Tired of reading grim news about the economy? Then skip the articles and go straight to the ads. It's December, after all; the season of lights, gift giving and glossy magazines and newspaper supplements that smell like Glade PlugIns and weigh enough to break your toe.
The advertisements, for a range of items from handbags to diamonds to perfume, to more perfume and diamonds, have always had a special role in status envy during the most wonderful time of the year. But these days they seem more -- what's the word? -- fantastical than ever. In a year in which hundreds of thousands have filed unemployment claims, there's something unseemly about peddling a piece of jewelry with a price tag that could keep a family off food stamps for six months.
Actually, it's more than unseemly. It's a little queasy making and kind of funny at the same time, in that absurdist way that accompanies outsized displays of consumption (if you've visited Hearst Castle, you catch my drift).
Let's take, for example, the December issue of Vogue. The formidable journal includes not only Jennifer Aniston's much-deconstructed statement "What Angelina did was very uncool" but no fewer than 115 ads, including one for an 18-karat white gold, diamond and malachite timepiece from Gucci and a sequined Prada handbag ($1,695, according to the Beverly Hills store). As in years past, the visuals are sleek and the copy, when it isn't just a triumphant brand name, hits the sweet spot between Thurston Howell haughtiness and Tony Robbins self-empowerment: "Some style is legendary" (Tiffany) and "Live the dream" (Calvin Klein's Euphoria fragrance).
Never mind that the Lexus costs more than what many people's houses are now worth. Never mind that peppered among the editorial offerings in last Sunday's New York Times' holiday style supplement were ads for such things as a $3,700 coffee maker (actually, a "coffee center"). Meanwhile, the front page reported on credit-rating firms contributing to the mortgage crisis by underestimating, or possibly ignoring, securities risks.
These are recession-free zones! In fact, they're free of just about everything we've been hearing about lately. Absent references (even subtle allusions) to the election, the environment or gay marriage, the holiday ads represent consumerism in its purest, least subtle, even most boring form. Save certain trends in fashion, hairstyles and fragrance bottles, it's possible to flip through them and have no real indication that the Reagan era is over.
"As smart as a lot of these retailers are, there's been an ignorance in not reading the signs correctly," says Tom Julian, who runs a brand consultant company and has worked with such clients as BMW and Tiffany. "A lot of these marketers are operating under the assumption that holidays are so much about escapism that they're recession-proof. But that's not the case this year. We know there's a consumer that feels somewhat conflicted and guilty about the shopping experience. ... I don't disagree that advertising is there to entertain, but you have to reflect the mood swings of the population."
Of course, marketing campaigns are planned months in advance. In most cases, the ads we're seeing now were conceived last spring; as bleak as the economic mood was then, few realized how bad things would be by December. Besides, according to Dana Thomas, the author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," economic hardship shouldn't necessarily preclude opulence. Though her book deals with the ways once-exclusive brands have gone mass market, she suggests that having your nose pressed to the glass of a fairy-tale lifestyle can function as a kind of coping mechanism.
"Back in the 1930s, Hollywood was making the most glamorous movies of all time," Thomas says. "The characters wore gold and lived in big houses and said 'dahling.' People who felt bad about their lives went to the movies, but instead of making them feel jealous, they felt better. So it makes sense that the retailers would ramp up the visuals. There will be less on the shelves, but they'll continue to promote the dream, and ultimately that's how the companies will survive."
So don't worry, we're not going to see a crop of ads showing a woman pawing through her Louis Vuitton Motard Firebird bag in search of change for the meter. Even in the best of times, that handbag isn't a handbag. Sure it's more useful than, say, a tiny ceramic zebra, but it's not so much a way to transport goods as it is a sociological construct. So why shouldn't the marketing be a little, you know, "theoretical"? Anything else would be false advertising.