Have you ever wondered why anyone would spend $800 on a pair of shoes? Or why anyone would buy a huge house, a nice car, all the while working themselves to death and going into debt to do so?
Or perhaps you even find yourself casually browsing a fashion website or looking at new gadgets to buy?
These items are symbols of an abstract desire you wish to fill. The only reason one would spend $800 on a pair of shoes is to fill the desire to stand out in the form of being financially capable of spending so much on something without much utility. It is a form of sexual selection: I am a high quality potential mate because I can afford this thing.
I will give a personal example to help illustrate the point of symbolism: For about a week, I was strung up on buying a Lenovo Thinkpad and installing Linux on it. I own a perfectly good 2011 15″ Macbook Pro. The thought only came to mind because of a tendency of mine to want to stand out as being “different” and “out of the box.” My abstract desire would fall less on being “wealthy” and more on being “creative and different.” My fantasies of using the computer all involved me using the computer publicly, as if people would see me with some alternative computer and think, “wow, I have never seen Linux before. That guy is so indie!” Irrational? Totally. A means of trying to stand out in the gene pool? Absolutely. Luckily, after never really finding any computer that would suit my price range and needs, I gave up on the idea and went back to my Macbook Pro.
While it’s pretty obvious that advertisers give us grand pictures of a beautiful life (the beach shot, the voluptuous woman, the nice outfits, the chic interior decoration (including lots of geometric thingies placed carefully on top of natural wood tables)), the social symbolism of consumerism is what maintains these images. Advertiser makes image –> person fantasizes –> person caves and buys –> advertiser makes more images.
Humans convert abstract emotions to symbols. Your frontal cortex (the newest, rational part of the brain, aka consciousness) sits above the limbic system (the emotional brain), and therefore you think first with your emotions. Emotions drive even your most rational thoughts. For example, say right now you think “boy, I should save up my pennies and invest in the stock market!” This rational thought is driven by the emotional impulse for stability, comfort, and to continue existing as a person on Earth. “Investing in the stock market” is your rational, conscious way of symbolizing your desire for comfort and stability.
So, let’s go back to the symbolism of consumerism. Consider this: the fantasies in your head (also known as your imagination) come from your emotional hopes and desires being given to you by mass media. Why does one hope for a beach house? Because they have seen a beach house in a YouTube video somewhere. What does this beach house represent emotionally? The desire to relax and get away from the stresses of the industrialized world (namely: the crowds, the noise, and the irritating bosses and colleagues).
Think of any “lifestyle” product and try to figure out what the emotional desire is in said product. Makeup is easy: to look attractive as a potential mate, or just look look attractive as a means of socialization. A natural desire to mate with someone is hard wired and an incredibly powerful emotional motivator. Makeup is merely a symbol of standing out in the gene pool. Think a peacock’s feathers. This is sexual selection.
Humans are very, very social animals, mostly because of our ability to convert emotion into symbols. Symbols become language, and language creates society.
The next time you see someone with ridiculously expensive clothing, such as $800 sneakers, consider that those sneakers are merely symbols that they are high quality potential mates, they are unlike the rest of the gene pool, they are capable of earning money, and they are capable of providing continuing survival for others.