The most eye rollingest thing I read today

August 3, 2010

Time for another pseudo-Marxist rant.

If you were to read a blog post entitled, “Why Do We Care About Luxury Brands?“, what would you think it was about?

That is correct: You would think it was about the pernicious effects of conspicuous consumption. Rich people can afford fancy looking things that serve no purpose other than to look fancy. This stuff is known as bling, and it includes such things as luxury cars; designer suits and dresses; and fine watches and jewelry. The rest of us don’t like to be looked down upon, so we internalize our own desire for bling. If only we have bling, we think, then we will not be like dirty poor people. How wonderful life will be then. And so we waste our time pursuing lives that fail to satisfy our fundamental needs as social and creative beings. That’s my back-of-the-envelope analysis, anyway.

Note that I’m in no way immune to the pull of bling. I am typing this post on a Mac PowerBook. I bought it largely because in New York hipster circles, it’s a status symbol. It signifies money and taste. And you know what the signification of money and taste will get you at the end of the day? Not a damn thing. The production and consumption of bling doesn’t raise our collective material standards. It’s all a big, socially corrosive ponzi scheme.

Barbara Kruger knows what I’m talking about:

Getting back to the most eye rollingest thing I read today — the thing that was also known as a blog post called, “Why Do We Care About Luxury Brands?” — here’s what I learned about our societal fetishization of bling:

It’s easy to ridicule this behavior [splurging on Hermes bags, Rolex watches, fancy Bordeaux etc.] as mere snobbery.


We might look down on the pretentious fools carrying Louis Vuitton luggage, or bragging about their Vertu phone, or wearing underwear with a big logo.


We probably assume that they’ve just wasted a lot of money on some costly social signaling, or that they’re using the brands to assuage their deep insecurity.

Preach it!

Unfortunately, we’re all vulnerable to the same tendency.

Because?? Because??

There’s now suggestive evidence that our faith in the authentic — especially when the authenticity is supported by effective marketing campaigns — is a deep-seated human instinct, which emerges at an extremely early age.



*crest falls*

The writer (guess who) proceeds to tell us about an experiment in which researchers presented children with a “copying machine” — really some mundane equipment kicked up with flashing lights and buzzers.

After the machine was demonstrated for the kids — the scientists “copied” a block and a rubber animal — Hood and Bloom then told the kids that the machine could also duplicate toys. A ‘‘stretchy man’’ was then placed in the box and the illusion repeated. Interestingly, the young children actually preferred the “duplicate” toy and chose it 62 percent of the time. The kids didn’t worry about the “authenticity” of the stretchy man.

*sigh* Fine, great. What’s next?

But Hood and Bloom didn’t stop there.

Why would they?

They also had many of the young kids bring in their “attachment objects,” such as their favorite blanket or stuffed animal. (I still remember losing Johnny, my stuffed penguin, at the tender age of five. Grief.) The scientists then offered to “copy” the object for the kids. Four of the children simply refused — they wouldn’t let their blankie anywhere near that nefarious device. But even those kids who allowed their attachment object to be “copied” almost always refused to see the objects as equivalent. The new duplicate was a bootleg blankie, an ersatz stuffed animal. Even though the children were assured that the objects were identical, they intuitively believed that the copy wasn’t the same. It lacked a history, a bond, a sentimental attachment. It was inauthentic.

So what on God’s green Earth does that have to do with our (manufactured) desire for luxury goods?

There are certain things whose value depends largely on their legitimacy. While I might listen to bootleg music on my iPhone, I want the phone to be genuine. I want that Apple logo to be real. Why? Because the brand has effectively woven itself into my emotional brain.

Ugh. Another missed opportunity by a prominent science writer to tackle a real social problem. Not that it would have changed anything. But at least I could have pumped my fist in agreement.

Oh well, maybe it’s better this way. Fans my activist flames. Weaves the good fight into my emotional brain, where it can fight it out with my innate lust for bling.


4 Responses to “The most eye rollingest thing I read today”

  1. I appreciate your posts, JR: they’re insightful and questioning—exactly what a reader wants in a science writer. We have to keep each other honest and point out when we haven’t made the connection or we’ve been too reckless in our metaphorical endeavors. Whether or not this occurs out of hubris, too tight deadlines, or intellectual brilliance, it’s good to know that someone is reading the work and trying to be a good listener. For that, I thank you.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Thank you, Carla, for picking up what I’m putting down. I’m glad to have you as a reader.

  3. jcl Says:

    ya crazy, but it is taking some nice things as basic assumptions. only to totally disregard the conclusions that would lead one toward activism/ er toward upending our (false) value system of commodities. so ya its like the writer gets close and then her own brain short circuits and follows what she believes – that these values must be ingrained in us! authentic desire is real! hey have you ever seen century of the self? a very good watch and is online somewhere.

  4. […] workers, women and minorities are too often treated as objects not fully real; in which objects are fetishized; and in which our ability to find solidarity and meaning in one another has been corrupted, leading […]

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