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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.