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Stuffocation – a marketing man’s moral dilemma

Surprised woman looking at multiple purchases
Surprised woman looking at multiple purchases in colorful shopping bags at home

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of ‘Stuffocation’ but I first came across it in 2015 whilst hearing it discussed on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans breakfast show. Mr Evans was interviewing James Wallman, the author of a book with the same title.  James Wallman’s view and I suspect the view of quite a few people, lies in the fundamental question, what exactly are our little lives all about? We live, work, breathe and die on this planet and yet through our work we are driven to buy material things that make us feel happy, temporarily at least. That desire to do better than our neighbours or our friends and to generate pride amongst our family. That belief that if we are seen to surround ourselves with material things then we will have won, and that’s what most of us seem to do; working harder to buy more ‘stuff’ that we can show off to the ‘entire world’.

I wrote a blog many months ago (Feb 2014) titled ‘The Have’s and the Have Yachts’ which referenced a purchasing process identified by its founder Thorstein Veblen. Veblen noted that to truly win this ‘war’ those who had unlimited funds would spend exorbitant amounts of money on ‘prestigious’ goods: Rolex watches, Rolls Royce motor cars, Sunseeker yachts, properties in Mayfair or Monaco and unique works of art to grace them. These goods, coined ‘Veblen Goods’ sell predominantly because of the cache that owning them conveys. Doing so gives the owners immediate ‘bragging rights’ but does it satisfy their desire once and for all, of course not.

James Wallman’s point is that none of this is really that important at all and instead what should be of value to us is our ability to improve our lives through shared experiences.  James Wallman suggests we de-clutter our homes and instead place greater value on experiences and less on ‘beating the Joneses’. But what does it mean for the marketers and advertising men whose job it is to promote this ‘stuff’?

Ironically, James Wallman is himself, a bit of a poacher turned gamekeeper as he was once employed as a successful advertising man. That said he has a point and I have been pondering the same question for as long if not longer than Mr Wallman. However, I can’t see a way to completely replace my occasional desire for a nice product to treat myself or my family to. Perhaps they are becoming less frequent but I can’t help thinking I’ve still got some way to go and I would suspect James Wallman has too? The notion of reducing my desire to ‘gather’ things, in favour of an increased exposure to wider experiences that I can share with others is far more appealing and means we grow even closer together.

This experientialism has opened up new hobbies and interests for me and my family, but as we dive deeper into them our interest transforms into owning the items associated with it so that it allows us to experience these things at a lower cost more often.

Some of you may recall a movie made in 1985 called ‘Brewster’s Millions’, the film predates Mr Wallman’s book by some distance but parodies similar components. Brewster, played by Richard Pryor is set a challenge by his great-uncle to spend $30m in 30 days without acquiring any assets, a task which the movie maker portrays as, not all that easy.  This is my point too. Notionally it’s an honourable stance, but in reality modern life is different, which is why the owners of the home in Mayfair, the Sunseeker or the Rolls Royce provide the owners with a wonderful experience.

As long as we remain satisfied with the experience we continue to retain elements associated with it. The moment the Rolls Royce becomes just a car to get in and drive is the time it has to go, but doesn’t that mean we go and buy the Lamborghini?  As a marketing man who relies on his income to enjoy his experiences I suspect the status quo will remain unchanged for a while to come yet.

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