It’s surely happened to you in that the wife drags you to the furniture store as that old sofa of yours is starting to look its age and your wife’s friend just got a new one. So up comes the delivery truck and off they load a brand new couch into your living room. There is nothing like the feeling of a new couch especially as you kick back and grab the remote flip on the big game and crack that beer open you’ve been waiting for all day.
Whoa, wait a minute there, that’s in the alternate universe, sorry because as you kick back and get ready to do all of that your wife comes into the room not to announce her appreciation but to point out those worn end tables just don’t go with the new couch. So the two of you need to head back to the store and correct this little short coming, off you are as there will be another big game won’t there? Well, we can save the rest of the story as the crib notes version as you will also replace the lamps, then paint and buy a new house. Lest you think I jest, yes this has been reality as minds work in this ordered fashion and Madison Avenue knows it.
Why, well you can blame the French philosopher Denis Diderot for this as he wrote an essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown” where a friend gifts him a new dressing gown to replace his old and tattered one. However as he wears his new gift, he finds that one by one, his other possessions which were just fine are now lacking in the light of his new wardrobe. So he attempts to correct this by discarding the old item and replacing them with new until his surroundings matched his elegant new robe.
This interaction between objects within Diderot’s essay are “product complements“, and because of this story, now referred to as “Diderot unities” as they comprise groups of objects that are considered to be culturally complementary in relation to one another. For example, in the furniture story above the couch is related to the end tables, then to the lamps and then finally to the house itself.
While Diderot’s work was originally written in the mid 1700’s, it wasn’t until 1988 that an anthropologist named Grant McCracken who was studying consumption patterns coined the phrase “Diderot Effect” to explain buying habits. As this work shows how advertising, and the mass media drive powerful social norms which create an ever increasing desire, to lead an intense “work and spend” lifestyle which in turn leaves us of all income levels feeling increasingly rushed and starved for time.
As an awareness of the Diderot Effect can help us understand potential purchases are not the “ends” however only the “means” to other related but indirect purchases. Use as an example, buying a larger, nicer home will entail purchasing not only more, however also “nicer” furniture to match. Automotive aftermarket parts is another, your new car comes with perfectly good rims and tires why would you choose new ones? Then there is upgrading your computer and replacing the operating system as the old one just won’t do justice to the new machine’s capabilities, so maybe you better plan on that, too. And so on and on and on…