or, better yet, a super-premium brand at the top. And having more than you can conceivably use of such objects is not met with opprobrium but with genial acceptance. This pattern persists regardless of class: The average number of branded sneakers for adolescent males? It's 4.8 pairs. And regardless of culture:

A favorite consumer product in China? Chanel lipstick dispensers sans lipstick.

Basil Englis and Michael Solomon, professors of marketing in the School of Business at Rutgers University, have studied the effects of brand consumption, particularly how college students cluster around top-brand knowledge. They drew guinea pigs from undergraduate business majors at their institution and presented them with 40 cards, each containing a description of a different cluster of consumers.

The professors sifted the clusters to make four groups -- lifestyles, if you will -- representative of undergraduate society. They were Young Suburbia, Money & Brains, Smalltown Downtown, and Middle America. Then Englis and Solomon gathered images of objects from four product categories (automobiles, magazines/newspapers, toiletries, and alcoholic beverages) that fit into each group. The students were asked to put the various images together into coherent groups; they were also to state their current proximity to, or desire to be part of, each group in the future.

As might be expected, the Money & Brains cluster was the most popular aspirational niche. What Englis and Solomon did not expect was how specific and knowledgeable the students were about the possessions that they did not have but knew that members of that cluster needed.

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). They knew what they wanted to read: travel magazines (21.7 percent), Vogue (21.7), BusinessWeek (20.3), Fortune (17.9), and GQ (15.9). Again, this is not what they did read but what they took to be the reading material of the de-sired group. What they were actually reading (or so they said) were Forbes, Barron's, The New Yorker, and Gourmet. No mention of Rolling Stone, Playboy, Spin, or Maxim for this group. They certainly knew what to drink: Heineken beer (33.3 percent), expensive wines (26.1), scotch (18.8), champagne (17.4), and Beck's beer (15). They also knew what to sprinkle on their bodies: Polo (27.5 percent), Obsession (15.9), and Drakkar (15.9).

What the professors found was not just that birds of a feather had started to flock together, but that these young birds already knew what flock to shy away from. They were not ashamed of smoking, for instance, but of smoking the wrong brand. Their prime avoidance group corresponded to the Smalltown Downtown cluster.

The Money & Brainers knew a lot about the Smalltowners. They knew about favored pickup trucks, Chevys (23.2 percent) and Fords (18.8). They knew that this group reads People (30.4), Sports Illustrated (26.1), TV Guide (24.6), Wrestling (21.7), fishing magazines (20.3), and The National Enquirer (18.8). They assumed that Smalltowners preferred Budweiser (59.4), followed by Miller (24.6) and Coors (18.8). Essentially, the Money & Brainers had learned not just what to buy but what to avoid (or at least what to say to avoid).

Such shared knowledge is the basis of culture. This insight was, after all, the rationale behind a liberal arts education. John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold argued for state-supported education in the 19th century precisely because cultural literacy meant social cohesion. No one argued that it was important to know algebraic functions or Latin etymologies or what constitutes a sonnet because such knowledge allows us to solve important social problems. We learn such matters because it is the basis of how to speak to each other, how we develop a bond of shared history and commonality. This is the secular religion of the liberal arts and sciences, what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital.

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