Marginal utility (the concept, not this blog) be damned! According to last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Gillette has a lot riding on its newest “shaving system” set to debut next year. The groundbreaking innovation? This new razor, the “Fusion,” will have five blades, besting the Schick Quattro by one. Why cut the same beard hair once when you can pretend to cut it five times? Five razors would seem to mean that you’re five times more likely to cut yourself, but apparently Gillette is expecting most men to be going with the “more is inherently better” sort of thinking. The law of diminishing marginal utility suggests we’ll be less interested in paying more for the next unit of something, since it will be that much less useful to us. So an entirely unnecessary fifth blade should have little success in attracting consumers. But never underestimate the power of marketing. Marketing manages to shift things by making the utility of a razor come not in the form of a close shave (that would be pretty unimaginative, like thinking the utility of a car is in its getting you from one place to another when everyone knows its a lifestyle signifier) but in selling an enhanced form of manliness or novelty. And it also phases out its old razors and leaves you with little choice: “Each launch is underwritten with a huge advertising campaign, and Gillette rolls out the new blades at a hefty price premium to its predecessors. The company then gradually raises the prices of its older razors to persuade men to switch to the new model.” So the ploy is right out there in the open. Gillette uses ads to create the illusion of a product improvement, then makes everything else more expensive to dupe men into making the leap to a new product whose only real difference from the one they already used is that it is more expensive. This kind of calls the notion of the autonomous consumer into question as well. Many men will buy the Fusion out of their own “free will” after seeing a barrage of ads during the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four and after noticing that it’s not such big leap in price from the Mach 3, especially since you’re getting 2 more blades—a 40% increase in shaving power! Free will is experiential, a pleasant sensation for us to reinforce our sense of ourselves as unique and important, but it has nothing to do with reality, when much of our marketplace behavior, in the aggregate, is anticipated well in advance. Shopping is largely our chance to consume “free will” as a kind of product while fulfilling those “needs” industry has set out for us. Shopping is the magical procedure by which conformity becomes a sublime exercise of our autonomy.
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