The old marketing adage "sex sells" is to "Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior" as your uncle’s old 35-millimeter vacation movies are to YouTube.
Rather than looking at how "consumerist capitalism" has evolved over the last few hundred years, "Spent" author Geoffrey Miller zooms way out historically speaking, analyzing the often-detrimental buying behaviors of modern Americans — from the purchase of a Hummer to the purchase of a McMansion — from the perspective of Cro-Magnon man (and woman).
At the outset, "Spent" sets forth its basic premise: Modern consumer buying behavior is driven primarily by the age-old instinct to display our fitness for survival to others. Miller posits that this instinct has (barely) evolved since prehistoric times into consumer status-seeking through purchases intended, albeit subconsciously, to display indicators of physical, personality and cognitive fitness of the Darwinian sort.
This is probably the single most enjoyable economics tome I’ve ever read. First off, Miller’s perspective and tone are refreshing and exploratory. His personal position is stoutly neither pro- nor anti-consumerism, but rather thrilled with the mental playground consumer behavior provides his mashup mind.
Miller is fascinated with both the wonderful (e.g., "iPods with ‘Outkast’ and ‘Radiohead’ songs") and awful (e.g., the "Mall of America") and wonderful/awful hybrid products and excesses of consumer capitalism (e.g., "Jerry Bruckheimer movies" and "Diet Code Red Mountain Dew").
Miller relates the origin of his fascination as he experienced intellectual awakenings — a decade apart — to both the power of evolutionary psychology and the virtually inarguable certitude that, as one chapter begins, marketing "has become the most dominant force in human culture."
After full disclosure of his own position on and path to the subject matter, Miller marries insights frequently neglected by marketers from evolutionary psychology with the recent highlights of research into individual differences.
He cites from sources as disparate as New Mexico bumper sticker slogans, Paris Hilton’s fragrance brands, and academic research into the prevalence of reproduction-impairing parasites to support well-crafted arguments that virtually all consumer-buying behavior arises from an effort by one human to display one of what individual difference researchers call the "Central Six" dimensions: "General Intelligence," plus the "Big Five" personality traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability.
Along the way, Miller sprinkles in some entertaining and provocative parallels from abnormal psychology as he seeks to help the reader detach from his or her consumer identity just a bit by explaining (scarily persuasively) how consumerism falls quite nearly into the clinical diagnostic criteria for narcissism.
There are also several chapters treating different takes on deception, from what Miller calls the "fundamental consumer delusion" that brands matter, to counterfeiting and the self-deception we engage in as to why we make various purchases, to the deceptive appearance of health and fertility created by the appearance of cosmetic and physical fitness, as bolstered by a variety of purchasing behaviors.
He even doles out a couple of real estate tips — strategies to avoid consumerist traps with respect to your biggest purchase. Miller advises prospective homebuyers and community planners to shy away from cookie cutter and shoddily built tract homes and toward building custom homes in already established communities or developing whole subdivisions of well-planned, classically attractive, built-to-last homes.
If you have any interest whatsoever in marketing, psychology or generally why you buy the things you buy, "Spent" will be both an informative and totally entertaining purchase for you to consume.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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