Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Status

There is a particularly annoying Volkswagen commercial getting significant airplay these days, wherein a young good-looking, and apparently self-actualized couple is driving around in their Passat, passing other German-branded car owners, each equipped with a megaphone, who say things like: “I am compensating for my inadequacies” by driving an expensive German-engineered car.

The commercial asks you to accept basically two things: 1) that a German-engineered car is a German-engineered car, and so any difference in expense is not indicative of differences in quality; and 2) given 1, if you own something more expensive than a Volkswagen, you obviously have problems that you are trying to conceal by purchasing status. Or perhaps the problem you have is precisely that you are trying to purchase status. But this can’t be it – because presumably some people would like to convey the image that they don’t care about status – and if the commercial is correct, purchasing a Volkswagen will allow you to convey your indifference. It’s a catch 22, because if you don’t care about status, you shouldn’t care about signaling your lack of concern with it.

And then, to top it off, they end the commercial by announcing that Volkswagens have the “lowest ego emissions of any German-engineered car.” Now, this can be interpreted two ways – you can still be an egotistical ass even if you drive a Volkswagen – you are just less of an egotistical ass than a BMW driver. Or perhaps we are just meant to assume that everyone knows German cars are better than Japanese or American cars, and so this is the only reliable car you can drive without being pompous.

If I were another German car manufacturer, I’d take the chance to hit Volkswagen really below the belt, and have an advertising campaign with the tagline: “BMW - Less cooperation with the Third Reich than Volkswagen,” and have Germans riding around in Volkswagens in SS uniforms.

In any event, the general concept of the commercial – the concern for status – is a subject that I often think about, and find myself thinking about more and more, especially as I am coming up to my 20th high school reunion. Here is the thing about status – we usually go from place to place in life looking to climb in status, but every time you do, you find yourself surrounded by a cohort wherein you no longer stand out. And you mostly compare yourself to people in your cohort that you are surrounded by, which also changes typically with the change in status. You move to a richer neighborhood, and you are no longer the richest in the neighborhood. You get into a select college, and you are no longer the smartest kid in the class. Etc.

This means that the “I’ll show you” motivation for climbing a wrung on the status ladder is a rather shortsighted motive, because in fact you won’t show anyone – if you climb, you typically leave, and because you are out of your old world, nobody really cares or knows what you’ve made of yourself. The other sometimes unfortunate consequence is this – you can never really enjoy your own success because once you climb, you very quickly change your point of reference for comparison.

For example, I just read the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the fall of Enron. That company had guys leaving jobs that paid in the low 100K range becoming millionaires many times over in a fairly short period of time. But quickly what mattered to these guys was not the fact that they had quite unexpectedly achieved financial independence; instead each was obsessed with their wealth and compensation compared to others in the company.

I leave you with one quote from that book that had me laughing hysterically. Andrew Fastow, the crooked CFO, was starting to feel the heat with the WSJ publishing a very critical article before the walls came tumbling down on Enron. His brother wrote him the following e-mail:

“We know, without a doubt, that there was nothing inappropriate with your involvement with LJM while serving as an officer of Enron. We support you 100%. Anyway, we both found the content of the article to be extremely suspect. If you were really making millions from LJM, there is no way you’d let your brother continue to drive a 7 year old Toyota Camry.”

5 Comments:

Anonymous the_giant said...

Similar to what I tell my siblings/friends: "If you were really making millions, you wouldn't let me continue to drive a 17-year old beat up Accord."

You'd at least spring for a paint job.....

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hatch, not to bust the bubble but I believe its "ECO" not "EGO"
they are environmentally friendly nazis

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was only ever concerned with my status amongst theguys of the SHPB. That's why I drink a lot of Chartreuse, try to pick up dirty girls, and drive a nine year old Dodge Stratus with 110k miles.

True Story.

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatcher, don't you drive a Beamer??

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First anon, you are incorrect; it is EGO not eco.

Giant, you drive two miles a day for 17 years; dude you don't even NEED a car. If you weren't so cheap, you would have had a new car maybe 1 or 2 years ago.

4:55 AM  

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