Showy spending

by Henry on January 19, 2007

Becks at Unfogged and Scott Lemieux both wonder why the hell the New York Times publishes articles like this.

FOR some people, the most elusive aspect of owning a vacation home that sits beyond big-city borders isn’t finding the time to enjoy it. It’s finding someone to service the deluxe appliances inside.

“We called Viking over the holidays every year,” Rosemary Devlin said of her half-decade-long (and mostly futile) efforts to schedule manufacturer service for her mutinous dishwasher. The appliance was installed along with a suite of Viking cousins when Ms. Devlin and her husband, Fay, whose main house is about 20 miles north of Manhattan in Irvington, N.Y., built their six-bedroom ski house on Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vt.

The Financial Times (which has its biases, but is still in my opinion the best newspaper out there), has an entire bloody weekend supplement devoted to this kind of stuff, with the classy title How To Spend It. While a fair number of its readers are presumably City types who can afford the pieds-a-terres and fancy toys lovingly detailed in its pages, I would imagine that most of its readers aren’t. Someone who I was chatting to about this recently suggested that it’s an aspirational thing; while most of its readers can’t afford this stuff, they’d like to be able to, and are more likely to buy a newspaper that allows them at least to daydream about it. Or perhaps the marketing types think that readers would prefer to be addressed as if they were in a position to “Spend It” even when they aren’t. Any other plausible explanations?

{ 46 comments }

1

Rob 01.19.07 at 3:31 pm

Its really driven by ad sales. If you want to reach the uberwealthy, you need to go where they read. So even if they make up a tiny part of the audience for the NYT, the Financial Times and the WSJ (lots of ads for personal jets there as well)its worth paying for that space because they are likely to read those papers. So it then behooves these papers to further increase the amount of uberwealthy that turn to them for news, so you get articles dealing with the terrible lament of getting your $2500 dishwasher that you use for 6 weeks serviced.

2

JRoth 01.19.07 at 3:36 pm

rob beat me by 3 minutes. I’m always surprised at the jewelry, etc. ads in the print edition of the Times.

3

Matt Weiner 01.19.07 at 3:38 pm

I wonder if daydreaming can be separated from aspiration here. I sometimes like to read about foods that I know I’ll never be eating, just because they sound yummy — that’s a lot of the appeal of Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy.

4

Matt 01.19.07 at 3:43 pm

I’d be a bit surprised if these articles were not themselves, in actuality, paid advertisements from at least some of the companies. I know that’s not supposed to happen but I’d be shocked if it doesn’t. (I think something similar explains why there are so many articles about movies, amusement parks, etc. in news magazines like Newsweek- part of what these companies pay for, I strongly suspect, when they buy advertising is not just a print add but a certain number of ‘news’ articles on these subjects. This is explicitly so in women’s magazines and I’d be quite surprised if it’s not so here, too.)

5

dearieme 01.19.07 at 3:49 pm

They’re secret marxists stiil hoping to foment a revolution?

6

tps12 01.19.07 at 3:53 pm

Or if not paid advertisements, perhaps just the result of good PR: http://www.paulgraham.com/submarine.html

7

Ken Houghton 01.19.07 at 3:54 pm

It reassures the rest of us that, given that we also buy and have serviced those $2,500 dishwashers, we live in the right place, because in flyover/second-home territory, there are not the skilled technicians there are in the Irvingtons of the area.

/sarcasm with more than a grain of truth

8

weoe 01.19.07 at 4:10 pm

Rob has it right, of course. But there is another point, which is that those who are unable to actually participate in the culture of conspicuous consumption themselves (that is, the average NYT or FT reader) are exactly the ones who need a precis of this sort of consumption behavior, to avoid seeming like a hopeless rube. (Imagine you are meeting up with your overly successful college roommate, or you and your friend are talking about the friend’s wealthy boss, or…) It occurs to me that this is the exact complement to series of stories that the NYT will occasionally run about how much life sucks for the poor in this country. Surely no one who reads the NYT has gone toothless from poor dental care, and that it precisely why it is useful to read that sort of article.

9

A-ro 01.19.07 at 4:20 pm

We have to put up with that kind of content because it allows the FT to skew rich in its readership, pumping up ad revenues (and thereby subsidizing our consumption of the content).

Okay, I just made that up, but it sounds kinda plausible, no?

10

Kieran Healy 01.19.07 at 4:29 pm

Not Marx. Veblen.

11

P O'Neill 01.19.07 at 4:30 pm

I agree with Matt. It gives the reporters who do this stuff the giddy ride of “status-income disequilibrium” (as Bobo would say) for the couple of days that they’re writing it. Back to the plebs Monday-Thursday until the next How to Spend It/Escapes/Weekend Journal piece is due.

12

Peter 01.19.07 at 5:11 pm

I see tps12 beat me with the link I was about to post.

I also think this is somewhat of a “lifesytles of the rich and famous” type enterprise. To satisfy some of our voyeuristic impulses, shows like that, or articles like you’ve mentioned, scratch that itch to satify our desires to know what the other side lives like.

Further, I suspect some of these articles fuels that itch that makes 20% of the US think that they are in the top 1%. So to keep the ad campaign going to keep the dead millionaire tax down, well, folks have to keep making it seem that millionaires are just like the folks next door.

13

sara 01.19.07 at 5:36 pm

Arrivistes. Next they’ll whine about how Godiva chocolates (or the notorious Noka) don’t deliver.

The really posh live on remote islands in log cabins where they do their dishes by hand. They don’t have dishwashers or central heating. Or telephones.

14

dsquared 01.19.07 at 6:00 pm

Rob is indeed correct and the point could be summarised by suggesting that the majority of readers of the weekend FT, can, in the opinion of the advertising department of the FT, fuck off.

Oddly enough, when Mr John Lloyd is quoted in the press as a serious commenter on such subjects as why Tony Blair is a misunderstood political genius, or why it is just fine for journalists to take stipends from Hobsbawm Macauley’s “Institute of Positive Public Relations” (or whatever it’s called), he is always referred to as “the editor of the FT magazine”, rather than “the editor of ‘How To Spend It'”. I think this is rather a shame.

15

Ajax 01.19.07 at 6:05 pm

Dearieme (comment #5) may be correct. A surprisingly large number of FT journalists used also to write for “Marxism Today”. I was never sure which direction was the entryism (or was it both?)

16

Henry 01.19.07 at 6:08 pm

The title of the post is actually a joke about Veblen obscure to all but myself. I once had to do some rescue work on an Italian book of economic sociology that had been translated rather badly into English. The section on Veblen talked about conspicuous consumption of course, which the Italian author had rendered as _sprecolo vistoso_, and had been rendered back into English by the translator as “showy spending” (which I thought was actually quite good and reative).

17

Madison Guy 01.19.07 at 6:42 pm

Some other kinds of luxury products: How the fashion world gets along without much IP rights enforcement, along with a question for Steve Jobs. If you’re going to market your products like fashion accessories, why shouldn’t the fashion industry’s less stringent approach to IP?

18

dave heasman 01.19.07 at 7:10 pm

Daniel, I don’t think Lloyd edits the FT mag any more.
He’s patently a shit, and according to you a corrupt one, too, but he made that magazine into a must-read for me at least.

19

Hasan Jafri 01.19.07 at 7:15 pm

This is one more illustration of how the American print newspaper is dying. With the average reader’s age pushing close to sixty, the NYT’s demographic dictates foo-foo stories aimed at older, richer readers. Editors used to kill stuff like this, but the paper now has nightmares about losing its core readers: old people.

For daily newspapers, the ground is going to slip. That just happened at Time, Inc., triggering layoffs at People, which Time owns, and putting the future of the newsmagazine in question. If you read the New York Times these days it’s very apparent the paper is trying hard not to alienate the one solid demographic group it has left.

20

s.e. 01.19.07 at 9:01 pm

I guess no one here actually reads the Times, except maybe on the web. Go through all the sections and see how it’s constructed. Look over the style section, the house and home section and all he other crap. Look at the damn magazine, look at the wedding announcements, look at the ads..

And of course the institutional culture of the US assumes that no one wants to be where they are. Just read Brad DeLong. Most of the time he writes about expensive household gadgets.

This post is silly.

21

Jake 01.19.07 at 9:05 pm

If you look at “Road and Track”, which is probably “the” general-interest car magazine in the US, sold in supermarkets and drug stores around the country, it’s hard to find an issue that doesn’t review at least one car made by Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche. Part of this might be catering to the rich part of their readership, but I think the vast majority is what is descirbed above as “aspirational”, even if the people doing the reading don’t think of it that way.

Expensive cars are cool (if unreliable), and if you don’t have the money to actually buy one, you can at least read about it and imagine yourself driving one. Same with fancy vacations and expensive houses and restaraunts, I assume.

22

Tyrone Slothrop 01.19.07 at 9:57 pm

Rob beat me by six and a half hours.

23

a 01.19.07 at 10:33 pm

I presume “classy” to describe the title “How to Spend It” is sarcastic, because for the life of me, I don’t see any classiness lurking in it.

24

Lance Knobel 01.19.07 at 10:37 pm

How to Spend It produces vast ad revenues for the FT, while the FT Magazine is a decidedly marginal venture. To give John Lloyd his due, he was never editor of How to Spend It. That’s an entirely separate department.

As a lover of the FT and loather of How to Spend It, the puzzle to me is why the FT’s usually sceptical, critical eye is totally absent in the glossy supplement. If you’re going to write about $60,000 watches it should be possible to do it in a critical fashion. Then again, the FT did provide house room for the execrable Tyler Brule until recently.

25

Joel Turnipseed 01.19.07 at 11:23 pm

…but: someone should point out that there are millions of Americans who can afford such things. And what? About two million or so subscribe to the NYT/WSJ… and far fewer to FT?

So, while it’s true that many readers can’t afford such things… many (a large chunk, maybe) can–especially if you’re only looking for them to afford a slice of the advertised goods (one person’s Viking stove is another person’s fishing trip in Patagonia is another person’s Breitling).

26

Joel Turnipseed 01.19.07 at 11:35 pm

On a completely separate note–but along sames lines–I was talking to a bookseller friend of mine today, someone I’ve been buying from (and occasionally selling to) for a couple decades now & asked her: “How many people in the Twin Cities have a library like mine?” She knows its make-up: 5,000 or so volumes, split about 1,000 modern fiction, 1,000 poetry, 1,000 history, and 2,000 among various academic disciplines (since she’s sold me a half to a third of them). Her answer: “More than I could buy in my lifetime.”

I was astonished at first (“What!? You mean I put all this together and I’m run of the mill?!“), but then thought about it: in a metro area of 2 and a half million, one of the nation’s wealthiest and best-educated at that, if I’m one in a hundred there are 25,000 of me… one in a thousand and there are still 2,500.

But isn’t just this part of the disorientation of mass society? It’s easy to lose track of the fact that though we might be special among our own little groups/circles… there are actually huge numbers of such circles–and that a special person has to be pretty damned rare not to be, in fact, a rather common type in absolute terms.

27

Henry 01.20.07 at 2:22 am

I hadn’t noticed that Tyler had departed – he was quite appalling (‘Miss Moneypenny’ tried to give him a “run for his money”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/64e71158-a180-11db-8bc1-0000779e2340.html last week with her plaintive cry that _they don’t serve Krug in first class any more_, but she isn’t in the same league. Anyone know what the story is??

28

derrida derider 01.20.07 at 2:56 am

Yep, advertisers target the median dollar, not the median reader. and the supplements are for the advertisers.

29

Andrew W. 01.20.07 at 8:29 am

Tyler Brûlé left FT to go start an upscale magazine called Monocle, due out in February.

For reasons known only to myself, I can’t stand the “How To Spend It” section, but I always enjoyed Brûlé’s Fast Lane column.

30

dsquared 01.20.07 at 8:30 am

just to clarify: I don’t think it was actually corrupt of John Lloyd to take the PR shilling there, but it (and a lot of the self-justificatory crap he came out with when he was doing it) certainly damaged his credibility with me.

31

jim 01.20.07 at 9:39 am

Sara (at #13) has part of the answer. One of the social functions of the NYT is to integrate the _nouveau riche_.

Manhattan is awash with money. There are enough people able to stick out their hands and grab some that there’s a fresh supply of _nouveaux riches_ each year. They are unsure of themselves. One of the most respected, old-money couples in their building summers in Maine in a camp that hasn’t changed much since the woman’s great-grandfather built it with his own two hands. They’ve read Veblen. At Yale. True, the most important activity was making the contacts that got them this investment banking gig, but they had to keep their grades up and they dutifully cracked all the books. Are people going to laugh at them if they conspicuously consume?

The NYT reassures them. It shows them people just like themselves spending gloriously, copiously, uselessly, conspicuously. “Go thou and do likewise.”

32

dearieme 01.20.07 at 11:34 am

Have it your own way, Kieran. Groucho Veblen it is.

33

nick s 01.20.07 at 1:12 pm

Well, perhaps this isn’t the intention, but it’s a very good record of who’ll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes. [/davespart]

34

Alex 01.20.07 at 2:39 pm

Personally, I consider this kind of supplement a form of tax – I’m paying by putting up with it for the newspaper that comes with it. Technological progress in DTP and offset printing made it possible to run a lot of high gloss colour pagination, just as display ad rates in the paper began sinking. Simple answer – build something just for high-end advertisers.

35

William 01.20.07 at 4:15 pm

“How to Spend It” has been appearing with increasing frequency in recent months, and since it has been a record bonus season on Wall Street and the City, it is no doubt reaching a very receptive audience among core FT readers.

36

Doug 01.20.07 at 5:54 pm

There’s been a reasonable amount of snark, irony and other deflecting elements in How To Spend It most times that I’ve picked it up. Considering that the FT is largely about How To Get It, the counterpoint doesn’t strike me as out of character.

37

anonymous 01.20.07 at 10:45 pm

Joel T:

Surely, when you visit others in your circle
you notice a distinct lack of books on their
shelves.

But what seems to bother people the most are multiple titles on a single subject.

One time a party guest, who had been spending
time in my library, asked me why I needed to
have 6 books with the title “The Battle of
Britain”?

I countered with “What? Didn’t you notice the
63 books I have on the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’?”

5,000 seems like a lot of titles. We have
557 in our dining room alone. When she asked,
I counted them with my neice over the holidays.

Don’t even get me started on my wife’s cook book
collection. How many editions of the “Joy of
Cooking” can one person possible need?

“He who dies with the most books wins”.
– anon

38

Tumbril 01.21.07 at 1:36 am

As an occasional contributor to the FT’s HTSI, I am obviously tarred. It is not a fantasy product but the most credible place for conspicuous consumers to compare and contrast everything from Amanresorts to Goyard over LVMH. Luxury producers are desparate to be in it because it is read by more high earners than any other, which is why the ad revenues are booming. The Economist is about to launch something along these lines too – it is hardly rocket science that if you have huge numbers of wealthy consumers reading your product, it makes it more desirable from a rev enue point of view. If it repells you, then chuck it out or turn it into biomass or whatever floats your boat – just don’t eternally agonise about the shallowness of society, And John Lloyd NEVER edited HTSPI, he was once in charge of the estimable FT Mag which is like a cross between Harpers and the NYT Mag.

39

abb1 01.21.07 at 5:07 am

To a newspaper, advertisers are its customers and the readers are the product, like fish to a fisherman. You guys are like fish discussing quality of the bait.

40

brooksfoe 01.21.07 at 9:53 am

With regard to Rob’s original point about ad-driven coverage: it doesn’t matter so much whether ridiculously wealthy people ACTUALLY read these articles. What matters is that when the NYT’s ad-sales people go to advertisers, they can show them an entire section of the paper that APPEARS to appeal to uberwealthy people — and, indeed, to talk directly about Product, rather than trying to hook in through the usually related but once-removed subject of Money.

41

Alex 01.21.07 at 4:07 pm

35: “How to Spend It” has been appearing with increasing frequency in recent months,

Yes, the magazine in the Saturday edition has reached a frequency of almost once a week!

42

john burke 01.22.07 at 9:10 am

HTSI is driven by advertising revenue and nothing else matters. The FT actually stopped running it a few years back mistakenly thinking it would help it cut costs if it did away with something obviously so expensive to produce but they saw the (advertising) light after about twelve months.

HTSI’s content is not completely given over to the uber-wealthy. Jonathan Margolis’ Technopolis page is certainly full of pricey goodies but they are there only because they are at the cutting edge tech-wise. Plus he always has one (cheap) novelty item per month, sorry, edition. Where else would you have read about the “Guinness Surger”? I remember reading that it was available on promotion at Tesco (not something you see in HTSI too often) but only in certain branches, presumably the very select ones…

http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/gadgets/guinness-surger-160488.php

43

99 01.22.07 at 11:23 am

Viking? I assume they can’t find decent servicing because they bought such mediocre equipment.

Aspirational brand identity is the cornerstone of middle class existence (along with its corollary — anxiety about brand identity). There are versions of it in academic circles, but y’all would pshaw me if I tried to point some on them out.

The trend of median income earners buying appliances well outside of their purchasing power has increased sharply over the past 20 years.

Westinghouse introduced a line of $2,000 washer/dryer sets with the expectation that they would be targeting the $70-80K household demo. After a year, they ran the numbers and adjusted advertising down to target $40-50K households, since they were selling more there. The $80K households, presumably, were all about Miele and Bosch.

Consumer credit is a part. Another is the lack of clarity in communicating to people who haven’t been educated in the rudiments of class definition and personal economics that you can’t afford a $1,500 washer on a $45K income.

Popular television and media don’t address living within a median income, home ec isn’t really taught any more, so every grows up thinking they are, or can be like, the Huxtables. How often did the Cosby show take pains to note that they were likely in the top 1-5% of all households? Even Homer Simpson presumably draws an above median income.

And, here in NY, a disproportionate number of low (and high) level media employees are from the very families the cover. The notorious Jennifer 8. Lee gets most of her article leads (which are inevitably lifestyle oriented) by posting to her alumni board (Harvard).

College is becoming the training ground for conspicuous consumption and detachment from economic reality of America (talk to me all you want about unfair wage structures for adjuncts, but encouraging a bunch of 18 year olds that is is economically rational to spend $40,000 for a year of college is teaching them it’s okay to want a $1,500 washer the minute they graduate). Add to that the fact that the top tier colleges (which draw disproportionately from the upper classes) produce most of the media talent (a far cry from the working class, unionized newsrooms of mid century), it’s entirely understandable that this is as complex as their thinking gets. They don’t know anyone who has never replaced a broken appliance for years because it wasn’t economically feasible.

You see these people all day. Are you surprised this is how they turn out?

44

SamChevre 01.22.07 at 1:58 pm

I don’t know the FT well enough to say for sure, but another factor is that all luxury goods is “rich” but some luxury goods is not; you have both the aspirational factor, and the “one luxury” factor.

In other words, I read reviews of $100 a meal restaurants not because I plan to go somewhere costing that much (last meal I bought in a restaurant cost $15 for 2 of us), but because I’m an avid cook and often will try some combination of food and side dish that I read in a fancy restaurant review.

I also own a couple of tools that are the best you can buy, because I use them a lot. (A couple Estwing hammers, a really good chef’s knife, a set of Japanese waterstones.)

45

Western Dave 01.23.07 at 9:51 am

Dead on 99. B/c I run around with rich people (although I am not one myself), I’ve noticed that the fancier the kitchen the less likely it is to be used. My 4 burner stove top comes from Sears and is pretty dirty because it is used constantly. The GE oven and micro-halogen speed cooker are somewhat cleaner (the M-H btw, is the greatest thing ever for working parents). We looked at a sub-zero fridge and laughed. It holds les than a day’s supply of food. The Viking range is practically unusuable with conventional cookware b/c of all those btus. Copper pots only and who has time to clean those? Which leads to do Western Dave’s first law of cooking: The fancier the gear, the less likely the kitchen is ever used by the owners.

46

No Longer a Urinated State of America 01.23.07 at 2:36 pm

“A surprisingly large number of FT journalists used also to write for “Marxism Today”. I was never sure which direction was the entryism (or was it both?)”

The FT did recruit journalists who belonged to the CP.

The rationale is: back in the 1970s, there was a lot of industrial action in the UK, so having good reporting on labor & trade union issues was at a premium. Journalists who were also CP members had a better in with the shop steward movement (‘cos a lot of the shop stewards were CP, although more the Tankie types than your MT Eurocommies) and so produced better reporting. So most of the FT’s labor department were CP.

According to the CEO of a firm I once worked for (who, though originally a chemist, went into trade/journal editing), back when he was a Chapel Father [i.e. shop steward] at Reed Publishing, he was the only one he knew not a Trot or a Tankie.

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