When Research Takes You Places You’d Rather Not Go

I’ve recently been thinking about why people buy luxury, trademarked goods. How important is the trademark to the purchasing decision? And is there any way of hedonically pricing the trademark–i.e., figuring out what percentage of the product’s price is attributable to it? Finally, is there any way of using data like that to get some purchase on the cultural meaning of luxury marks?

There are good papers by Barnett and Raustiala/Sprigman relating to this topic. They provide very useful economic theory on what’s going on when, say, a shopper drops a few grand for an Hermes purse. I’m also drawn to some of the cultural studies literature…and recently, Daniel Harris’s Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism.

I have yet to get to his chapters on “Glamorousness” and “Coolness,” which seem most relevant to the project. But the chapter “Cuteness” has been a doozy. Harris argues that

[C]alendars with droopy-eyed puppies pleading for attention or greeting cards with kitty cats in raincoats. . . . are part of a unique and readily identifiable iconography whose distortions trigger, with Pavlovian predictability, maternal feelings for a mythical condition of endearing naivete. . . . [T]he aesthetic of cuteness creates a class of . . . of lovable inferiors whom children and adults collect, patronize, and enslave. . . . Something becomes cute not because of quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.

Of course, this is a little over the top, and I’m still able to enjoy a site like Cute Overload even after reading Harris’s exposure of the dark underbelly of cute. But I have to admit that, in an effort to problematize luxury purchases, I’ve stumbled onto work that calls into question a much wider variety of tastes. Is any part of consumer culture simply benign? Well, perhaps this…

(By the way, for a much less polemical analysis of the cute, see the trademarked Rules of Cuteness available here (left column; permalinks don’t seem to be working)).