6/20/11 - fake authenticity

In today's excerpt - in the 1980s, "conspicuous consumption" reached the middle class, as middle class consumers began to leave behind the practical, but seemingly dated habits of their parents—embodied by Sears and McDonalds—and traded them for consumption that they believed would display their uniqueness and authenticity—buying Evian water and Starbucks coffee. But it was a mass-produced uniqueness and a fake authenticity:

"For much of the postwar era, the broad, somewhat undifferentiated American middle class found itself sandwiched between the rich on top and the working-class below them, with the poor even further below them. Most of these accountants and account executives, furniture storeowners and doctors shared a common commitment to modesty and thrift. The rich might show off and spend wildly, but the middle class demonstrated its sensible frugality by buying convenient and useful items. That didn't mean that they didn't occasionally splurge on a chrome-trimmed car or a cashmere sweater with a mink collar or chicken cordon bleu at a French restaurant. But these weren't everyday things.

"Perhaps no company embodied the consumer ideals of the staid organization men and steady housewives ... more than Sears. The Chicago retail giant offered reliable products at reasonable prices. Good stuff and good value attracted the cautious middle class who cared more about how long things lasted or how convenient they were than how they looked. ... In many middling social circles, the ability to sniff out a deal translated into social standing and respect. But the same deals that brought the middle classes to Sears, and then to McDonald's, and later to Wal-Mart, also attracted working people and the poor. Laborers and the even less well-off went to these places because they had to; saving a few dollars on cereal, batteries, and paper towels left more money for clothes, carpeting, and cars. Yet at the upper edges of the middle class, people with no financial worries didn't want to look, act, or consume like the poor or the ordinary.

"Looking for ways to distinguish themselves—to broadcast their wealth, know-how, and sophistication, all key markers of status as the twentieth century drew to a close—the upper reaches of the middle class developed new consumption patterns in the 1980s, as Starbucks started to take off. Mostly they looked for luxuries, indulgences big and small, that the poor, the working classes, the middle of the middle, and the least refined of the rich could not afford or appreciate. ... Products from Prada, Gucci, Lexus, and Evian became a 'virtual fifth food group,' as the United States, [one commentator] announced, became 'one nation under luxury.' ...

"Increasingly over the last two decades, women and men with higher salaries and more college classes under their belt broke away from the sensible middle class and engaged in a new round of conspicuous consumption. ... Yet they also wanted to show off their education and know-how. That is where the authenticity part mattered and where it became, under Starbucks and Whole Foods and so many other natural-looking chains, more about status and sophistication than it was about the counterculturally tinged consumption and rebellion against the fake that Jerry Baldwin and his fellow travelers favored. Post-post-hippies, like [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz, associated authenticity not so much with the search for more genuine products, wrote consumer behavior specialist Michael Solomon in 2003, as with a range of upscale values, 'like a better lifestyle, personal control, and better taste.'

"To display smarts, superior tastes, and even enlightened politics, the upper classes of the 1990s focused their buying on things that looked natural and rare but also required special knowledge to fully understand. They bought a California wine to demonstrate that they knew about exceptional vintages, or a Viking stove because they knew that real cooks used these oversized machines, or a bike trip through Provence because they knew from their college art history classes that the hills and sun there inspired pained and brilliant painters. ... Buying in post-Reagan America was not about keeping up with the Joneses; it was about separating yourself from the Joneses, the conformists in the middle."


Bryant Simon


Everything But The Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks


University of California Press


Copyright 2009 by Bryant Simon


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