Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Angry Book Review
Trading Up: The New American Luxury, by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske

The authors of "Trading Up" should be forced to "Trade Down" and go live in a housing project for a couple of years. The book is a well-researched, well-written, nauseating celebration of the wasteful and overindulgent consumer culture in America. Victoria's Secret. Panera Bread. Williams-Sonoma. Belvedere Vodka. What these companies (and more) have in common is that they're of marginally higher quality than their competitors, but through manipulative branding that takes advantage of people's emotional needs and desires, they're able to raise their price points and "rocket" to huge profits off the demand curve. I don't dispute the book -- I think the authors have done a fantastic job identifying what it is companies like The Cheesecake Factory and Callaway Golf and Samuel Adams beer are doing: making high-quality products, and pitching them as lifestyle choices, as more than just "things you buy" but as part of what gives you an identity and what makes you feel good about your consumption -- but the tone of the book is kind of sickening; it's a celebration of consumer manipulation and of shrewd branding that makes people feel like consumer products can change their lives. "They are my little mechanical buddies;" "They are part of my family" -- these are people talking about their $2,000 Whirlpool washer and dryer. It's disturbing and sad -- but the book uses these quotes to illustrate a success story. Okay -- it is a success story. But not for society, and not for these people who, because of broader societal issues, are left to rely on their appliances for emotional support. Buying a $50 pair of tongs at Williams-Sonoma does not make me happy, and I think if it does make people happy, then we have things to worry about and shouldn't just be applauding Williams-Sonoma on making consumers believe that their neighbors will think less of them if they buy their tongs at K-Mart. I give the book credit for being awfully thought-provoking -- for getting me to think about these issues, and realize that there are certainly products I buy that I could just as easily buy the generic version of and it wouldn't make a difference. Shampoo comes to mind, actually, although it's an awfully negligible expense in the scheme of things -- not that what I buy is such a luxury brand, but still, I could save $2.00 if I bought the CVS bottle next to it, and I'm sure there's a negligible difference if any. But reading this book makes me want to never buy a brand name anything again, and scold people for reaching for the finely milled pet food when Walmart's Ol' Red will do just fine, and actually makes me angry that we live in a world where the thought of consumer products filling emotional needs is lauded and not shamefully disturbing.