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The Diderot Effect and the Affluent Consumer

Wayne McMaster

2 November 2012

The Diderot effect drives the “upward creep of desire” towards the acquisition of more and more consumer goods.   For a given set of consumer goods, household furniture for example, as new items are bought the remaining items appear less attractive in comparison to the new purchases, often compelling additional purchases based on this relative comparison between personal possessions. Even in tougher economic times, it’s a powerful inducement towards more affluent lifestyles.But perhaps the story of Diderot, the French philosopher, can be turned into a positive, and lessons learned for the luxury marketer when we consider it through the lens of “style.”

In his essay entitled “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” Denis Diderot, an 18th century French philosopher, talks about a gift of a fancy new dressing gown (“smoking jacket” in some translations). Once he started wearing his new robe, it became apparent that the shabby old furnishings of his study didn’t quite fit with the splendour of his new garment, so he replaced them. Soon he found himself replacing tapestries, chairs, desks, bookshelves, and even a clock. Upon reflection, Diderot realised that one single item, his new robe, had led him to purchase a whole host of new items, leaving him financially depleted as well as uncomfortable and unhappy amidst his new possessions, and resenting the “scarlet robe that forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.”

The Diderot Effect also helps to explain why one’s possessions can also define sociological status. The Diderot Effect is often employed (whether consciously or not) by marketers in their efforts to encourage us to “keep up with the Joneses”. Even in tougher economic times, it’s a powerful inducement towards more affluent lifestyles.

Vision of oneself in society or “knowing one’s place”

In a democratic, capitalistic society it can also mean “knowing what you want to become” and where you want to fit in. In Diderot’s case, he wanted to be part of the element of society that regularly wore fine smoking jackets for their evening leisure. This also requires having a sense of one’s self. The life style must “fit comfortably” as well as “fit in.”

Sense of identity, often seen as a reflection in things surrounding us

It is usually recognised that our goods communicate something to others about who we are, what we value, what we are like. What is less frequently described is that the things we possess also tend to define us to ourselves. To paraphrase, “we think we are the kinds of things we have.” This is not a question of quantity as much as it is a question of quality.

Awareness of options (what we don’t know, we can’t lust after)

If Diderot became aware of the fine smoking jacket because his patron gave it to him, this would be a passive awareness. Or perhaps Diderot had visited his patron’s home and seen such jackets. This would be more active. Society has many ways of bringing the options to our (passive) attention, including of course advertising and marketing. Or we can be active, for example, by shopping, going to gatherings, talking to others, etc.

Discernment: Attention to detail

Little things make a big difference in the arena of lifestyle. How many threads are in your sheets, the type of wood inlaid in your car, the stitching in your suit, the aromatics in your lotions, etc. The design and structure of things is as much a part of their quality as the materials from which they are made.

Notice, Diderot was not taken by the cost of the jacket but by the quality. His challenge became to learn or observe enough about other things to select items of similar quality. What type of material for a chair is a parallel in quality to silk in a jacket? What design would go with the rest of his lodging?

A sense of symmetry; the ability to “edit”

Having a lifestyle requires discipline. Time, attention, and often money, are scarce resources. The beauty of a lifestyle is that it provides guidance regarding what to do or not do, what’s worth having (to you) or not having.

This extract is taken from his recent book “The Future of Luxury: The Peacock and the Prius”, Richard Baker (CEO, Premium Knowledge Group) as he dissected the Diderot effect and its impact on lifestyle choices.


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