Our Consumerist Ways

Deciphering The Value Of Anything

Years ago I started wondering about the market for anything as to whether prices of anything would be representative for what as really out there. For instance, we had some carp in this pond where I lived in Japan. The carp grew to be about 50 to 60 centimeters length. I told a guy at a pet shop that we had these carp and he said “oh that would be worth 20 to 30 thousand yen.” As a kid I thought, wow, that means there was about 750 thousand yen swimming around in our pond. The problem of course was, who would pay such money for these carp? To that extent, you could say the carp at least had a replacement price tag established.

That is to say, if for some reason you needed 25 carp at 50 to 60 centimeter lengths for whatever reason, you could be assured that you would have to fork out that sum of money. It seemed to me as a kid that may be prices of things weren’t as obvious as what people said they were, certainly where use value was very unclear. Which is essentially the way the antique markets work and to some extent classic cars or vintage electric guitars. To most people, a piece of antique or classic car or vintage guitar simply doesn’t have a lot of use value but they all have exorbitant price tags; there’s also a market the corroborates the price tags as well, but the general level of demand in the market place would be much lower.

Conversely, staple foods might carry different branding, but just how much difference is there between Bega cheese and whatever brand that’s sitting next to it at the super market? It’s literally a matter of taste as they position themselves with tiny price differentiation. Indeed ad men stake their careers on convincing you about brands as if there’s a magical connection between a brand and its product’s use value.

I write this not to berate ad men, but because lately I’ve been made to ponder just how much of this linkage is forced upon us in our understanding of our consumerist world. In fact, we’re made to interpret the complex system of signs of branding as if it is interchangeable with the use value. Economists talk about the marginal value of things quite a bit but when you apply it to products, you quickly realise how vague and arbitrary our system of values happen to be. That is to say, if you chose to buy product A over B in spite of product A being more expensive, then you’re probably going to justify to yourself the difference in priceis exactly the difference in use value.If we’re back to talking about cheese, then the difference between cheese A and B is the difference in taste value.

Now, if we start talking about cars, most people justify their choices on alleged performances of vehicles based on printed specs. The specs might be number of cylinders in the engine or size of the engine or even the rated power output of the engine. The point is, people are picking categories and then comparing prices and picking the listed spec that suits their needs. Yet how many buyers really are experts on cars? As with the cheese example, at some point the extra pricing over the competitor can only be justified on a vague issue of taste. In fact, most people are buying cars on the level of “this is an imported German car, it must be better than the Australian made sedan.”

Right up and down the market place, people are funneled into thinking like this, which then goes into the structure of prestige and hierarchical thinking in society. And it’s not just cars – we do it with housing, education, medical care and insurance, clothing (Ah, fashion!), food, and just about everything we buy. And all the while we rarely get to ask if this marginal value we are spending our money upon is something that we need. Does our cheese need to taste just that little bit better to our palates? Does our car really need to have the better spec even though 99% of the time we will drive at around the speed limit or be stationary at lights?

A good friend of mine always said, if something is twice as much as its competitor, you need to consider if you will enjoy it twice as much as the other thing.

I guess if you can afford the things you want then there’s no need to ponder any of these things. I’m not exactly advocating restraint or anything here; just making observations. However, consumerist society being what it is, we’re all forced into making these choices every time we need to get something – anything – and in so doing, we do this invisible dance in our heads. Do we like this one, as opposed to that one? Does this say the right thing about me to the world? That’s all brand-speak and ad-speak.

When one is honest with oneself, one would come to realise that there are so few things we know about well enough to dig deeper than the advertising guff or the spec sheet. I could tell you a great deal about electric guitars and bass guitars but I doubt I could tell you much about, say, violins. Cars? I’m working off spec sheets. I’m neither a mechanic nor engineer enough to know better. Refrigerators, washing machines and other white goods? I’m guessing based on price tags. I know quite a bit about cameras but how often do I go buy one of those? If you are honest with yourself, I think you would realise that you rely quite a bit on hearsay, opinion and whatever information that is thrust in front of you.

And the funny thing is that we kind of just accept the price tags of these things that inherently come with some ancillary, marginal value attached, and by extension, even if we were vigilant we will always be playing by the rules of the market-assigned value hierarchy. You would have to be a committed rebel or revolutionary to walk away from our social system built up on judgments and prejudices based on advertising and branding.

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