Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Weird is Status?

Status is usually not as obvious as this.  And we all play the game.

For a lot of people, status means a fancy car and a look-at-me house.  And while those are obvious status symbols, there are so many others out there, that it isn't funny.  In everyday life, we grade and judge ourselves and others based on status.  And it can be something as stupid as whether you are first in line or not, at a restaurant, or whether your car is a year older than your neighbor's, or even what floor you are on, in a hotel.

And often the marketers will sell us this kind of faux status.  A local "dirty paper" here in Atlanta is advertising a "Bourbon, Beer, and Barbecue" festival with all-you-can-drink and eat (Hint:  Bring a Mormon friend as a designated driver).  What was odd, to me, about the advertisement was that it said, "Open 12-6 for VIP tickets, open 2-6 for general admission."

Several things jumped out at me here.  First, the concept of a "Very Important Person" or VIP used to applied to heads of State or only the most famous of movie stars.  Today, it is used to apply to someone who wins a contest for backstage passes, pays extra for a platinum card, or just pays more for a ticket to a booze, beer, and barbecue orgy.

Second, the whole idea of paying more to be first in line struck me as odd.  I am guessing that the thinking is, if you arrive at 2pm with all those general admission scumbags, the barbecue will be cold and picked-over and they will be out of beer.  So, something as simple as a barbecue festival has two levels of seating.  I can only assume skyboxes are next.

What is going on with Status in our society, and why are we seeing it more important today than in the past?

While in ages past, we stratified our society into distinct class levels (first class, second class, third class, and steerage) the more recent trend has been - or was - toward a more classless society.  Single-class cruise ships used to be the norm, but increasingly, many are offering upgraded "suites" and diamond preferred status, to allow some folks to lord over others.

Single-class airlines like SouthWest are still popular, but the two- or even three-class airlines are still doing a robust business.  American Airlines now advertises first-class service in its tiny regional jets, although it is not clear to me what sort of "upgrade" you could offer anyone on one of those tin cans.  The physical advantage is probably less than the psychological one - being "first to board" on a plane that seats 20 has no real advantage, other than to let 19 people you will never see again in your life, know that you are special.

But we are all victims to status, whether we like it or not.  I am staying in a hotel in Atlanta, and last time, we had a room on the 17th floor.    And when you saw the plebes get on the elevator and push "3", you secretly thought to yourself, "Well, I got a better room that they did - with a view of something other than the dumpster!" 

But this time around, I am on the 5th floor, and I can swear I hear the people who push "20" snicker when I press my plebeian five. 

But of course, the assignment of the rooms is based less on status than on availability and random chance.  But there is a status factor there as well - if you talk to front desk clerks when they are off-duty.  Oftentimes, clerks set aside the better rooms (and some are marginally better than others - better view, newer furniture) and steer general clients toward the less desirable rooms.  People who don't make a fuss get the crappiest room, while the pain-in-the-ass type people get the better ones.  Why?  Because it is often less hassle for the clerk to give the better room to the "high maintenance" type of client, whereas a tired businessman probably doesn't give a shit.

The status game continues as you exit the building.  Having your car valet parked is a big deal, and costs extra.  It also takes longer and is a bigger hassle, too.  But people do it, so their car can be driven out front and everyone can watch them embark and disembark in grand style.  And if your car is deemed "nice" by the valet staff, it may be parked out front, as a talisman of the class and style of the hotel.  A new Audi sports car sits proudly out front, no doubt making its owner happy - that is, until it rains.

But often, we covet and flaunt status, even when it costs us nothing.  We get a "free upgrade" and feel that we are somehow special or unique, even though the upgrade doesn't represent an accomplishment of our own, or even something we paid for.  But since we get to go to the head of the line, we believe we are special.

So why is it we all want to be VIPs?  To have special backstage access, or be in with the in crowd, or to be seen prominently?   It is an odd question, to be sure.  Status gives us nothing, in real terms, but often costs a lot.  You can't eat status.  It doesn't make your wallet fatter or your bank account richer.  In fact, it does just the opposite - often costing staggering amounts of money, merely to provide transient bragging rights.

And for all you OWS protesters and patchouli-stink hippies, don't think this doesn't apply to you, too.  Because I've seen you-all in the commune, vying for status over one another - whether it can be who is the most politically correct, to who has the best dreadlocks or tie-dyed shirt, or to who has ingratiated themselves the most to the spiritual leader.  Yes, even among die-hard commies and leftists, status exists, and in fact, you might argue, it is even stronger.

So what is the point of all this?  Well as I noted in an earlier posting, status is big business.  You can get people to consume more or pay more, if you sell them status.  You can train consumers to reject products and services based on status alone.  "Only a schmuck would drive a car like that!" a consumer might remark.  They say this to validate their spending thousands more, for basically the same car.

And status, being purely psychological, costs you nothing to add to a product.  Once you convince people that the mere buying of your product makes them part of the "smart set" your product will sell itself.  For years, many folks bought Japanese cars, mostly because they didn't want to be seen as idiots for buying some warmed-over Buick.  Today, the U.S. marketers have finally caught on, and are trying to sell their cars as a "smart buy" over their Japanese counterparts.  Suddenly, buying a Toyota or a Honda, once viewed as an intelligent choice, is marked as a chump option.  And oddly enough the underlying cars are largely the same for both U.S. and foreign makers.

There is perhaps something inherent in our psychology that causes us to seek status.  And I guess it is the need to feel special, different, or unique from others.  On the cruise ship, the fellow in the windowless cabin might not have the luxuries of the top deck suite, but since he "got a special deal" on the price of the plain cabin, he feels that he scored something special - a bargain - and thus feels "smarter" than the chump who paid full-fare for the suite.  It is not that he feels superior, in wealth or whatever, but smarter and unique.

And you can sell unique.  BMW has a little-known program called the BMW Individual program.  Some dealers claim it doesn't exist, but others specialize in the program.  For an appropriate fee, you can order a car, custom-made, with your own choice of unique color or interior fabrics, or options that are not available to the general public.  And you can even arrange to pick up the car at the factory, having a special presentation ceremony, where the car is brought up from the vault via a hydraulic stage, complete with spotlights an inspiring music, while you descend a grand spiral staircase in one of those "This-Is-Your-Life" kind of moments.

No really, they actually do that.

And while it might be interesting to have a new 3-series, painted smoked purple with a green plaid interior, does it really say anything about you as a person that you own such a car?  And yet, we think that might be kind of fun, to be treated special and to be queen-for-a-day.  Sure, why not?  I mean, other than the staggering expense involved.....

Status is a tricky beast, and it lurks in everyone's mind.  Taming that beast and understanding it is one of the most important things you can do, in terms of turning around your own finances.