Hey Big Retailers! Let's Send Some Vanity Capital to Make Some Vanity Capital!
When Bank of America Merrill Lynch released its recent report on selfiesque spending it felt like a watershed moment akin to Tom Wolfe’s release of Bonfire of the Vanities. According to the report, “Vanity Capital: The global bull market in narcissism,” the developed nations (primarily) are spending $4.5 trillion on gear designed to make citizens feels cool, hot, visionary and fearless. Or something akin to that. In the hope that if they drive a Lincoln, they’ll finally enjoy jazz. See! Matthew McConaughey does. In any event, it’s more than the GDP of Germany. Some were shocked by all those trillions. I actually think it's low. Most of what we buy is an expression of self, at least in a consumer society.
While the BofA is probably the first financial institution to attempt to put a number on such expenditures and model the impact on the global economy, designers, manufacturers and marketers everywhere have long known the transformative promises of the right stuff. Retailers tragically have forgotten it.
How does the bank define such expenditures: Money spent in “the pursuit of, and the accumulation of, attributes and accessories to augment self-confidence by enhancing one’s appearance and prestige. It is self-actualization through self-improvement and self focus.” Let’s just hope BofA isn’t planning of serving as CFO to the charming Pope anytime soon.
It’s this desire for personal significance (Freud said it’s what we’re all really after, after all) that gets writ large and small in our world. Enough about your Brand, your features, your quality markers. What does my choice of you say about me?
The notion of distance closeness comes into play here. We have so many instruments of mass and personal communication, yet we still flail around trying to signal ourselves to ourselves and others through our choices of products and Brands. I’m a strict locavore! I understand single malt scotch! I have this year’s It Bag! My watch tells me I have an email! Before I was this, but now that I have X, I’m that!
The power of that transformation promise is magnetic and has us in its force field. If we could fully realize its alchemical (and price defying) potential within the retail setting the way Apple seems so effortlessly to do, we’d actually see that seemingly incredible $4.5 trillion escalate. As long as we’re flogging merchandise at deep, straining credulity discounts, we devalue the narcissistic joys of acquiring the next self-referential personality puzzle piece.