Authors have been writing about luxury “for the masses” (the famous masstige) approximately since 2003. Back then there was a lot of talk about how simply going to Starbucks was a luxury in itself, if you compared it with making a cup of instant coffee at home. Nowadays having your name written on a cup with a mermaid logo on it can cost $6, the over cost can easily reach 500%… and “almost” anyone can allow themselves this expense.
What has changed since then? Firstly: it seems as though everything has become much more accessible. The low fare airlines, the increase in thousands of interest free monthly installment plans, the Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and Prime Days are increasingly more common in more and more categories.
Secondly: “Spatial” accessibility; the shopping center boom in almost every zone in cities and towns, as well as the growth of e-commerce are making the purchase of things a lot easier: now more than ever everything is at hand.
A third issue: culturally, it is more accepted that certain tastes which seemed to belong exclusively to the working classes, can be enjoyed by everyone now (The Ángeles Azules band in the Coachella music fest, reaggeton music being played in the most exclusive clubs in the country and everyone singing along with it, etc.)
Finally, we cannot undermine the power of Big Data. In its reign what rules is collective behavior; equality increases and superficially it would seem that the unique doesn´t exist or it is minimized (1)
Due to this, at first glance it would seem that working, middle and high class consumption is increasingly more similar. But let’s analyze this in more detail. We still live in a world in which what we are worth as persons is intimately linked with what we consume. “Tell me how much you consume and I will tell you how much you are worth”. Yes, we have gone from treasuring possessions to treasuring experiences, but the math continues to be more or less the same: those that can travel more (and brag about it on Instagram); Those that can see a concert from better seats, those that can afford a children’s party in a bigger party salon, with more games, bubbles and balloons… are worth more. They continue to be more admired and envied and that hasn’t changed.
It can be that things have become more accessible, or it can also be that we are increasingly more in debt. According to Nielsen, 40% of Premium product consumption is made by the lower segment. 92% of the lower class homes purchase Premium products, only 3% below what we find in a middle class home and 6% below an upper class home. (2)
While it may be true that social classes increasingly consume things that are more alike, it is also true that the time it takes each class to pay these Premium products or the latest Smartphone is radically different. An article in the New York Times (2) talks about how they found people in Chile who are boiling hot with their car windows rolled up so that people will think that they have air conditioning in their cars; people who talk on toy cell phones, people who buy potatoes or a pair of slacks in 12 month installments, or people who walk around supermarkets with their grocery cart full of food, but abandon it in an aisle before leaving.
It seems scandalous, but it makes us reflect on what is behind the increase in Premium consumption, or the fact that all social classes consume similar things could be a super human effort to “appear “as if everything is alright. Almost like nations or companies pretending that everything is under control to prevent their credit ratings or their stock value from falling.
That is why the VIP areas now need a VIP of the VIP: so that the higher classes can be distinguished from the rest. Someone from the middle class can save up or go into debt for a year to buy a VIP ticket, but that someone could never arrive to a Formula 1 in a helicopter.
We think that albeit superficially it would seem that the consumption of similar experiences would bring us closer to a position of equality, ultimately these differences will be increasingly stressed.
Those of us that have less will end up accumulating more debt in order to access Premium things, which is why the truly wealthy will seek to distinguish themselves through what is really exclusive. It remains to be seen if it will still be anchored in experiences (whether they are ones that can be shown off, or on the contrary discreet experiences which can be decoded by very few) or in possessions that can place them close to being “techno-human”, with increasingly sophisticated gadgets which will allow them to perform better than the rest of humanity.
(1) Byung-Chul Han (2014) Psicopolítica. Herder
(2) Nielsen (2015) Qué pasa con el mercado de productos Premium en México (what is happening with the Premium product market in Mexico) http://www.nielsen.com/mx/es/insights/reports/2015/Que-pasa-con-el-mercado-de-productos-premium-en-mexico.html
(3) Galeano, Eduardo (2015) Patas Arriba: La escuela del mundo del revés.(Topsy turvy: The school of the up side down school) Siglo Veintiuno Editores