A story of stories

In the news, a story we like, but for the wrong reasons:

model Vicky Antonia… has spent £20,000 dressing her eight-year-old son Zack in top labels.

This story’s editors know that this sounds crazy, and they play this angle to the hilt, piling on the prurient details – He has 200 shoes! She spends up to a thousand on clothes a week! His toys take up two whole rooms!

It’s a story that appeals to the little whisper deep inside many of us, quietly insinuating that whatever our own vices, at least we aren’t that bad. Our mind spontaneously, probably subconsciously, measures ourselves up against Vicky, and happily finds what social psychologists call a “downwards social comparison” – the kind that tends to make us feel pretty good about ourselves.

While the world is surely in need of more feel-good news,  this is unfortunately one of the less noble varieties of it. What I like, though, is that it illustrates some of the little stories we tell about ourselves.

For starters there’s the one we’ve just discussed: news readers implicitly constructing a proto-story about their own moral superiority, ironically oblivious to the morality of doing it at someone else’s expense.

Or take Vicky herself. She is apparently aware that this amount of spending looks crazy, and she has an explanation:

The 31-year-old said: ‘I know it must sound like I am spoiling him but I just want him to look his best. What is wrong with making your son look good?’… ‘Because he is so young I don’t think he even understands the fact that he has all this designer gear,’ .

She’s not trying to buy his affection, she says – he doesn’t even know she’s doing anything special for him! No, she is aware that money can’t buy love (the Beatles tell her so), but money sure might be able to express her love.

She admits she sometimes regrets her spending but believes her shopping habit stems from almost losing her son as a baby. He was born after just 27 weeks and spent two months in intensive care after contracting bacterial meningitis. ‘As far as I am concerned, he is my wonder child and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to want to treat your son,’ she said.

This is, obviously, a much better sounding story than the one that most of us were spontaneously painting in our minds, though the ultimate wisdom of it is perhaps questionable. There is plenty of academic research showing that strong extrinsic concerns (i.e., on topics such as status and physical appearance) are consistently associated with lower levels of happiness and satisfaction with life, whereas the opposite is true for intrinsic ends (i.e., topics such as interpersonal caring – see Kasser & Kanner’s 2003 book: “Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world”). Vicky appears to be trying to tell a very intrinsic story about caring for her son, to explain a set of behaviours that have a very extrinsic ring to them. So what are we to make of this?

Maybe something, but first, two caveats:

 

  1. Extrinsic pursuits are not categorically bad things. Money is a famously necessary evil – or at least, enough of it for comfort and survival. A basic level of concern with physical grooming is considered to be not just desirable, but a fairly rudimentary social skill. Extrinsic concerns are only problematic when start outweighing intrinsic ones. Perhaps Vicky also donates large amounts of money to worthy charities, and spends the bulk of her free time on local community building. Or perhaps she makes quieter contributions to the well-being of the world around her – we don’t know, and it’s none of our business.
  2. We’re trying to read an awful lot into a person that we’ve never met, don’t know much about, and who certainly didn’t ask to be the subject of such public attempts at mind reading.

Because it’s so dicey to speculate on any individual’s life, perhaps we’re better to extrapolate the situation out to people in general:

Is there a risk, however inadvertent, to lavishing this type of attention on a child? Perhaps, in that it may impart some poor implicit lessons: that looking good is an important source of his value as a person, or  that their appearance is key to pleasing those who are important to him. The details would depend an awful lot on the individuals involved, but it would be worth thinking about.

Even more generally, there is a lesson here about the stories that we tell of ourselves, and how skeptical to be of believe them. Certain parts of the fashion industry make a distinction between premium brands, which offer elements of high performance and artistic craftsmanship, and prestige brands that add extrinsic elements of status and exclusivity to this mix.

While some consumers openly lust after extrinsic  prestige, and others find such notions abhorrent, perhaps  more of us than we would like to admit are  drawn to the allure of prestige. We may tell ourselves that we are only drawn by the premium quality craftsmanship – that we only want something that works well, that there’s nothing wrong with having something that’s a bit more beautiful, and that is more… fun. And who is to say otherwise. After all, who among us has never wasted a single penny on treats and frivolities that could not have been better spent feeding starving children in the third world? Eyes, splinters, logs, and such.

Just don’t run up a £20,000 tab doing it, or you might find yourself in the newspaper.


Alex Gunz is a lecturer in Marketing at Manchester Business School, and likes to tell himself that he’s good at deciphering consumer psychology.

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