Turning goods into experiences

[2 June 2008]

By Rob Horning

Taking off from a remark in the NYT foodie blog that “the same plate of pasta goes down a lot easier at $12—it even tastes better at $12—than it does at $16,” Felix Salmon wonders why the same is not true of wine, which we think tastes better when we know it was more expensive (at least according to a study described here).

everybody has wine insecurities. If we know that wine quality is inversely correlated with price, then why do we feel guilty bringing a cheap bottle of wine to a dinner party? Probably because if it turns out not to be very good, the “but it was quite expensive” defense is a reasonable one. When navigating a strange and scary and unfamiliar land - which is how most people feel when they enter a wine shop - one grasps at anything one knows, which means that people (a) buy brands they recognize, and (b) navigate by price, in the absence of any other means by which to narrow down the selection.
Very few people, by contrast, are insecure when it comes to food. They know what they like, and while they might well be willing to pay a lot of money for a great meal, they’re generally even happier when they pay very little money for a great meal. What’s more, if there’s one big secular trend in the restaurant world, it’s away from the three-star gourmet palaces of old, where you dressed for dinner and were served ostentatiously expensive food like Lobster Thermidor on fine china by obsequious waiters, and towards much more low-key shops which concentrate on the food more than the theater and which pride themselves on doing great things with formerly déclassé ingredients.
Interestingly, it’s the grander, more high-theater holdouts which still tend to have the magnificent wine lists full of really expensive bottles. Maybe the more casual places know that without the accompanying palaver, a great wine won’t seem quite as magnificent.

By “accompanying palaver” Salmon may mean the Grand Guignol absurdity of fine dining, but it seems to apply equally to all forms of marketing copy for consumption goods of nebulous utility. In these instances, we consume the copy, not the good. With pricey wine, we consume the experience of ourselves spending on something extravagant. It’s generally to retailers’ benefit to transform goods into experiences, which are subject to a different emotional and economic calculus. With experiential goods, there’s hardly any standard by which we could tell whether or not we were ripped off. So we feel safer spending on them, and the rewards they supply us are immeasurable. That’s perhaps why Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, says (in this Times of London profile) “Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.” Skepticism deprives us of the ability to fool ourselves into thinking our unique experiences are worth any price. We can’t know with any confidence what the real value of the experience it is, only that it diminishes if we start doubting it. If it creeps into our head that the wine is a ripoff, we enjoy it less than we would if were thinking we were giving ourselves an expensive treat. Skepticism makes us aware of hype as hype rather than letting hype serve its role of amplifying our experience of our own time. We only get to live once, and there is little good in regarding that time as inadequate or inferior to some lost time we would have preferred.

Marketing is primarily an exercise in achieving the transformation of goods into experiences: trying to make a routine shopping trip feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; trying to make us think of ourselves and the kind of people we can become rather than the good itself and its limited capabilities; trying to convince us that a good confers distinction, making ownership of it into an accomplishment in its own right. (An antidote to this is the pursuit of scoreboard—of bargains for their own sake.) Is it worth the effort to be skeptical of this sort of marketing? The danger is that these ersatz experiences with a price tag could supplant noncommercial experiences, which become devalued relative to those experiences being hyped. When experiences become purchasable in a market society, “real” experiences are only those with the imprimatur of the marketplace. Just as certain products seem more legitimate when they are bought in a “real store” (I’d rather get my socks from Macy’s than from a random dude on the corner of 76th Street and Broadway), experiences may become subject to the same bias.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-difficulty-of-trusting-our-own-tastes/