Rob Walker’s latest Consumed column in the Sunday NYT magazine looks at criminally overpriced chocolate as a vehicle for “compensatory consumption.” Professors at Northwestern University found in a study that “subjects who had put themselves in a powerless frame of mind were willing to pay measurably more than the other group for high-status items” and that “individuals who felt less powerful showed a preference for clothing with larger and more conspicuous luxury logos.” In other words, our status anxiety may register to us as a lack of autonomy, as powerlessness, and we may compensate by exercising the sort of autonomy with which we are all familiar—making a wasteful shopping choice to prove that we can. Hence, spending $8 on a chocolate bar.
If this phenomenon of “compensatory consumption” holds, there would be seem to be incentive for marketers to make us perpetually anxious about our status, in good times and bad, and to make sure that status remains a meaningful social category with as much salience as possible. This implies that there can be no end to the social barriers derived from class as long as there is a robust advertising industry. That industry, of course, is not so robust currently; unfortunately, its services in making us anxious about our future are not especially necessary right now.
Could the chocolate taste so good that it would be worth that much? That question is irrelevant, as it is for wine as well. The causality must be reversed; it tastes better because we spent the extra money on it, because we are eating our own sense of power.
Because I live in a neighborhood where cheap imported chocolates from Eastern Europe are readily available, I have a different relationship with chocolate. I get to enjoy not the ersatz thrill of pseudo-luxury spending but the ersatz cosmopolitanism of consuming unusual imported goods. Apologists for consumerism tend to celebrate this sort of access to goods as a kind of “power,” but really the variety of goods is not improving my life so much as it is further articulating the status hierarchy. In this case, the status boost I get comes not from my sense of extravagant spending on an overpriced chocolate with a fancy brand name but from a different sort of privilege: the undeserved sense of superiority that comes from living in the sort of neighborhood where I can find Bulgarian and Croatian candy bars that other Americans can’t get so casually. Nevertheless, I can’t give you an honest appraisal of whether this chocolate tastes better or worse than Hershey’s for the same reasons mentioned above. On the level of relative obscurity, they rate highly. What I worry about is the way the status value masks the flavor; it becomes hard for me to tell the relative “objective” worth of things in the ordinary course of life. I would have to go through life blindfolded to really taste anything as it is.