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.
What separates this ad from the usual automotive pitch is its claim on memory. The more usual claim for sports cars is sexual: Get this car, get that girl. So the sports car is usually photographed out in the rugged countryside, the sport himself is young and virile, and the chick by his side just can't stop looking at him. In advertising lingo this is called the aspirational sell: Use the product and everyone will see what a real man you are.
What is important about the Miata ad is that there is no one at the wheel and no dreamy chick flapping her lashes at him. This driver's seat is vacant. You've always wanted to sit there. Now you can. Here, as my cultural studies colleagues might say, is nostalgic onanism.
Although I had "new-car fever" (a common enough strain of affluenza), the object was difficult to consume. Here's why. I teach school. I wear khaki pants. I had a green book bag in graduate school. I am a company man. I buy my cars from Volvo or Saab. Not because I like those cars–I don't. They are built to be ugly and are no fun. But they are part of the uniform. They are from Sweden, for goodness' sake, the Valhalla of academic liberalism. If I bought the Miata I was not just going to lose my affiliation with my usual consumption group, I was going over to a different group, to a group I abhorred. If I bought this car I was going to become…a yuppie!
At the time I was making my decision (in the early 1990s), yuppies were the group du jour of marketers and the group de resistance for all the rest of us. The original definition was a "young urban professional," but at some point this became corrupted to mean a "young upwardly mobile professional." From there the meaning spread to define an entire generation of affluent and selfish 20-somethings who were hot on the heels of us baby boomers. Demographically, yuppies were part of the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964. Their number was small. Indeed, the only definitive estimate of the yuppie population, published in American Demographics in 1985, found just 4 million of them, representing a mere 5 percent of late baby boomers. But their impact on the rest of us was huge—reverse magnetism.
Yuppies were disgusting. What made them disgusting was their lack of reticence in the displaying of commercial badges. More interesting still was that no one ever would admit to being one of them. In fact, in retrospect, the real sign of being a yuppie was that you tried hard to disassociate from them while all along displaying their badges.
Yuppies were unique in that they were the first consumption community that I can think of known only by their badges. No one came forward like Marlon Brando, Abbie Hoffman, John Wayne, or Elton John to personify the group. Richard Gere laying out his clothes on the bed in the 1980 movie American Gigolo might have been the yuppie archetype, but he seemed a little too moody about his stuff. Still, rather like Eagle Scouts, yuppies had no distinct personality other than their merit (or demerit, it's up to you) badges worn almost Pancho Villa style around their vacuous lifestyles.
Here are just a few of the yuppie badges: yellow ties and red suspenders, Merlot, marinated salmon steaks, green-bottle beer, Club Med vacations, stuff with ducks on it, Gaggenau stoves, Sub-Zero refrigerators, latte, clothing from Ann Taylor or Ralph Lauren, designer water, Filofax binders, Cuisinarts, kiwi fruit, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, ventless Italian suits, pasta makers, bread makers, espresso-cappuccino makers, cell phones, home fax machines, air and water cleaners, laptop computers, exercise machines, massage tables, and remote controls for the television, the VCR, the CD player, the stereo receiver, the garage door, the child. More than anything, of course, the car—especially the BMW, the infamous beemer—was the yuppie badge nonpareil.
The yuppie and his German or Japanese car were academic anathema. If a colleague were to see me in such a car he would surely think I had gone over to the other side. My cousin with the pricy condo, the Jenn-Air gas grill, Biggest Bertha Ever golf club, and the Suburban could be a yuppie. But not me. I only bought just the things I absolutely needed…like a red Miata? And that, of course, was precisely my problem. When I bought this car, I became one of them.
I dilate on my Miata decision because it shows the dynamic of pressures in the commercial world. Two generations ago maybe choosing what denomination of the Congregational church to attend would have caused me such distress. Do I dare be seen with Unitarians? At the turn of this century what musical instrument you played would have been important. "They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play!" describes a Horatio Alger experience we have trouble understanding. Maybe status would have been derived from what I read. Could I be seen reading Walt Whitman? What about what I ate? Our grandparents read etiquette books detailing the shame you should feel if you ordered the same meal too often. "Again she orders—A chicken salad, please!" is the headline of an ad for such an etiquette book. It is presumably spoken by an exasperated young man about his date. What if I coughed? Would that be a social blunder?
Perhaps what I wore. Could I be seen wearing a gold stickpin in my tie? The way we live now, I worry that I might be mistaken for a yuppie.
While I certainly went through the modern version of the "agonies of the damned" buying a Japanese internal-combustion engine advertised through nostalgia and wrapped in red plastic, I never once was duped, misled, waylaid, or reified. In fact, I loved the process. They offered me my dream and I gladly bought it. I never liked that dreary Volvo to begin with. Now I'm wondering about a Jaguar, perhaps something from the early '80s, not too ostentatious but still flashy, if you know what I mean.