Ever since the 1920’s, advertisers have been using Bernays’ and Freud’s psychological theories to exploit unconscious desires and manipulate people into buying the things they want, instead of the things they need. (Take a look at Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self for more on this; it’s worth it.) Consumerism has become the driving force of the economy, but what’s the next step? How do you make people keep buying in a culture already saturated with stuff? By letting them play make-believe and selling them luxury items.
Television shows like Gossip Girl, entertainment shows that tell you what the celebrities are wearing and how to get it, and even sites like Pinterest all make it seem perfectly normal to expect that everyone should be outfitted with the latest designer “it” items, living in expertly designed homes, and nonchalantly cooking three-Michelin-star meals at home. Celebrity chefs have cookware lines, Martha Stewart has an empire of goods to sell, and high-end brands can be bought at the mall.
In her 2007 book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, Dana Thomas explores the process of how the major luxury brands began bringing their goods to the masses. She also highlights that in most – but not all – cases the only valuable part of these companies is the brand itself, as many of the items they sell are not made to a level of quality on par with the expectations the brand creates. The exception to this is Hermès which – at least at the time Thomas was writing her book – still create their famous bags by hand. Martha Stewart was criticized for bringing her Birkin bag to her insider-trading trial because the bag has become so synonymous with wealth and privilege (the bags sell for more than $5000). But the luxury market and the desires it manufactures and caters to persist.
The availability of luxury items has even spread to the grocery store: President’s Choice has launched a new black-label collection. Visitors to their site are welcomed with the following: “Discover the uniquely intriguing story of President's Choice® black-label products, our exceptional collection of fine foods, sourced the world over. Explore their distinct artisanal provenance and how to use them to transform meals to masterpieces.” There’s even a hard-cover, glossy cookbook to go with the collection full of recipes that use the products. What you won’t find on their site, however, are prices.
Ordinarily, PC items are priced lower than the equivalent national brands on the shelf but with the black-label line they’ve gone the other way with prices over and above any of the other items. I think what they’re trying to do is keep everyone shopping in one store because the people who want things like Fig and Date Condiment would previously have had to go to a specialty shop to get them. Now, the customers who already use these products can put them in the same cart as their paper towels, and people who weren’t previously interested are given a glimpse of the good life while combing through the aisles. The siren song of fancy dinner parties, wine tastings, and witty conversations over a round of cocktails can now be heard from olive jars and cracker boxes. This collection is the perfect “gateway drug,” if you will, to give people a relatively easy taste of the "finer things" in the hopes of getting them hooked and buying more high-priced things.
The black-label collection contradicts everything that the PC brand has always been about: saving Canadians money and making easily prepared foods healthier. They used the Blue Menu line to partner with the Canadian Olympic team, and have regularly run ad campaigns with price comparisons against the other national brands. Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Limited, is always shown surrounded by “regular” people while promoting new products and low prices. Now, with almost nothing to compete with, the black-label collection is setting its own price standard on the grocery-store shelves. Bacon marmalade, truffle oil, tarts imported from Scotland, and artisanal pasta from Italy seem out of place in a store full of regular PC and No Name products.
This whole approach strikes me as excessive. I don’t mind paying a bit extra for a quality product, whether it’s clothes, food, or anything else. But I’m not doing it every day or so that I can feel like I’m on the Forbes billionaires list. The difference between emphasizing value and promoting indulgence is massive. President’s Choice is taking a significant risk not only by fragmenting their brand, but by introducing this particular product line in a time of such economic uncertainty.
I know that most people are after the quick fix or the easy win and don’t typically want to put in the years or even decades of work it can take to get to the top. But if you want to live like you’re part of the elite, doesn’t it make more sense to save your money to build towards that goal instead of throwing it away on shiny, high-priced substitutes? If you’ve got the bankroll and can legitimately afford all of the luxury bits and pieces out there, then more power to you. But a lot of people have taken on a lot of debt desperately trying to buy their way into a lifestyle that’s been dangled in front of them by advertisers and the media. Unless you’re already well on your way to the top, Fig Cabernet Wine Jelly doesn’t belong on anyone’s list of daily essentials.
With a cheeky (meaning that it contains language that may offend) rant about aspirational television, here’s Charlie Brooker:
Strong, clean writing with just the right hit of humour. Jillian manages to find that balance between idea and opinion that characterizes the best column writing. Great to see some research in there, too!
– Katrina Onstad