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5.0 out of 5 stars Examining our Motivations, November 18, 2004
This review is from: The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (Paperback)
This book is an exploration into our motivations for acquiring mountains of stuff. The book also includes brief descriptions of some groups of people who have managed to get off the acquisitions bandwagon. Schor takes us through some of the classic literature on class and consumption patterns, noting that we make use of lifestyles as a form of social communication. We show our status or place in the hierarchy of society by the goods we own and display. Others may judge us according to our display of goods, or they may choose to challenge our status by some acquisitive one-ups-manship.

As an example of such social communication, Schor cites some research she did on cosmetic brands. Of all the types of cosmetics, lipstick is the one most likely to be applied in public. Schor found that women will often choose an expensive brand of lipstick to carry in their purses, especially if they are going to apply it in public where others will see and recognize the tube. But in blind tests, it was found that lipsticks are all more or less equivalent in quality, so women pay extra just for the visible tube. In contrast, facial cleansers are almost always used in private, and women make their choices between facial cleansers based on what works best, not brand name.

This brand consciousness pervades all of our purchasing behavior, whether we are aware of it or not. Think of your living room- -are there furniture brands or types of furniture some people display in their living rooms, but you would not even consider putting in yours because of what it would say about your taste? What statement does your wrist watch say about you? Does it show you pay attention to fashion, or that you are strictly practical, or that you're proud of being a cheapskate, as anyone can tell from your torn Velcro band that's held together with duct tape? Whichever way you answer, realize that you are not unique. There are others just like you, who share many of your preferences and have similar possessions in similar states of newness or disrepair. Do you avoid mass produced or branded items in favor of handmade? Funny enough, that's what hot with the upper-middle class right now- -you're not bucking the trend- -you are the trend!

Marketers make their business on studying patterns of acquisition. Zip codes are often great indicators of similar consumer groups by virtue of the fact that people who share the same zip code often live in houses that fall within a certain price range- -they often have similar incomes, and similar experiences. Marketers use this information to design effective campaigns to get people to buy products and services. In the past half century, they've gotten people to buy more stuff than ever before, and the rate of acquisition seems to be rising rapidly.

One reason for the rapid rise in hyper-consumption, Schor argues, is that people are no longer trying to keep up with their neighbors, since neighborhoods are less cohesive and people don't know as many neighbors as they used to. Instead, social contacts are often with work colleagues or with TV "friends". As a result, consumers are now trying to acquire stuff that will keep them not on the level of their peers, but on the level of their their managers (people with higher incomes) or fictional families on TV (whose consumption is often directly driven by marketers).

Schor also points out that "it is precisely when traditional markers of identity and position, such as birth and occupation, begin to break down that spending comes to the fore as a more powerful determinant of social status." And who are the biggest spenders of them all? Highly educated middle-aged women. They are very status-conscious and very well informed. Because of their education, they are exposed to high status people, and constantly seek ways to affirm their own high status through the social symbols they display.

Another factor that has added to the consumption feeding frenzy is the ease of getting consumer credit. Schor notes that on average, 18% of Americans' income goes towards paying interest on consumer debt (and how much more goes towards interest on the national debt?). Meanwhile, our traditional cultural and religious restraint on greed has been relaxed, to the point that spending is "extolled as good for the ego, if not for the soul...Most insidious of all, aggressive spending was made patriotic." This is even more true after the September 11th attacks, when the message coming from mass media seemed to be that we needed to spend our way out of grief in order to show the world how powerful we are.

Towards the end of the book, Schor profiles some "downshifters", people who have experienced a significant decrease in income, and who are coming to terms with their tightened financial situations by learning to spend less. Schor also provides a brief description of the Voluntary Simplicity movement, in which people choose a lifestyle focused on living rather than on earning in order to spend.

At the end of the book are an extensive bibliography, appendices explaining the details of Schor's research projects, a list of organizations devoted to reducing hyper-consumption, endnotes of sources, and an index. Overall, I found the book to be very well-researched and quite interesting to read. Her investigation into the social foundation of motivation to buy was extremely thought provoking.
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