Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury

Overview

Luxury isn't just for the rich, says James B. Twitchell. Today you don't need a six-figure income to wear pashmina, drink a limited-edition coffee at Starbucks, or drive a Mercedes home to collapse on the couch in front of a flat-screen plasma TV. In Living It Up, sharp-eyed consumer anthropologist Twitchell takes a witty and insightful look at luxury — what it is, who defines it, and why we can't seem to get enough of it.
In recent years, says Twitchell, luxury spending has ...

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Overview

Luxury isn't just for the rich, says James B. Twitchell. Today you don't need a six-figure income to wear pashmina, drink a limited-edition coffee at Starbucks, or drive a Mercedes home to collapse on the couch in front of a flat-screen plasma TV. In Living It Up, sharp-eyed consumer anthropologist Twitchell takes a witty and insightful look at luxury — what it is, who defines it, and why we can't seem to get enough of it.
In recent years, says Twitchell, luxury spending has grown much faster than overall spending — and it continues to grow despite the economic recession. Luxury has become such a powerful marketing force that it cuts across every layer of society, spawning a magazine devoted to spas, cashmere bedspreads on sale at Kmart, and a dazzling array of bottled waters.
Twitchell says that the democratization of luxury has had a unifying effect on culture. Luxury items tell a story that we want to identify with, and more people than ever aspire to the story of Ralph Lauren's Polo or Patek Philippe. Shopping itself is no longer a chore but a transcendent experience in which we shop not so much for goods as for an identity.
Sharply observed and wickedly funny, Living It Up is a revealing and entertaining examination of why we are all part of the cult of luxury.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Janet Maslin The New York Times An engaging addition to the growing field of Luxe Lit.

BusinessWeek Here's a book for people who like their airline tickets first class and their champagne vintage.

Publishers Weekly
As the author of works on advertising, materialism and modern culture, University of Florida professor Twitchell should have been the most immune to acquisitive desire while doing research in posh Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue stores. That he was momentarily struck with passion by a Ralph Lauren tie not only demonstrates his humanity, but also underlines one of his theses: no one is above a bit of luxury lust. The reason for this, he says, is, "We understand each other not by sharing religion, politics, or ideas. We share branded things. We speak the Esperanto of advertising, luxe populi." These are sentiments voiced by many who study consumer culture, but Twitchell addresses conspicuous consumption in a new way, free of the superior tone often adopted by his academic peers. He embarks on a course of fieldwork that is both absurdist and charming, as he chats up Fendi salespeople and stands slack-jawed in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. With the research done, but the tie unbought, he comes away with insights about the American quest for luxury products and provides a history of such yearning: "The balderdash of cloistered academics aside, human beings did not suddenly become materialistic. We have always been desirous of things." Many of those things, in the recent past and definitely in the present, have been imbued with an aura of opulence and indulgence, Twitchell posits, leading to a kind of emotional satisfaction through shopping, especially for items outside one's budget. With its intelligence and wit, Twitchell's exploration of consumerism belongs in every shopping bag. (Apr.) Forecast: Ad execs, sociologists, market analysts, spending-conscious Mercedes drivers and others will delight in Twitchell's book. It's funnier than Robert H. Frank's Luxury Fever (1999) and less pretentious than Juliet B. Schor's The Overspent American (1998). Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Twitchell's sprightly analysis looks at the democratization of luxury. Twitchell (English and advertising, U. of Florida) writes: "How ironic that materialism may be doing the work of idealism. Someone buying a Gucci-fied Volvo in Japan may well have more in common with his counterpart in Berlin, in Toronto, in Johannesburg than he has with his own next-door neighbor precisely because of what he is buying. ... Others may pass judgment on this phenomenon, many may be horrified by the waste and redundance, but it is why so many of us all over the world are becoming part of what, for lack of a better phrase, is a mass class of upscale consumption. We understand each other not by sharing religion, politics, or ideas. We share branded things. We speak the esperanto of advertising, luxe populi." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743245067
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/24/2003
  • Edition description: First Simon & Schuster Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,471,490
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

James B. Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books on English literature, culture, marketing, and advertising, most recently Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great prince who, on being informed that the country had no bread, replied, "Let them eat cake." — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions

Well, okay, so Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." When Rousseau wrote these words, Marie was just eleven years old and living in Austria. But we know the words, and we like having her say them. She was a luxury junkie whose out-of-control spending grated on the poor and unfortunate French people. Americans especially like the story that, when she was told by an official that the people were angry because they had no bread, she responded, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche." We fought a revolution to separate ourselves from exactly that kind of upper-crust insensitivity. She got her just deserts.

Now, however, two hundred years later, cake has become one of our favorite foods, part of the fifth food group: totally unnecessary luxury. And the great American revolution that is sweeping the world markets is how to get more and more of exactly those things that Marie also enjoyed. This is a revolution not of necessities but of wants. In fact, getting to cake has become one of the central unifying concerns of people around the globe. And one of the most disruptive.

I was thinking of Marie recently because I was invited to New York City to consult with an advertising agency. The agency folks were assembling a video presentation on how well they understood how to sell luxury products. The multinational agency that hired me was trying to convince its client, Volvo, that the agency could reposition an upscale version of the sensible Swedish car as a luxury product. Ford had recently bought Volvo and was trying to brand it as a luxury automobile, to move it to where the profits are, from entrée to dessert.

My job, for which I was paid the equivalent of teaching many, many hours of Wordsworth, was to help the agency staff think about how to do it — not how to compose the ad but how to convince Ford that language and image could make Volvo sumptuous. What I thought was interesting, and what makes me think the subject is so central to our time, is that the agency people never seemed to question their ability to transform this pumpernickel of a car into a brioche. Sure, they seemed to say, we can do it. That's our job — piece of cake.

I asked my inquisitors — a roomful of late twentysomethings in the research department — does everything have to be luxurious? Aren't there enough luxury cars? From their horrified looks I realized that this was not an appropriate question. Volvo was going to be covered with frosting even though their slogan, "Luxury Inspired by Life," was, I thought, self-evidently ridiculous. Okay, I said, I'll help.

At one level, what the agency was doing is one of the central concerns of our commercial times. It was attempting to push a product up into a hitherto out-of-reach category: to make it a luxury object, an object of yearning, a badge of arrival. It is exactly this endeavor in any number of categories, in any number of markets all over the world, that seems to be linking us as One Nation Under Luxury.

Consuming cake, complete with its advertising, may in fact be doing what starry-eyed one-worlders have always dreamed of. It may be shrinking the world. How ironic that materialism may doing the work of idealism. Someone buying a Gucci-fied Volvo in Japan may well have more in common with his counterpart in Berlin, in Toronto, in Johannesburg than he has with his own next-door neighbor precisely because of what he is buying. Prada, the Italian fashion concern, designs its store windows in Milan and then sends that precise image to all its worldwide stores. A recent window treatment was simply called "Advertising Campaign."

Luxury spending in the United States has been growing more than four times as fast as overall spending, and the rest of the West is not far behind. And this spending is being done by younger and younger consumers. Take a walk up Fifth Avenue in New York; at 58th, cross over and continue up Madison. You'll see what I mean about who is swarming through these stores. One of the most startling aspects of seeing the refugees streaming from Kosovo was the number of adolescents dressed in Adidas, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger clothing. Others may pass judgment on this phenomenon, many may be horrified by the waste and redundancy, but it is why so many of us all over the world are becoming part of what, for lack of a better phrase, is a mass class of upscale consumption. We understand each other not by sharing religion, politics, or ideas. We share branded things. We speak the Esperanto of advertising, luxe populi. Who knows? Perhaps we enter the global village by having dessert. To some people this is literally terrifying.

In the first part of this book I concentrate on some universally known things — I call them opuluxe objects — because the central movement in worldwide marketing since the 1980s has been to move more and more objects up into luxury brands. Think Prada, Montblanc, Mercedes, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Evian, Starbucks, Rodeo Drive, Lexus, and the like. It's what Martha Stewart is doing at Kmart and why Shaft, the Harlem private eye of the early 1970s, is now wearing Armani. So many products are claiming luxury status that the credibility of the category is strained. Even poor De Beers seems flummoxed.

In the second part of this book I move to where luxury forms a coherent social pattern, a cake baked, if you will, by an industry. The industry is gambling, or gaming, as it is called in Las Vegas. Because the games are essentially the same, the frosting is what counts. What can you build over a collection of slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables that will draw a huge crowd from all over the world? If you've been to Vegas recently, you know. You've seen the confections of opuluxe, the Bellagio and Venetian hotels and their waiting lists of eager attendees. These misnamed "hotels" are essentially self-contained city-states of sensational luxury, which may well presage the future of luxury not as objects but as linked experiences.

In fact, as I will argue, getting to these sensations may show the developing religious nature of modern luxury. For many shoppers consumption mimics epiphany, and luxury shopping becomes an almost transcendental experience. In other words, to mangle the analogy for the last time, for many millions of people all around the world the cake of luxury is becoming the wafer of presumed salvation. But before we get to this frightening consideration, let's back up a bit.

Copyright © 2002 by James B. Twitchell

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Table of Contents

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INTRODUCTION

1. Over the Top

Americans in the Lap of Luxury 

2. The Social Construction of Luxury

A Taxonomy of Taste

3. Let's Go Shopping

The Streets of Material Dreams 

4. Where Opuluxe Is Made and Who Makes It

LVMH and Condé Nast

5. How Luxury Becomes Necessity

The Work of Advertising

6. From Shirts to Tulips

A Musing on Luxury

7. Viva Las Vegas!

A Strip of Luxury

8. Still Learning from Las Vegas

How Luxury Is Turning Religious

Conclusion

A (Mild) Defense of Luxury

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

INDEX

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