Answer the following questions (in numbered format) for Roberts’ “The Treadmill of Consumption”1. What is the author’s primary argument? Can you identify a thesis statement or is the thesis implied?2. What key terms are fundamental to that argument? Choose two words you are unfamiliar with and look up their meaning.3. What evidence does the author provide to support the argument? Is it relevant and specific? Does the author cite reliable authoritative sources?4. What underlying assumptions shape the author’s position (could be assumptions about peoples’ desires, buying habits, or anything you seem to notice)? Does the author consider counterarguments?5.Who is the intended readership, and do you think it affects the author’s reasoning or evidence?
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JAMES A. ROBERTS
The Treadmill of Consumption
Once, “keeping up with the Joneses” was a neighborhood affair; now, thanks to modern
mass media, it’s a matter of “keeping up with the Kardashians” — that is, competing
with the rich and famous in a never-ending spiral of status consumption. James A.
Roberts’s analysis of the compulsion to signify “social power through conspicuous
consumption” is a sobering read for anyone who has ever gone into debt just to have a
snazzier cell phone, like GoldVish’s million-dollar white-gold and diamond offering. A
professor of marketing at Baylor University, Roberts is the author of Shiny Objects: Why
We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy (2011), from
which this selection is taken.
Using material possessions to exhibit status is commonplace in today’s consumer culture.
We may not know our neighbors, but we feel compelled to make sure they know that we’re
people of value. As humans we rely on visual cues such as material possessions to convey
our status to others and to ascertain the status of people we don’t know. The quest for status
symbols influences both kids and adults, although the objects we choose to display may
differ with age. (Cell phones may be an exception that spans all age groups.)
For young people, cell phones are seen as necessities, not luxuries. A teen or even
preteen without a cell phone feels set apart, on the outside looking in. This is in part because
cell phones are a way to stay tightly connected with others (text messaging “blind,” with
cell phone in the pocket, is one of my favorites); however, cell phones are also important
fashion statements and social props. For young people, cell phones are second only to cars
as symbols of independence. Many teens see cell phones as an extension of their personality,
and phone manufacturers and service providers, knowing this, give them many options to
express their inner selves — ways to personalize their ringtone, change their “wallpaper,”
and customize their “skin,” for example, as well as add many apps and accessories.
Adults, especially men, are also susceptible to the status appeal of cell phones.
Researchers in the United Kingdom studied the use of cell phones after reading newspaper
stories about nightclubs in South America that required patrons to check their phones at the
door. Club managers found, the stories reported, that many checked phones were props —
not working cell phones. To learn more about whether and how people were using their
cell phones as social props, the researchers studied cell phone use in upscale pubs in the
UK. What they found is most interesting: men and women used their cell phones in
different manners. While women would leave their phone in their purse until they needed
it, men were more likely to take their phone out of their pocket or briefcase and place it on
the counter or table in view of all. Furthermore, like peacocks strutting with their plumage
in full display to attract a mate, men spent more time tinkering with and displaying their
phone when the number of men relative to women in the pub increased.
As long as consumers attempt to signal their social power through conspicuous
consumption, the levels required to make a visible statement of power will continue to rise.
If person A buys a new car, person B has to buy a better car to compete; and then person A
has to buy a boat as well — and so on. But once basic needs are met there’s no additional
happiness with additional purchases. The process of moving ahead materially without any
real gain in satisfaction is often called “the treadmill of consumption.” That treadmill is a
barrier to raising your level of happiness, because it causes you to quickly adapt to good
things by taking them for granted.
Research has shown that humans are very flexible. We tend to get used to new
circumstances in our lives — including financial circumstances, both good and bad — and
we make such mental shifts quickly. Economic gains or losses do give us pleasure or pain,
but the effects wear off quickly. When our situation improves, having more money or
possessions almost instantaneously becomes the new “normal.” As our store of material
possessions grows, so do our expectations.
Many researchers have likened this process to drug addiction, where the addict
continually needs more and more of the drug of choice to achieve an equivalent “high.”
This means that acquiring more possessions doesn’t take us any closer to happiness; it just
speeds up the treadmill. I regret to say that there is a great deal of evidence supporting the
existence — and potential harm — of the treadmill of consumption.
If the treadmill didn’t exist, people with more possessions would be happier than those
“less fortunate” souls who own less. But this simply isn’t the case. The “less fortunate” are,
for the most part, just as happy as those with more stuff. Big purchases and the piling up
of material possessions hold little sway over happiness. Probably the most discouraging
proof for this statement can be found in the study of lottery winners. An integral component
of the shiny-objects ethos is quick riches. What better way to catapult yourself past your
neighbors than to strike it rich with the lottery, right? If you foresee nothing but a lifetime
of fun and sun for lottery winners, you’re wrong. A study of twenty winners found that they
were no happier a few years after their good fortune; in fact, some were even less happy
than before they bought their winning ticket. If the lottery can’t pull us out of our current
torpor, what hope is there for a raise at work, a flat-screen (plasma) television, an iPhone,
or a new car (surely the new Lexus would be an exception)?
Consuming for Status
One important reason that consumers buy products is to satisfy social needs. Many of us
spend a large proportion of our disposable income on so-called status items, and this trend
is on the rise as we continue to embrace the shiny-objects ethos. “Wait a minute,” some of
you might be saying; “hasn’t the current economic crisis stemmed the tide of status
consumption?” My response to that question is that it never has in the past. Sure, we might
mind our financial p’s and q’s during the actual crisis, but we have always returned to our
profligate ways once we’ve navigated our way through the economic doldrums.
You need look no further back than the early 2000s, when the Internet bubble burst
and the stock market tanked. It wasn’t long until our spending picked up again, and with a
renewed vengeance. That’s precisely what brought us where we are today. Similar
economic corrections in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s produced the same results: we tightened
our financial belts only to loosen them when the clouds receded. It’s really a lot like yo-yo
dieting. Each time after we fall off the financial wagon we’re a little worse off than the
time before. Apparently as consumers we tend to suffer from short-term memory loss!
Pursuing materialistic ideals is a competitive and comparative process — hence the
expression “keeping up with the Joneses.” And today, with daily twenty-four/seven media
coverage of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, our competition is no longer limited to
our neighborhood. Bill and Melinda Gates and the sultan of Brunei have replaced Joe and
Irma down the street as our points of reference. To achieve a position of social power or
status, one must exceed this expanding community norm. Even the superrich aren’t happy.
There’s always someone with a bigger home or fancier yacht — or, heaven forbid, a prettier
wife. Yes, we even use other humans as chattel in our attempt to secure our position in the
social hierarchy! The result of all this social posturing is no end to our wants and little
improvement in our satisfaction, despite an ever-increasing consumption of goods. And
Madison Avenue knows it: after price, status is the principal theme of most advertising.
Status consumption has been defined as “the motivational process by which
individuals strive to improve their social standing through conspicuous consumption of
consumer products that confer or symbolize status to the individual and to surrounding
significant others.” It is our attempt as consumers to gain the respect, consideration, and
envy from those around us. Status consumption is the heart and soul of the consumer
culture, which revolves around our attempts to signal our comparative degree of social
power through conspicuous consumption. If you don’t buy into status consumption
yourself, you certainly know people who do. They go by many names, but “social climbers”
and “status seekers” will do for now. Climbers and seekers work to surround themselves
with visible evidence of the superior rank they claim or aspire to. Most of us, to some
degree, are concerned with our social status, and we try to make sure others are aware of it
Status consumption began in the United States as a way for members of the upper crust
to flaunt their wealth to each other. Over the past century the practice has trickled down to
the lower rungs of the economic ladder. People are willing to go into debt to buy certain
products and brands — let’s say a $2,500 Jimmy Choo handbag — because these status
symbols represent power in our consumer culture. Cars, for example, are an expensive but
easy way to tell the world you’ve made it; there’s no mistaking which are the most
expensive. The problem is that nearly everyone else is upgrading to the latest model as well,
so no real increase in status occurs — another example of the treadmill of consumption.
Fortunately — note the irony there — our consumer culture, with its vast array of products,
allows us many other opportunities to confer status upon ourselves. Media mogul Ted
Turner put it this way: “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.”
Can You Hear Me Now?
I thought I had found the ultimate status symbol when I came across Motorola’s new
$2,000 Aura cell phone. The avant-garde Aura sports 700-plus individual components, a
stainless-steel housing, and a front plate that takes the manufacturer a month to create.
Add to this list the world’s first handset with a circular display (great color and
resolution!), a sixty-two-carat sapphire crystal lens, a multimedia player, stereo
Bluetooth, and much, much more.
My amazement over Motorola’s Aura was short-lived, however. I lost interest when I
heard about the $1 million — yes, $1 million — cell phone from GoldVish (a Swiss
company). The phone is made of eighteen-carat white gold and is covered with diamonds.
Bluetooth? Of course. How about a two-gigabyte memory, eight-megapixel camera,
MP3 player, worldwide FM radio, and e-mail access? Not to worry if a million is a bit
rich for you: GoldVish has made available several other phones for around $25,000 —
no doubt delivered in plain brown-paper packaging to avoid any embarrassment
associated with buying a cheaper model.
Status consumers are willing to pay premium prices for products that are perceived to
convey status and prestige. A high-end Patek Philippe watch is a good example of a product
that is — and is blatantly marketed as — a quintessential status symbol. One of Patek’s
advertising slogans is, “You never really own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for
the next generation.” Trust me; you’re buying it for yourself. Despite the manufacturer’s
claims to the contrary, a Patek Philippe does not keep better time than the myriad of cheaper
alternatives on the market; on the contrary, it serves primarily as an unambiguous symbol
of status. To many people, owning a Patek signals that you’ve made it. To me, however, it
sends the signal that you’ve forgone a golden opportunity to do good with the money spent
so lavishly on a very expensive watch. It’s a zero-sum game no matter how much money
And, of course, Patek Philippe watches are only one of a myriad of examples I could use
to document our preoccupation with status consumption. What about Lucky Jeans, bling
(it’s shiny), Hummer automobiles (maybe one of the more blatant cries for help), iPhones,
fifty-two-inch plasma TVs, $3,000 Chihuahua lap dogs (think Paris Hilton), McMansions,
expensive rims for your car tires, anything couture, Gulfstream jets, Abercrombie & Fitch
and Hollister clothes (for teens and preteens) — even drinking water! No consumer product
category has been left untouched. Even the most banal, everyday products have been
branded — think $2,000 fountain pens.
Today, status is conveyed more often through ownership of status products than through
personal, occupational, or family reputation. This is particularly true in large, impersonal
metropolitan areas, where people can no longer depend on their behavior or reputation to
convey their status and position in society.
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