The ‘LOOK AeTcoMnoEm’y
‘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’