Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Why We Hate Cheap Things

This piece is by Alain de Botton - but please do not let that put you off. There is an interesting observation buried in the de Bottonishness.

The overall argument is this. We act as if we hate cheap things. But this is odd. Lots of things that are now cheap were regarded as terribly desirable once upon a time - and they are still fantastic things in their own right today. (De Botton's examples here are well-chosen: pineapples, warm baths, seeing the clouds from above, freshly laundered clothes.) Why don't we like these cheap things any more?

This is de Botton's answer: "Our response is a hang-over from our long pre-industrial past. For most of human history, there truly was a strong correlation between cost and value: the higher the price, the better things tended to be – because there was simply no way both for prices to be low and quality to be high. Everything had to be made by hand, by expensively trained artisans, with raw materials that were immensely difficult to transport. The expensive sword, jacket, window or wheelbarrow were simply always the better ones. This relationship between price and value held true in an uninterrupted way until the end of the 18th century, when – thanks to the Industrial Revolution – something extremely unusual happened: human beings worked out how to make high quality goods at cheap prices, because of technology and new methods of organising the labour force."

That is wrong and I will tell you why in a moment. But before I do that, let's see why it would be nice if de Botton were right. The story he tells is that we have a habit of mind, a rule of thumb, a heuristic - call it what you will - that equates "good" and "expensive". It was a pretty useful rule once upon a time but not any more, now that we can get furniture from Ikea (his example is Bauhaus, but you see the point). So if we were to change that now outmoded habit of mind we could appreciate how rich we are now: we could all revel in eating pineapples in the bath like the most decadent voluptuaries of the ancien regime.

It's an appealing story. But is it true? No. You don't have to studied any economics to know that the high price = high quality rule was never there. Fresh drinking water in northern Europe? Great quality. Always cheap. Fashionable quacks? Aphrodisiacs made of rhino horn? Any major mediaeval cathedral building project that fell down? The Darien Scheme? These things were expensive and not high quality. 

Why? Let’s go back to the humble (or rather, the wonderful) pineapple. It wasn’t expensive, lauded and the subject of whimsical architectural celebrations in the 18th century in south America any more than the orange was in Seville at the time. It wasn’t worse in south American than in Europe either. (On the contrary, it was better there than the rotting examples decorating the tables of high society in Europe.) It was just harder to get.

That is the point. Prices balance supply and demand. One reason that something is highly in demand is that it is better. But there are other reasons. Some of these reasons might be to do with mistaken views of the efficacy or qualities of the thing desired (rhino horn), but many are not.

So why do we value expensive things? Let’s leave economics, as this just tells us that expensive things are things which (a) we value and (b) are relatively scarce. Here are two answers. First, we like things that are (relatively) exclusive. Pineapples used to have a cachet; now they don't. They're not the same thing as they once were: pineapples are, like, so last millennium.  

Second, we like variety. We like an occasional treat (as pineapples used to be). De Botton mentions caviar: well, we all know about how oysters used to be so plentiful that servants were protected from having to eat them too often. Bluntly, you can get bored of oysters, as you can of pineapples, caviar, clean laundry, Ikea furniture and no doubt jet packs and driverless cars as well.

The great sadness for de Botton's argument is that liking items with cachet, occasional treats and a bit of variety are not the sorts of habit of mind that (I suspect) we would want to change even if we could. His story about there being an outmoded habit of mind that high prices = high quality is a bit like this: here on Earth, it’s a good idea not to try to catch a knife that you have dropped, but if we moved to somewhere where the gravity was a lot weaker then perhaps we should change that rule of thumb or habit of mind. But the reality is that what we need to change is a lot deeper: it's not that we need to change our rule about not catching knives, it’s that we need to stop caring about being stabbed. It's not going to happen.

At this point you may be wondering why I am spending any time on this de Bottonness. I have two reasons. First, his heart is in the right place on this one. There is benefit to be had from looking at the wonderful everyday things in the world around us and appreciating the value they have quite apart from their lack of cachet or scarcity. You'd be better off eating a pineapple in the bath than doing any number of other things that society regards are more cool.

Second - and here at last I reach de Botton's interesting point - is what he has to say about advertising: "advertising throws the best things about objects into relief and tells us in insistent and urgently enthusiastic and sensitive ways what is loveable about bits of the world ... The only problem with advertising is that it isn’t done for enough things, or indeed the things that would be most helpful and convenient for us to appreciate. People who attack advertising get it slightly wrong: the problem is not that we love BMWs, but that so much of our love and awe has been syphoned in that direction and hasn’t been properly excited in other, more realistic areas. We need an advertising pursued with the same sense of drama and intensity and ambition but directed towards biros, puddles and olives."

Good advertising creates value. De Botton is right about this (I'd love to hear what Rory Sutherland has to say here). When advertising works, it attaches emotional value to things - it scatters a wonderful magical dust over the mundane. Those emotional values might be to do with the cachet or rarity of the item being advertised, but they needn't be: see, e.g., "how Bisto turned gravy granules into family togetherness" or the Andrex puppy. After all, a great deal of advertising is attached to goods that are pretty much ubiquitous and interchangeable.

But let’s take de Botton's insight further. The modern advertising industry is good but it’s not unique in what it does. Can you think of any other spheres of life in which people feel good about having something that is not particularly exclusive? Where else is magical dust scattered over our lives?

One example would be national identity. To be born English is to have won first prize in the lottery of life. Of course it is. But you’re sharing that lottery prize with quite a few other people - a lot more than would make a National Lottery cash prize worthless. And yet it is not worthless.

And now we are into much deeper territory, which I think that illustrates my point. There are no easy de Bottonian solutions here: just a number of important facts about human nature that high-budget adverts for puddles are not going to change. Although I still want to see the adverts ...

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