Consumer Republic: Irony clad

It’s feel-bad advertising for good times
Everyone loves the tow-truck driver who made it big in the stock market in Black Rocket’s campaign for Discover Brokerage. He’s a fitting symbol.
But what about the yuppie passenger, sick with envy as it dawns on him that the real money is passing him by? “Yuppie”–now there’s a social category ready for the trash heap. In an era that believes one is shot to prosperity out of a cannon, the notion of gradual “upward mobility” has a horse-and-buggy quaintness.
The beauty of the ad, of course, is that we don’t identify with him.
We never did identify with yuppies; even in the heyday of the species, a yuppie was always someone else. But in truth, more of us are like him, the moderately successful guy, than the proud working-class owner of a country.
And if we’re not sick with envy, we’re all aware there is wealth out there that makes a six-figure salary and a steadily fattening 401(k) look like chump change.
Call it “prosperity anxiety,” a media-fed phenomenon in which good times feel bad. The ’90s has managed to create huge amounts of wealth–and devalue it at the same time.
Everywhere you look there’s a reminder that someone is getting really rich–and it’s not you. Brimming consumer confidence coexists with the queasy fear of being left behind, the worst torture that can be inflicted on the American psyche. It’s as if in the absence of real inflation, we’ve created an artificial kind. In essence, too much is really not enough.
So if you want to feel bad about how much money you don’t have, there’s no shorter route to despair than reading the “Weekend Journal” section of The Wall Street Journal.
Wrapped around the paper’s weekly residential real-estate advertising, it’s a reliable guide to turbo-consuming. Every week, I look forward to the latest twist in wretched excess. Four-figure gas grills. Five-figure wine cellars. Six-car garages. And my personal favorite: kitchens in the bedroom.
The objects of desire may change, but the parameters of the story are as rule-bound as Homeric verse: the trumpeting of sales figures, the delighted marketers opining on the meaning of the trend, the highly satisfied if slightly defensive customers. And all of this is chronicled with a faint edge of sneering bemusement by journalists who (depending on what their spouses do for a living) probably can’t afford any of these luxuries themselves.
So faithfully do these stories follow the formula, I could write one on the spot: “We’re offering garages in the master bedroom in all our high-end homes,” says Residential Developer X. “People see their neighbors with one, and they’ve got to have one, too.” Once homeowners have experienced the convenience of literally rolling out of bed and into the seat of their cars, many can’t see how they ever did without it.
“I know it seems a little indulgent,” admits Consumer Y, who paid $25,000 extra for the option of a two-bay garage in the master suite of his new home. “But I spend enough time commuting. And it’s such a hassle going downstairs and walking through the laundry room.”
If these stories don’t excite envy in their readers, they are sure to invite contempt and even indignation at all this decadence. But then, contempt and indignation feel bad, too. Conspicuous consumption is never pretty–unless, of course, you’re doing the consuming.
To make matters worse, there’s the icon of the age: the IPO millionaire who is barely above drinking age. Yuppies, you’ll recall, were far more visible in the media than their actual numbers justified. And there were a whole lot more of them than there are winners of the Internet lottery today. Yet the latter’s image is everywhere.
Am I the only one who can’t see the ad featuring the leather-clad “stock option owning retiree” without wanting to smack her smug face? This is especially true when I spot one of these ads on the back of a bus that I just missed; the exhaust belching in my face provides the crowning touch to the “get with it, loser” message.
It’s as if at the height of the you-can-have-it-all ’80s, some ad featured Michael Milken sticking his tongue out at, as Leona Helmsley put it, “the little people.” Except back then (and here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write), we had too much taste to try it.
Which is not to suggest that the ads are unsuccessful. To the contrary, my sense, looking at those mugs carefully art-directed for maximum smugness, is that the ads are supposed to make you feel envious and left behind, thus compelling you to log on to in the hope of catching up with those annoying twerps.
It used to be that we despaired over the undeserving poor. Now we’re being urged to keep up with the undeserving rich. I wonder whether such ads aren’t a sign of a new stage in the millennial boom: It’s feel-bad advertising for good times.