Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Struggle to Consume

Readers of Sunday's NYT were--I speak from experience--surprised to confront a two-page in-your-face ad from Harley-Davidson  "We don't do fear.  Screw it. Let's Ride"--all wrapped in an American flag.

It's a rhetorically cunning strategy, tapping post-9/11 populist defiance to beef up the prospects of a luxury-market item as down-home as a Hummer.  What it says, among other things, is that consumerism won't go down without a fight, that--at least for the marketing and PR departments--it stands for Americanism, the death-defying, don't-bother-me freedom to buy.  Given that Harleys are already associated with denial and mid-life indulgence, partaking of the same cowboy self-image that brought us the financial crisis, it's probably not surprising that they would take this road. 

In the same vein, the NYT reports, the "first great song of the bailout era," John Rich's Shutting Detroit Down.  A bit more authentic, perhaps--a bit more grief, not quite so much swaggering denial--but no less attached to an image of consumer sovereignty.  There will need to be some mourning, some working-through and readjustment, before less consumption is not encoded as "lower standard of living," deprivation and a loss of freedom.  

 Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, long a critic of excessive consumption (he wrote Luxury Fever back in the 1990s) has a suggestive article in The American Prospect on what "post-consumer prosperity" might mean.  Sensible as it sounds, though, it will take a while--and quite a few cultural struggles--before it translates into common sense.

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