Why do people buy ‘fancy beer’ — because it tastes better, or because it ‘signals’ status?
Psychologist Paul Bloom’s article ‘The Lure of Luxury‘ mentions beer only in passing — ‘the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer’ — but anyone who’s been called a snob for drinking a £6 pint, or rolled their eyes at the glitzy packaging of a limited edition IPA, will get the relevance.
Dr Bloom sets out two opposing points of view:
- People want luxury goods because they look, feel or taste good — they give pleasure in and of themselves.
- Luxury goods are status symbol designed to impress others and signal ‘intelligence, ambition, and power’.
The truth, he argues, lies somewhere in between:
Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.
He goes on to consider why an exact replica of an object isn’t as desirable as the real thing; why when people buy a celebrity’s jumper in a charity auction they don’t want it dry-cleaned first; and whether anyone needs six mechanical wrists to automatically wind their collection of Rolex watches.
Let’s attempt to translate those questions: Why do people continue to hunt down and pay through the nose for Westvleteren 12 when none but the most refined palates can tell it from St Bernardus Abt 12? Why is beer brewed under contract less appealing than otherwise? Does anyone need a £168 six-pack of beer?
When you choose a beer is it really ‘about flavour’ — the defensive cry of the craft beer drinker accused of extravagance — or something else? And, of course, something else might be fine, depending on your values, and the pleasure it brings is just as real.