Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ape Advertisting: A Review of Spent, by Geoffrey Miller

I read Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour, by Geoffrey Miller, and found it a very worthy tome, certainly in comparison to the drone of pop-evolution books that have infested the market lately.  It offered a higher 'value-velocity', shall we say, with a very large ratio of insights-per-page (as against story-telling fluff).  

Miller takes humanity roughly in his arms, shakes a bit, and finds a whole jumble of confused gestures and processes that blind our eyes, and pilfer our cash.  His aim is marketing, that gloating beast at the heart of our culture, and the evolutionary mish-mash that makes us so susceptible to its wiles.  

Unlike the Maslovian hierarchy of needs presented preformed to business students from pole to pole, Miller argues that there are not five distinct and progressive needs that each person requires for fulfilment (physiological needs, safety needs, love, esteem, self actualisation)  There are actually only two drives - the drive to survive and the drive to reproduce, and they can sometimes compete.  

The meat and most value-adding part of the book consisted of a discussion of how utterly useless most displays of status, or conspicuous consumption, actually are.  Looking through the spyglass of reproduction, for example, it turns out that personality and humour are much more important in getting and keeping a mate than the watch you wear or the car you drive.  

He asks the fascinating question - how much perceptual benefit do we get from buying a fancy car? The answer?  Almost none.  This, then, is the consumerist delusion - that people care about what brand you wear, or what you have.  They don't.  They really, really don't.  Consider yourself.  Do you know or care about what watch your co-worker wears, their clothes?  If they forked out on an Armani suit, would you even notice, and if you did, would you care, would your perception of them change?  No.  

The delusion is centred on the idea that what you have matters more than your personality or character traits.  Perhaps in the limit having a nice car might get you a date or two, but beyond that,  it is only you and your wits alone.  Thus it might behove us to work better on that side of the self, and to be aware that advertising ever plucks at the ape inside, and to know that the greatest trick marketers ever pulled was convincing your poor soul that people care about what you have.  

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