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Do you want your status to ascend to the level of the trendsetters? Well, buying expensive status symbols like Crocs, a Rolex watch, a Mont Blanc pen, or Air Jordan shoes on its own won't cut it.


 
Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
Jetting With The Trendsetters
trendsetters

It's those on the outside who have to pay dearly to fool themselves they're part of the in crowd


Being a teenager is never easy, but it's probably a lot harder to be one now than it was twenty, thirty, and forty years ago.  A teenager's tender spot has always been his or her unwillingness to stand out from the crowd during a period of great emotional and physical change. Today's teens are subject to more adult stimuli than I ever was, and voracious marketers appeal to them as aggressively as they would the teens' very own parents.  These teens get endlessly bombarded with images of things they “need” to be part of the 'right' crowd, whatever that means.

When my stepson was eight or nine, he came home from school infatuated with tiny skateboard toys about the size of the Hotwheel and Matchbox cars I played with when I was his age.  All the kids had them, and he didn't want to feel left out.  As he got older, his toys of choice got more expensive.  One of his later presents was a $200 hand-crafted skateboard from Korea, which he's only used once or twice.  Most of the time, I don't think he ever really wanted these things.  He just wanted what all his peers had. 

Last year he asked us to buy him a pair of Crocs.  Crocs are lightweight plastic flip flops which come in a variety of designs.  Five years back, I was at a local shopping mall and purchased a $3 pair of flip flops for use in our swimming pool.  The pool was missing a few tiles at its base, and it was all too easy to cut one's feet severely during a casual swim.  I wore the flip flops as protection and only in that pool.  I found out a bit later that these $3 flops, bought on a whim, were virtually identical to Crocs costing $30 to $40.  I was dumbfounded because, to me, they look like they're worth just $3.  My stepson has seen me wear the shoes on many an occasion and could see they were almost identical to the Crocs, yet he still wanted the Crocs at nine or ten times the price.  What a crock! 

Perhaps if you examine the Croc copies under a microscope and compare them side-by-side with the authentic article, you'd notice some subtle differences, differences my stepson certainly can't see.   I'd imagine the quality control on the real Crocs is somewhat better.  Other than that, as far as you or I or any other adult can tell, and for the little we'd wear them, the cheaper shoe fits.   Crocs hold no special trend appeal for us to warrant paying a significant premium to own them.

Kids cannot grasp that distinction.   My stepson knew that my shoes weren't a whole lot different than the Crocs.  He also knew that they weren't real Crocs.  And for that reason alone, my shoes held no value. 

There are definite advantages to sticking with name brands for some things.  I bought a name brand laptop because I knew it would be easier to get serviced under warranty wherever in the world I happened to be.  My wife gifted me a brand name smart phone.  It wasn't the most popular or elite model.  She bought it for me because of its extraordinary large size.  She knew I wanted to use my phone as an e-reading device.

But the items just mentioned are not primarily status symbols.  Nor are Crocs or shoes which resemble them.  For most, they are instruments required to accomplish certain tasks.  I value them for what they do for me, not how much they cost to buy or how much other people envy me for having them.  It never dawned on me that iPhones, when they were relatively new in 2007-09, were status symbols, at least over here where people have to pay the entire purchase price up front.  In Thailand, there are no low money down iPhones available in exchange for locking yourself into a two-year plan.   Wealthier Thais owned them, in good part, because they could show off they owned them.  Don't misconstrue my analysis.  The iPhone continues to be a great phone, and it's still probably the best phone on the market in terms of the quality of the applications available on it.  I've never owned one because it's not ideal for my needs, but if I did own one, it would not cease to be any less valuable to me as more and more people were able to afford one.  For the trendsetters, however, the iPhone would be yesterday's news, as they sought more exclusive and expensive devices few other people currently have or could easily afford. I was told by a Thai-American venture capitalist how the local jetsetting travel scene works over here.  Basically, it comes down to:  “Are you in or are you out?”  If you're in, you vacation with the other well heeled in today's current exclusive hot spots and move on to tomorrow's  once the masses discover today's.  If you're out – well, see you later. 

Marketers have long known that if they can attach a famous or powerful personality to their product, the masses are more likely to embrace and pay more for it.  When people buy Air Jordan shoes, it is as if they feel that some of Michael Jordan's legendary basketball prowess, athletic skill, and slick scalp cool rub off on them.  Of course, this is utter hogwash.  A high school basketball star in sandals could wipe the floor with me wearing the most expensive Air Jordans.  Nonetheless, costly Air Jordans continue to be the top selling models for many a sneaker store.  The 2009 Air Jordan V's retailed for $310.

Those aspiring to join the ranks of the trendsetters have been programmed to think that if they buy the 'exclusive' items enjoyed or used by elites, they will, by extension, become part of their ranks.  Marketers and manufacturers obviously encourage this behavior, as it feeds a never-ending cycle of consumption.   

Sadly, the aspirants have got it all backwards. 

During my early teens, my father picked up four fake Rolex watches.  I was so young at the time, I didn't know even know what Rolexes were.   My visiting maternal grandfather walked into the kitchen as my dad was handing out watches to me and my brother, and he was bowled over that my father had four Rolexes on the table.  He believed them to be genuine.  My dad gifted him one on the spot, and my grandfather returned to Florida in high spirits.  I forgot all about this incident until my second year in college.  My cheap Casio's digital watch battery had died, so I put on the fake Rolex, probably the only time in college I ever wore it.  I completely forgot I had it on until one of the people I was dining with over lunch spotted it and grabbed my wrist in excitement.  “This isn't the $5,000 Rolex, is it?  No, it's probably just the $2,000 one.” I said I wasn't sure, but yes, it was probably the less expensive model.  Little did he know how inexpensive.  The watch probably didn't cost more than $35!

I examined that Rolex again fifteen years later.  By then, I appreciated that it wasn't such a great looking fake.  At the time my grandfather and friend were deceived, fake fashion accessories in Western countries were relatively rare.  Asian Rolex copycats hadn't yet flooded the market. But there's a deeper point to be made here.  My grandfather and friend believed the Rolex to be real not primarily because of their lack of understanding of Rolex standards and craftsmanship, but because I came from a family where a real Rolex was a real possibility.  In fact, two decades after I was gifted that phony watch, my dad purchased a secondhand real Rolex for himself.   

My wife relates a similar story.  She was visiting with a former colleague who'd since risen the hotelier ranks to become the general manger of five-star hotel in China.  Prominently displayed on his desk was a Mont Blanc fountain pen.  Mont Blancs don't come cheap.  Peruse through the Mont Blanc web store, and you'll see many pens selling for over $1,000.  The cheapest models cost about $400.   Only thing is, his Mont Blanc was a fake, bought in a local Chinese market for under $10!  But because he was a general manager, the top dog at a respected hotel, no one ever questioned its authenticity. 

Compare his situation to that of a friend of a friend of my wife's.  This woman does not hold a prominent position or earn a lot of money.  She scrimped and saved for several years to afford the status symbol among status symbols for Asian females, an imported Louis Vuitton handbag costing several thousand dollars.  But because of her low ranked job, her bag didn't bequeath upon her any expected status benefits.  No one ever believed its authenticity.  Everyone, particularly some of her quite wealthy superiors, assumed it was one of the many fakes routinely found all over local Thai markets.   The Louis Vuitton bag lover may have actually been mocked behind her back for trying to show off with such an obvious “fake.”      

In other words, it's the status already observed in a person by others which imbues any accompanying symbols with some kind of status value.  Whether the symbols themselves hold little real value or are extremely valuable matters little.  You can see that quite unambiguously in the irony.  A pen costing less than a large pizza enhances one person's status while a bag costing more than a week's vacation might have damaged another's. 

There's an old age which says that you can take a man out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the man.  Wearing a $5,000 Armani suit doesn't magically turn a poorly educated ghetto thug into a refined gentleman.  By the same token, the President of the United States appearing in public wearing torn jeans and a faded T-shirt doesn't notice his status diminish.  Quite the contrary.  This Presidential grunge look would probably evolve into tomorrow's retro fashion trend and be sold to the masses at hip outlets for multitudes more than the cost of real torn jeans and faded T-shirts!     

The wealthy jetsetting high society Thai didn't know how right he was when told the venture capitalist that he was either in or he was out.  We all have that same choice.  The real choice isn't whether we decide to join the trendsetters.  As I've articulated already, you can't leap into the trendsetter ranks just by saving up enough cash to make a one-off extravagant purchase way out of your league.  You're either recognized as being among the 'esteemed' or you're not, regardless of what acceptable status symbols you own or don't own.  Your choice is in whether you care.

The Thai-American venture capitalist chose not to, and there is a great liberating power in that choice.  As Thai society's uppercrust desert their holiday condos near Khao Yai National Park to buy real estate in the next miraculous getaway location, he doesn't have to worry about following suit.  He can't escape being judged by the group whose acceptance he chose not to care about, but so what?  Since when can you please everyone?  And in his circumstance, he's never completely out.  His Thai wife comes from that affluent crowd, continues to have many contacts within its ranks, and he'd probably be welcomed back into the flock with some reservations any time he pleased.

Frankly, I'm surprised that more people don't choose to be out when it's become abundantly clear that you can't artificially buy your way into the elite ranks anyway.  It's time consuming and wasteful to always be compelled to buy the latest and greatest when you don't really need it and probably don't even want it and likely can't afford it.  I suppose I was a little more fortunate in that at a younger age I was exposed to many so-called status symbols without comprehending how status oriented they were, so I wound up judging them on how valuable they were to me.  I sampled caviar, escargot, and frog's legs and didn't enjoy them before I knew they were pricey menu options I should devour as rare delicacies.  I was gifted a Parker fountain pen while still a teen, and I quickly realized I hated using fountain pens and today barely use a pen at all.  Why pay $100+ for one?  A general manager in China at a five-star hotel evidently came to the same conclusion.

“Act like wherever you are, that's the place to be,” said the aspiring ladies man character in the film Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  The trendsetters have always acted that way, and advertisers have spent untold sums to convince you to spend your own untold sums to fool yourself that you're there, too.  For now, save your money and your time trying to buy your way in.  With enough real effort and confidence, one day wherever you are really could be the place you want to be. 


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