Need vs. want
You might call me a kill-joy as we approach this holiday season. You might be a retailer, in which case you would want me, and others like me, to stay out of the way. If you are a wholesaler, distributor or manufacturer you will think the same. And, of course, if you are union or government, believe me, you will also think I’m looney. Here’s why.
I believe we should be buying more of what we need and less of what we want. Please notice that I did not say we should buy less, though I could argue that point too. I did say that we should be buying less of what we want and more of what we need.
I got this idea watching a car advertisement and thinking back to the various cars I have bought over a lifetime. Did I buy a car that I needed? Was the car suited to my usage or was it, as advertisements do, a result of my want? Clearly, I admit, I purchased cars that I liked. They reflected my perceived status. I was a rising corporate executive, so I needed a car that ‘showed’ my clients just who I was. It also showed my family that I was a winner.
But what if I would have opted for a vehicle, notice I avoid the term car because it could very well be another type, that reflected my need? Well, as a young father, with two young children, maybe a pick up truck with a back bench would have been better than a BMW or Cadillac. But there are two problems. One, I believe, you have thought of already. The second, maybe not.
The first one is obvious. We are driven to purchase goods that confirm status. Advertising wins, we lose. No matter how hard we try to deny it, we do care what others think of us. We care what they think of our hair, clothes, car, home, even vacation destination. The reason we care is what I have called ‘guided expectations’ since the seventies when I started thinking about this. These guided expectations are willingly and unwittingly reinforced by multiple players. Yes, the advertisers, but so too our peers, governments and in some cases, even public interest actors. For a variety of reasons, they want us to own the best and they define the best as the most aesthetic, the most elegant, the most durable (in some cases) and the most popular.
The second is what I call a ‘lazy conspiracy’. It is a conspiracy to not make available that which we need, only that which we want. It’s much easier to appeal to our desires than it is to our common sense. Seduction is mighty powerful. Logic is less powerful. So they sell us cars that go over two hundred miles an hour, yes they do (the new Ford Mustang). Who needs 200 mph?? The police, yes. Emergency respondents, yes. Maybe the military. But John Doe, 24 years old needs 200 mph? And to add insult to injury, as I’ve said so many times before, governments then slap a fine for using the vehicle as it is able to be used.
I believe there is a paradigm shift in waiting. My solution is to convince manufacturers to start changing their tune, collectively. If they, as one, began the one or two generation effort of weaning us away from fantasy towards convenience and coherence, we would end up having goods that actually matter in our lives. I’ll give you an example of a car I would love to see, and be willing to pay for. Today, a fairly decent luxury car can cost up to $50,000. That’s a nice car. I’m going to challenge you to pay the same amount for a car that would last you a whole lifetime. Would you? I would. If the car was absolutely rock solid, I would pay that much. Granted, at this point, manufcaturers will tell you that they will lose out. One car that lasts a lifetime at the same price as one that lasts five years? How do we expect them to make money. Fair enough. However, what if I told you that I was willing to pay three or four times as much if the car was both luxurious and everlasting? That is what we do with our homes. We do not buy houses that last five years. We buy houses that last fifty. We also do this with far less expensive goods. Men, when you buy a tie, do you expect to keep it for a few months or for years? I have some of my father’s ties; many of them in fact.
It can be done. We can shift away from multiple flights of fancy to singular more perennial choices. Thinking back to that pick up truck, I would pay good money for a two-bench, rock solid pick up truck that ran on alternative fuels and that had a ten year warranty and an expected twenty year life span. Would I tire of it? Today I would because I’ve been trained to tire of cars. But I do not tire of my ties or my signed Mickey Mantle baseball. Some things we accept as long lasting, others we don’t. Let’s increase the skew!