I sat in front of the television a fortnight ago watching Alain de Botton’s programme about status anxiety when I noticed that one of the “status victims” he was filming was me. I was caught on camera one Sunday morning illicitly examining the front page of The Observer.
I wondered whether I should sue for defamation, just for the sheer irony of it. “Well, your honour, it made people think that I care about my reputation.”
Instead I took consolation from the fact my 15 milli-seconds of fame did not involve me looking at the cover of Razzle or, worse still, The Independent on Sunday.
When the ad break came on I joined the rest of the viewing public and went to the toilet. After washing my hands with Molton Brown Thai Vert hand wash, I went down to the kitchen and filled my Siemens Porsche kettle, which we bought from John Lewis for £89.99.
As I catalogued the number of ridiculously expensive objects in my flat, I was horrified at the monster I had become. I felt as if I had woken up on the set of a Mike Leigh play. Only this was 21st-century London, not Seventies Surbiton.
In the old days – when TV pundits were called Alan, not Alain – status seeking was called one-upmanship. This theory suggests that given increased social mobility, a large number of people are obsessed not so much by gaining wealth, as gaining status. They yearn to be respected through public displays of their success. Reputation, not money, makes the world go around.
Status anxiety is reflected in our desire to go one better than our neighbours. Status seekers suspend all of their critical faculties in order to elevate their social standing and will spend an enormous amount of money to raise their self-esteem.
Those with the greatest status anxiety are those who have money, but not the social status that goes with it; arrivistes who work in the City, and the middle classes who occupy over-paid professions such as lawyers, architects, ad agency execs and media executives. They are the kind of people who buy an antique chess set to learn how to play chess.
Another example of this is a friend who works in the City. Despite his large salary, he brings his own sandwiches to work and refuses to pay the inflated prices from sandwich shops. On the other hand, while at a garden centre, he spent £1,500 on a garden ornament.
Obviously, such people are a rich vein for the brand world to tap. Status brands have been established for many years to exploit this kind of buyer.
The very nature of status brands is that they suggest exclusivity and have a built in obsolescence. It creates an inherent ebb and flow of marketing activity as brands become exclusive then intrusive. Malcolm Gladwell indicated this phenomenon in the Tipping Point. One example he provides in his book is of New York youths who wanted to differentiate themselves from the great-unwashed sport-shoe wearers.
He used the word Mavens to describe those who lead fashion trends, seeking separation from the masses by adopting status brands. Mavens is nothing more than a fancy name for a status seeker who needs to find new brands to stay a cut above the rest. You are no longer a cut above when everyone else has what you have.
Because of this, more brands are born and die in the status segment than in any other.
A growing number of arrivistes creates a problem for status brands. Some brands may start to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their exclusivity. They may ape Chanel’s famous ad campaign in the Sixties to discourage the lower middle classes from buying its brand to protect its exclusivity.
The logic may seemed warped, but not as warped as the logic behind the decision at the end of last year by Adbusters magazine to launch an anti-brand trainer which has a white spot on it instead of a corporate logo. The anti-brand brand is called, ironically, “blackspot”. But the real irony is that these shoes will no doubt become anti-status status symbols. Once everyone has them, no one will want them. Adbusters will have to come up with a new range – “blackspot anti-Air” -Âto satisfy their consumers needs.
The reason for this is that the anti-brand lobby over-emphasise the power of corporations to shape desire. The desire to put yourself above your neighbours is much more atavistic and visceral than they give it credit for. Status seeking is a basic human drive and one that brands can only seek to exploit, not create.
In recognition of this, I have decided on a course of therapy to deal with my own arrivism. Next week I am taking up the least status-seeking hobby I can in order to overcome my newly discovered status anxiety – fishing. Actually, I’ve heard of a weekend extreme fishing break, where you pay £4,000 to fish at night, without wellies, or a rod. Well, I couldn’t just fish, could I?
Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook