The ‘LOOK AeT­coMnoEm’y

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - MUST READ - WORDS ANNA HARTFORD

‘STUFF’ IS SO 2000-AND-LATE. NOW, IN­STEAD,

WE WOR­SHIP ‘EX­PE­RI­ENCES’. BUT ARE WE SEIZ­ING THE DAY, OR ARE WE

JUST SHOW­ING OFF?

‘idon’t want any more things,’ a friend says, ad­vis­ing on birth­day gifts.‘I’d much rather do some­thing new than own some­thing new.’ It’s a pref­er­ence you hear more and more nowa­days: in­stead of the un­couth ac­cu­mu­la­tion of flashy ‘stuff’, the high­minded trend has in­creas­ingly been lean­ing to­wards ac­cu­mu­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences – a meal in a Miche­lin-starred restau­rant, a scuba course, a trip to Sene­gal. If we were once ma­te­rial girls liv­ing in a ma­te­rial world, we now seem to have

‘Unique ex­pe­ri­ences, and not just for the af­flu­ent, are so­cial cur­rency’

mor­phed into ephe­meral girls: wor­ship­ping not what we hold onto, but what slips by. It’s the buzz­word of the last decade – ‘ex­pe­ri­ence’.

In some re­spects, this sounds grand.Af­ter all, what could be more pre­cious, or mean­ing­ful, than the en­deav­our to fill your life with beauty, nov­elty, de­light and awe? The feel­ing of be­ing be­neath a jacaranda, un­wrap­ping a madeleine from a del­i­cate ruf­fle of tis­sue paper, tak­ing that first nib­ble as the breeze cools your flushed skin. Is this what we mean by seiz­ing the day? Is this the fa­bled power of now? The palm trees sashay­ing as your Lilo ebbs to­wards the hori­zon, a Cham­pagne punch cock­tail held loosely in your one hand, and your iPhone 5s clutched firmly in the other – just up­load­ing a quick ‘pic’ be­fore you re­turn to be­ing ut­terly present… and then just up­load­ing one more…

But rather than an im­prove­ment on wan­ton ma­te­ri­al­ism, the ex­pe­ri­ence fix­a­tion can look like an­other ver­sion of it. In­stead of in­di­cat­ing your su­pe­ri­or­ity based on what you have, you

in­di­cate it on the ba­sis of what you’ve done. The famed Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Thorstein Ve­blen coined the term ‘con­spic­u­ous leisure’ at the end of the 19th century. A vari­a­tion of the more fa­mous con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion, con­spic­u­ous leisure is the im­plicit ad­ver­tis­ing of one’s sta­tus with os­ten­ta­tious dis­plays of plea­sure and re­lax­ation; a lengthy ex­otic hol­i­day, say, from which you re­turn with lit­tle sou­venirs, or from which you send a few post­cards (‘Wish I was here! Oh wait… I am!’). Per­haps by the stan­dards of 19-when­ever, that sort of thing qual­i­fied as ex­or­bi­tantly boast­ful, but need­less to say: it has noth­ing on us. Post­ing boast­ful al­bums is half the point of be­ing on so­cial me­dia. Think of that end­less pro­ces­sion of per­fectly plated food, or all those pho­tos of limbs siz­zling in front of coastal vis­tas. It’s not just your friends’ ex­pe­ri­ences that you’re in­vited to ogle, but those of the rich and fa­mous too: Alessan­dra Am­bro­sio star-fish leap­ing in the surf, and sprawled on the front of a yacht, Candice Swanepoel in bright de­light in St.Tropez, and a bikini-clad Ri­hanna in ev­ery mode of re­cline in Bar­ba­dos (af­ter which Bri­tish Air­ways claimed a 130 per cent in­crease in trips to the is­land).

The Travel Mar­ket Re­port listed con­spic­u­ous leisure as one of the travel trends to watch in 2014.‘Unique ex­pe­ri­ences, and not just for the af­flu­ent, are so­cial cur­rency,’ says Chris Fair, pres­i­dent of Res­o­nance Con­sul­tancy, which re­searches emerg­ing lux­ury mar­kets. So­cial me­dia has al­lowed this cur­rency to be traded more suc­cess­fully than ever be­fore. Cou­pled with our im­mense abil­ity to broad­cast, the whole‘ex­pe­ri­ence’di­rec­tive be­comes,at the very least,mul­ti­func­tional. You’re not sim­ply en­joy­ing some­thing – a lit­tle mo­ment within your con­scious aware­ness – you are ad­ver­tis­ing that you are the kind of per­son who val­ues these things:you’re the laid-back surfer chick,you’re the quirky au­tum­nal-leaf tosser, the soul­ful sun­rise con­tem­pla­tor, the free-lov­ing wa­ter rafter. To keep up with the Jone­ses, we might once have ven­tured out to in­vest in the right Tup­per­ware set and patentleather pumps; now we go out and repli­cate a ver­sion of the Jones’s Face­book al­bums. You go to Pisa, and take that pic­ture of yourself push­ing the tower back, you sit on the mo­saic steps of Rio, you go to Man­hat­tan, or­der the Mag­no­lia Bak­ery cup­cake you saw the Jone­ses eat­ing, and you eat it. Washed down with home-made al­mond milk.

It’s a trend that has been hap­pily em­braced by the pro­lif­er­a­tors of mar­ket­ing lingo. You don’t pur­chase a movie ticket nowa­days, you have a ‘cin­ema ex­pe­ri­ence’ (you haven’t tried Nu Metro’s Scene yet?); you aren’t get­ting a BMW, but the ‘BMW ex­pe­ri­ence’. Not to for­get those MasterCard ads: New de­signer out­fit? $250. New lip­stick? $35. Evening bag? $90.The look on your ex-boyfriend’s face? Price­less. ‘Ex­pe­ri­ence is be­com­ing the pre­dom­i­nant eco­nomic of­fer­ing,’ B. Joseph Pine II, co-au­thor of the books The Ex­pe­ri­ence Econ­omy and Au­then­tic­ity: What Con­sumers Re­ally Want, posits in a TED talk (which he calls the ‘ex­pe­ri­ence cap­i­tal’ of con­fer­ences). But, far from be­ing ‘price­less’, these ex­pe­ri­ences come with a hefty mark-up.Pine takes the ex­am­ple of cof­fee:‘You know how much cof­fee is worth, when treated as a com­mod­ity as a bean? Two or three [US] cents per cup,’ he says. But as it makes its way from a com­mod­ity to a good, and a good to a ser­vice, and then from a ser­vice to an ‘ex­pe­ri­ence’, the price jumps up ex­po­nen­tially. ‘Sur­round that brew­ing of cof­fee with the am­biance of a Star­bucks, with the au­then­tic cedar that goes in­side there, and now be­cause of that au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence you can charge two or three, maybe $5 (over R50), for a cup of cof­fee.’

What’s more, aside from be­ing fleeced, we are be­ing dic­tated to about what qual­i­fies as the right kind of ex­pe­ri­ence – the ‘price­less’ kind, as op­posed to the dime-store ex­pe­ri­ences we’re hav­ing all day. We’ve all got­ten used to the pre­ten­tions of cof­fee, but be­hold the next fron­tier: toast! Once the hum­blest of meals, beloved by stu­dents on a dead­line and fraz­zled moth­ers of six, toast is au­di­tion­ing to be the lat­est ar­ti­sanal cui­sine. In Los Angeles, the restau­rant Sqirl (and a few oth­ers be­side) has be­gun sell­ing slices for $7 (over R70) a pop. How good could this toast ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­bly be? Asked what change he’d make to the mar­ket­ing in­dus­try if he could, James H. Gil­more (Pine’s co-au­thor) said, ‘I would ban the word “mar­ket­ing”. In­stead I would call it “cus­tomer­ing”, and I would call the in­dus­try “de­mand cre­ation”.’

De­mand cre­ation? In a world where this is a plau­si­ble de­scrip­tion of events, it seems ad­vis­able to fos­ter a con­stant sus­pi­cion about our own de­sires. Where we were once bam­boo­zled by the need to own cer­tain things,we’re now bam­boo­zled by the need to ex­pe­ri­ence cer­tain things. We didn’t need all that stuff, and we prob­a­bly don’t need all these ex­pe­ri­ences: at least not the way they’re sold to us, and the way we con­tinue to sell them to each other. Life might be made worth­while by the oc­ca­sional ex­cep­tional mo­ment, but in truth, these al­most never ar­rived dolled up, with a rib­bon and a price tag on top; nor do they reg­u­larly pause and pose for a pho­to­graph.

‘To keep up with the Jone­ses, we might once have ven­tured out to in­vest in the right Tup­per­ware set (…); now we go out and repli­cate a ver­sion of the Jones’s Face­book al­bums’

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