Americans think it's sweet to be elite

The new snobbery is rooted in status from material things, brands

January 28, 2007|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,Boston Globe

Once upon a time, snobbery was a bad thing, a character flaw indulged in by effete elites and condemned by everyone else. But is snobbery going mainstream? Are snob appeal and mass appeal converging? The recent holiday season confirmed that many of us have begun "behaving as if we're rich," in the words of author James Twitchell. The country is on a status binge that has made the quest for luxury goods the new national pastime. And the rules of the game evidently are: No guilt, no limits.

Expenditures that once might have seemed at the outer limits of absurdity - $4 ice-cream cones, $100-an-ounce moisturizer, and $1,000-a-day spa facials and body treatments - now barely elicit a raised eyebrow. Business was "sparkling" at luxury stores during the Christmas season, according to The Associated Press, which noted that "well-heeled shoppers are showing no restraint for $5,000 handbags."

The status competition is so fierce that even Laura Bush has trouble keeping up: The first lady wore an $8,500 Oscar de la Renta gown last month to a White House reception,

then hastily changed mid-party when three other women showed up wearing the same red dress. Meanwhile, on Wall Street, when word filtered out that investment bankers would pocket a total of $24 billion in bonuses, speculation turned immediately to the Lucullan spending spree Gotham was about to witness: posh restaurants, upscale wine stores, McMansions (scant mention of charity donations).

But the middle class is discovering its inner snob as well. Retailers are not just speaking to the rich when they promise a "flawless experience" for consumers seeking "premium goods" as part of the "360-degree luxury lifestyle." Luxuries are now considered a legitimate way for the middle class to reward itself for, well, making it into the middle class.

Living in luxury

The snob factor looms large in housing: Consider how many nondescript apartment buildings bill themselves as "luxury condominiums." And it looms even larger in consumer goods, where brand awareness has morphed into brand obsession (a process helped along by TV shows like Sex and the City, which enshrined Manolo Blahnik shoes as the summit of yuppie aspiration).

Snob appeal is the subtext to everything from Starbucks coffee to Godiva chocolates to Armani suits to Burberry raincoats to Patek Philippe wristwatches. Plain old water is now a matter of social distinction: Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, says that his students "can tell you the difference between Evian and Dasani, or between Fiji and Aquafina."

What happened? For one thing, class warfare seems to have ended, and the rich won. Twitchell, author of Living It Up: America's Love Affair With Luxury, says that many middle-class Americans now reflexively take their cues from the wealthy.

Deborah Marlino, a professor of marketing at Simmons College School of Management in Boston, says that rather than be repulsed by the "grossly inflated CEO salaries" so prevalent today, Americans of average means have seen the excesses of the wealthy as justification for their own conspicuous consumption.

"Their attitude is, `If that person can buy a multi-thousand-dollar shower curtain, then I can buy my Gucci bag for $700,'" says Marlino - even though, she adds, such reasoning contributes to spiraling credit card debt.

Moreover, the ante for conspicuous consumption keeps getting upped, according to Bella M. DePaulo, who teaches psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

"If Time magazine can say the `Person of the Year' is you and you and you, and everybody is worth celebrating because everyone can post a blog or make this great video and see it go swirling around the country: Well, if you want to be really special you've got to do something that makes you better than `Time Person of the Year,'" says DePaulo. "To differentiate yourself, you've got to keep going up the ladder of luxury and status."

Rewarding ourselves

So does all this betoken a resurgence of plain old snobbery?

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that an early definition of a "snob," first recorded in 1848, was "a person who looks up to his or her social betters and tries to copy or associate with them." (The word eventually acquired the additional meaning of one who acts superior to his or her perceived social inferiors.)

No, insists Milton F. Pedraza, chief executive of the New York-based Luxury Institute, which researches and ranks luxury brands for wealthy consumers. "The old snobbery with old money, where people grew up with a silver spoon and a butler and a maid, that's all being dismantled," he contends.

What is happening, Pedraza says, is that hard-working Americans are seeking "a brand that helps define who they are." He says: "It's about status. It's about communicating the fact that you are somebody who has power and means. In this country, it's hard to find an identity, to make yourself feel special. How do we make ourselves feel special? We buy and consume luxury products. We need to reward ourselves."

Others, though, say the obsession with status and luxury products is a sign of a culture that has lost its moral compass, especially at a time when U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when a major city, New Orleans, is still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

"The message is, `We're not all in this together,'" says DePaulo, noting that materialism seemed more restrained during World War II and the Vietnam War. "It's so unconscionable."

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