I watched The Devil Wears Prada not long ago – as the name implies, it’s not short on product placement, though of course this is part of the fun. The central character, played by Meryl Streep, is the editor of a fashion magazine and the heroine/narrator is hired her assistant. Streep’s character is represented as an impossibly demanding princess – the first illustration of this being an imperious demand for Starbucks coffee, delivered in a paper (or maybe even styrofoam) cup. Even allowing for the needs of product placement, and the curiously high status of this coffee-shop chain in the US, this strikes me as way off the mark. Surely she should be demanding her own personal barista, freshly grinding exotic coffee beans, and delivering the product in brand-name china (compare the gangster-movie financier in Mulholland Drive who spits out the coffee with which his hosts have struggled desperately to please him).
But all this comes to the central contradiction of promoting luxury consumption, discussed here not long ago. On the one hand, we want to read about and watch the luxury products of the rich and famous, and advertisers want to exploit this. On the other hand, if we could all afford to buy it, it wouldn’t be luxury consumption. There are ways around this – for example, Gucci makes its name with impossibly expensive clothes, but makes much of its profits by attaching its brand name, and the associated high markups, to lower-priced products like sunglasses.
Of course, I’m using “luxury” in a special sense here. Refrigerators were once available only to the wealthy, but they are valuable because they are useful. Now they are cheap and widely available (note that other items, like university education are going in the opposite direction), but this isn’t a problem. By contrast, the kind of luxury I’m talking about, represented most clearly by high fashion relies on exclusiveness for its value. In the end, this is a zero-sum game, which probably explains some of the oddities of fashion.
Edited in response to comments