How luxury items are consuming our identity

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The following is an excerpt from an article written by Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing.

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.

Do you own a $6000 toaster? A Weber barbecue? Or a Dyson vacuum cleaner? Maybe a Francis Francis coffee machine? What about a SMEG fridge?

Have you ever bought an expensive perfume, or some exclusive jewellery, a pair of designer shoes or an Elk bag?

Many of these items may not be considered by you to be luxury products, but they are certainly products 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. In 1899, sociologist and economist Thorstein 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 signalling’, or what others have called ‘peacocking’.

French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu took this interpretation a step further in 1979, by suggesting that the objects and things we consume are a means of communicating to others a symbolic hierarchy to enforce our distance or distinction from other classes of society.

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 items we buy, the things we do, the people we associate with 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. Many goods play multiple roles, functionally and psychologically. A car has both symbolic status and practical usefulness – it can demonstrate to others who we are, but it also gets us to work. Goods can lead to experiential and social outcomes, such as the ongoing joy obtained from the purchase of an espresso machine, and learning how to make the perfect coffee.

'The items we buy, the things we do, the people we associate with and the places we visit all possess meaning for us as human beings.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Deakin University

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 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.

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. 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 bit better than most of our group.

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 about more than being rational.

Find out more about the research being conducted in Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing. This piece first appeared on Dr Harrison’s website Tribal Insight, where you can find essays, discussions and the latest research and theory in the world of social psychology, consumerism and marketing.

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior lecturer, Deakin Business School
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