Emotional consumption

I got into a discussion not so long ago on an online forum about the recent [multiple] price increases of Céline bags. The general consensus of others on the forum was that the price increases were “unfair” or “rude” and that they were making Céline products “elitist”. I argued that anything that is made to preclude the vast majority of people on Earth from participating could be considered elitist; the price of any single Céline product certainly does that. Unfortunately, people weren’t so interested in that perspective, as they continued to complain that the new US$2400 price-tag of the mini luggage bag is rude and elitist.

I was sympathetic that some people were actually complaining about the fact that they think the bags are not worth the new prices – fair enough, but that’s a different thing. But there were some people seemingly arguing that they been hard done by and disadvantaged by the fact that the bags had become slightly more inaccessible to them personally. I was kind of baffled, because despite all the emotions running very high in the discussion, an unaffordable bag is distinctly not an injustice. Pharmaceutical companies pricing critical medications out of the price range of people who need them – yes, that’s an injustice. You personally not being able to afford a Céline bag quite so easily (on top of the ones you already own, as is likely to be the case on that particular forum) – no, that doesn’t really qualify as an injustice at all.

But then I read a paper from the Journal of Consumer Culture that kind of threw some light on this behaviour. Class-based emotions and the allure of fashion consumption discussed the involvement of emotions in driving consumerism through the purchasing of fashion. We are all beholden to our emotions, and the desire to avoid or obtain a particular emotion drives our behaviour. Emotions don’t exist as detached things – as the paper says, “sentiments such as pride, shame, envy, resentment, compassion and contempt are not merely abstract and temporal emotions. [...] such sentiments are borne out of evaluative judgements that people make about how well they, or others, are being treated, and whether or not they have access to the things they consider affect their well being and happiness”.

The resentment and contempt people were showing for the Céline price increases – were they caused by some perception of being unfairly treated or being denied some sort of happiness? What sort of context could make someone upset that a luxury – by definition something far beyond the basics you need to survive – was being made less available to them?

If you’re like me, you might have thought that class structure is an increasingly irrelevant concept to fashion. You might think that the “democratisation of fashion” and the shift in luxury brands’ marketing strategies to target the enormous middle class means that the distinction between upper-class and middle-class is a bit blurry. There just aren’t as many material items these days that can pin someone definitively as belonging to one of those two classes. If someone’s got some disposable income and enough inclination and dedication to spend a fair bit of time saving up, they can have an Hermès Birkin bag (if they’ve gotten to the top of the waiting list, at least).

But the paper describes how, even if you just look at the middle class alone, there are divisions that could be the root of anxieties that drive some forms of consumerism.

People possess cultural capital – the cumulative body of education, knowledge, attitudes and skills that, for whatever reasons, are likely to give a person a higher social status in society. The paper reported that middle-class women (the paper only discussed women) with higher cultural capital were more likely to value their individuality in the personal appearance they created through fashion, and to think that following trends was not necessarily the most constructive use of their limited monetary funds. They were more likely to want to invest in classic styles, avoiding anything too trendy or ephemeral because such things would have a shorter lifetime of being associated with more “elite” tastes and social standings they considered aspirational. These women tried to engage in “smart shopping” by doing things like buying high-quality pieces on sale. And finally, they were less likely to be emotionally invested in their shopping – they weren’t necessarily doing it because they valued the emotional rewards it could potentially bring them in terms of improving how they are perceived by others.

Middle-class women with lower cultural capital didn’t engage in as much “smart shopping”, and in the example of Charlotte (well, they’re usually pseudonyms in these sorts of papers), she invested a lot of emotion in how others responded to her outfits, to the point where she found herself running down to the high street daily during her lunch time – 20 minutes there, 20 minutes of shopping, 20 minutes to get back to work – in order to buy more and more clothes. She had made the assumption that she’d only keep getting this positive feedback from people if she kept buying new outfits. As a result, she was frequently pushed up against the limits of her monetary funds and reminded of the fact that she was very much middle-class, despite whatever her aspirations may have been. And for middle-class people who are emotionally invested in their fashion purchasing, being pushed up against the limits of their middle-classness can be pretty aversive. It can generate some pretty negative emotions, as mentioned before, “borne out of evaluative judgements that people make about how well they, or others, are being treated, and whether or not they have access to the things they consider affect their well being and happiness”. Pushing up against those boundaries makes the boundaries seem unfair, and it feels like your access to things that affect your happiness is restricted.

And so we have the people of that Céline forum: outraged and resentful of price increases, even though the marketing department at Céline or its parent company, luxury conglomerate LVMH, are still very much aiming at the enormous middle-class and relying on its sheer size for their profits. But when a bag that previously cost the equivalent of 2 weeks’ worth of pay quickly progresses to costing 4 weeks’ worth of pay, middle-class consumers can’t help but be reminded of their financial boundaries, and the emotionally invested middle-class consumer is destined to feel outraged. The goal-posts have been unexpectedly shifted and it’s not just the bag that’s been moved out of your grasp for now – it’s the positive social emotions that you think the bag could bring that are also no longer within reach.

Doesn’t mean I empathise with these people, but I do now somewhat understand how their outrage can come about.

3 Thoughts on “Emotional consumption

  1. Clara on April 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm said:

    me again -sorry, I really can’t help commenting on your posts as they are often about things I have been thinking about by myself. :)
    About the price-increase of the bag, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to affect the sales -not dramatically at least. Because as you often say in this blog, the price is not actually related to the actual value of the item you buy.
    And also, more importantly, every (fashionable) brand’s marketing/brand image seems to be aiming higher than their real target. Sorry I’m not being very clear, English for me is a bit difficult ! What I mean is : if a brand wants to target lower-middle class customer, it will present in its advertising upper-middle class people. If you want to target upper-middle class people, your advertisment will have to present upper-class lifestyles. And so on. Creating a sense of frustration and social selectivity (“I love it and want it but it’s too expensive for me”) in the customer is therefore completely part of the strategy -without that frustration, he probably wouldn’t want and value the item that much at all !
    In a nutshell : what we’re looking for in a brand is blend in/identifying with people socially slightly ABOVE us. That is why the rise of the prices is probably not going to change the customer base much… despite their apparent outrage !

    • Jess on April 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm said:

      I totally agree, and I think any frustration with pricing shows how unaware a person can be in the context of a class or a market – some people (like the ones I mentioned in this post) think that a price increase is offensive because it puts the bag further beyond their reach personally, and they seem to generalise that to the majority of other people who might be interested in purchasing the bag. But these people seem entirely unaware that, after the price increase, there are plenty of people who can still afford that bag, and the bag has simply become an object of “upwards aspiration” for a different group of people.

      The other interesting thing is that Céline and LVMH have more than once admitted to the fact that they are doing whatever it takes to maximise the prestige of the Céline label, to attempt to put it on par with Chanel or perhaps Hermès. As such, it’s entirely unsurprising that there have been hefty price increases, but the fact remains that such expensive bags are still objects that a huge number of people aspire to own. It’s not like the bags are being priced out of the range of anyone but millionaires. The luxury brands are still squarely targeting the middle classes with the pricing – it’s just that the price makes the bags into aspirational objects for people with slightly more money, slightly further up the class rungs.

      And every time someone gets outraged on the forum about an increased Céline price, I can’t help but wonder why they haven’t noticed that just as many people as ever (if not more) are posting about their brand new, just-purchased Céline bags. Many, many people are most definitely still buying the bags!

      • Clara on April 11, 2012 at 4:29 am said:

        thank you so much for your answer, very enlightening. I can’t wait to read more of this blog ! it made my day ! :)

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