Stay Tuned/Dream Of the Millionaire

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Dream Of the Millionaire
29 August 1999

The other day I finished Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers, one of the few Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries I hadn't managed to read when I first dicovered them, years ago. Murder Must Advertise is a hilarious book in many ways, more so if you have ever worked in any way with print layout: advertising, newspapers, graphic design. Everyone here at Stay Tuned World HQ has done a certain amount of time in those trenches, trying to make the client understand that what the client thinks they want is really going to turn out to not be what they want once it's too late to change it.

I'll wait a moment while you finish wading through that sentence.

At any rate, this column was inspired by a portion of that book where Lord Peter is musing on what he's seen while working undercover in an advertising agency:

Where, [he] asked himself, did the money come from that was to be spent so variously and so lavishly? If this hell's-dance of spending and saving were to stop for a moment, what would happen? [...] He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure forever denied them, could be wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.

Some things have changed since Sayers' time (and therefore Lord Peter's); some things have not. In Lord Peter's world, rich people did not pay attention to advertisements. They probably weren't even placed in contact with them very often. Aside from a few publications such as the daily papers, the titled and landed were almost completely insulated from the lower and middle classes and their concerns. The degree to which Britain was stratified by its class system then is difficult for Americans now to understand.

I'm not saying America isn't stratified, but the class of people which lives in near-complete isolation from Everyone Else is considerably smaller than it was in 1920's England. Only the super-rich here go their lives without setting foot in a supermarket or a McDonald's or paying much attention to advertisements. For the rest of us, it doesn't really matter how well-off we are; somewhere, there is an ad being aimed directly at our heads.

If Lord Peter lived in present-day England, he would not be one of these super-rich, unless he had unexpectedly broken character by deciding to be a captain of industry. The landed gentry in Britain are no longer very rich or very powerful. Peter would be living comfortably, because he is the sort who would always take the proper steps to ensure that, but not extravagantly.

Also, let it be said, that Lord Peter is, for his class, a man of rather modest tastes, not given to huge expenditures nor wretched excess. He prefers the best of everything, to be sure, but does not over-indulge in any of it. To give an example, his brother the Duke of Denver - more typical of the titled of his day - would never have been satisfied to live in a flat in Piccadilly, no matter how well-appointed.

But you may be wondering what all this has to do with advertising.

Consider a latter-day Lord Peter, in America this time. He lives in a very nice apartment in Manhattan. Almost all of his money comes from investments and so forth; he does not work for a living as we poorer types would think of it, but he does keep himself busy managing the interests he has. He may have a high-level consulting position of some sort, the kind that does not keep him chained to a desk but nonetheless gives his brain something to do (when it's not solving crimes).

And what magazines does Lord Peter read, if he reads any?

As a person whose modest wealth is tied up in private investment, he almost certainly reads Forbes - while Lord Peter continues to believe that it's vulgar to discuss money, in private he is nobody's fool. When he reads Forbes, here are some of the ads he will see (restricting ourselves to consumer goods, and not business, travel, or information services). I picked all these out of the July 1999 issue:

Weber Summit gas grills
Smith & Wollensky steakhouses
Lexus, Acura, BMW 2000 Z3 convertible, et cetera
Chanel Allure for men
Patek Phillipe watches
Quintero cigars

Putting aside the fact that none of these advertisements are aimed at women (yes, the cars could go either way, but the ads smell very male), let's look at some sample prices. I have no price information for the latter three, but they're certainly some of the most expensive goods in their respective categories.

The Weber Summit is a high-class version of their Genesis grills, according to the ad copy; the Genesis grills go for around $500 each, so you be the judge. Consumer Reports notes that gas grills can cost as high as $1000.

Smith & Wollensky is listed in Zagat's as costing an average of $51 per person for dinner, not including drinks.

The luxury Lexus and Acura models tend to cost around $40,000. The fancy BMW is actually cheaper; it'll run you around $35,000 unless you really get the bare-bones model.

If Lord Peter reads The Economist, he'll find the same car ads and watch ads - the more consumable commodities like food and cigars do not generally advertise there.

These are not goods for poor people.

Both of those magazines are not often read vicariously by poor people, which makes them good examples of advertising that's meant solely for people of generous means. Other magazines, such as Gourmet, Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar, end up playing both sides of the fence: They not only want advertisements directed at their rich readers who really can afford the lifestyles they talk about, but also ads for products that their poorer, voyeuristic readers can afford - just barely.

In the September 1999 Gourmet, for example, we find a Rodeo Drive jeweler, Perrier-Jouët champagne, Fendi watches, Ellen Tracy dresses, Calvin Klein linens, and the usual expensive cars ... but we also find Serta mattresses, Estee Lauder cosmetics, Stouffer's frozen foods, Kenmore and Cuisinart appliances, the Chevy Impala, Land's End, and other goods which are not cheap but not exorbitantly expensive either.

Lest you think that you have to have a certain amount of income even to dream of living the high life, consider that the Runaway Hit TV Show of the Week is "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Game shows have been promising people the ability to live a richer lifestyle for ages and ages now, and while game shows are in decline, they're not dead yet. The dream of the millionaire is not going to be as popular as it was in the Great Depression - not unless we have another - but it's never going to go away entirely.

Meanwhile, down in Entertainment Weekly, the magazine for the informed pop-culture fanatic, what do we get? Cigarette ads, cereal ads, Cheez-It crackers, and the 1999 Honda Clearance Sale.

Down in the trenches, not many ads offer the promise of a haughtier lifestyle. Nowhere in EW will you see the Bombay Sapphire ad series where the bottle is shown next to a custom-designed glass which probably costs more than a case of the gin. Instead you'll see ads which suggest that alcohol allows you to cut loose ("Stockbroker by day. Bacardi by night") or will improve your romantic life (see any Amaretto di Saronno or Hennesey cognac ad).

None of these MasterCard ads which mark off a set of very expensive purchases and then finish with an item which is "priceless," suggesting that it's okay to spend five thousand dollars on a fling if it manages to bring a blush or a smile to your wife's face. Instead we get American Express - whose normal terms require that purchases be paid off every month - and its vague promise that you can "do more." In EW or its ilk, it's more likely you'll see the Visa ads which feature the contents of someone's wallet and the tagline "It's everywhere you want to be."

Actually, credit cards may not be a good example. Credit card companies always want you to spend beyond your means, no matter who you are. Those MasterCard ads have recently begun to appear on TV, which is not traditionally a place for luxury-goods pitches. The Jerry Yang Visa ad - if you know who Jerry Yang is, then you're the target audience - has total combined purchases of 1889.29. The "still being able to make her blush: priceless" MasterCard ad - if you're around age fifty and would contemplate "dinner for 37, chez marcella," you're the target audience - has combined purchases of 2462.95.

The only difference between these two ads is that the latter audience is what the credit card companies hope the former audience will become in twenty-five years.

The most blatant examples of the I-wanna-be-rich advertising ethos are the ones which also promote how inexpensive their product is. I have been seeing some excellent examples of this paradox on the subway lately. They're for ForEyes eyewear merchants. One says "Look like a rock star. Spend like a roadie." Another says "Look like a million bucks. Spend like a million pesos."

I already applauded the bare-faced humor of the campaign when I saw the first ad ... and when their second ad actually required some intelligence on the part of the reader, I liked the campaign even more. But the third ad is what really clinched it. It says "Look like an artist. Spend like an artist."

Even in America today, there are still cultures where people don't care to spend beyond their means. Just not many.


[31 August 1999:] A regular reader (also a stone Wimsey fan) and I had some disagreement about which magazines Lord Peter would actually read. It was never my intention to imply that Peter would read Vogue (by that point in the column I had segued to other things), but whether he would read Forbes is a matter of some real contention.

I hold that while certainly Lord Peter didn't like dealing with the day-to-day business of money (my reader points out that this may actually have been a quirk of Sayers'), he would be too smart to not read Forbes, the magazine barefacedly and shamelessly dedicated to the goal of helping people get obscenely wealthy.

More importantly, my reader and I disagree about the way we divide the country into segments by wealth. She notes: "Certainly there is a difference in the target market of these periodicals, though maybe not quite the way you think there is - the wealthy do see advertising, I think, but virtually none of it is really aimed at them, because they're too small of a target. [... M]ost of these magazines that really keep up a lot of face are aimed a little lower than they pretend to be. People who don't have social status anxiety don't have to buy that."

It depends on how you define "wealthy." I make out four segments, not three: Poor, middle-class, well-off, and rich. I agree with her (as noted in the column) that the truly rich don't have much advertising aimed at them - but I differ in whom I would put in the "rich" category. I was not putting Lord Peter in that category, for example. If Lord Peter were alive and living in Manhattan today, he would not be Bill Gates.

I don't think he'd enjoy it if he were.

and now back to our program

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