By  on October 28, 2009

Geoffrey Miller believes sex is a primary basis for how consumers decide what to buy.

Miller, the author of “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior” (Viking), is a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico and a consultant to companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. and The Coca-Cola Co. He argues consumers buy and wear what they do because of their desire to attract potential mates, rather than fashion trends.

Shoppers buy clothes they think make them look good, but in reality other people rarely notice what they wear. “Sometimes, they do, but often they don’t, and we overestimate how much they do,” he said. “Can you remember anything specific worn by your spouse or best friend the day before yesterday?”

WWD: Why does sex sell?
Geoffrey Miller: All animals devote time and energy to attracting sexual partners — especially high-quality sexual partners — and that’s difficult whether you’re a peacock, humpback whale or human. Young single men are one of the most profitable segments [in the industry] because they pour time, energy and money into mating efforts to attract women, consciously or unconsciously. Married but aging women are motivated to retain their looks and stylishness because for them, it’s not as much a matter of attracting a high-quality mate, but keeping him interested and detaining other women from poaching their husbands away. So a lot of females see conspicuous consumption not as a way to attract more men, but to intimidate other women who are their sexual rivals.

WWD: Why is consumer purchasing so influenced by celebrities?
G.M.: Humans, like all social primates, have an instinctive attention to individuals of high status, automatically lock on to prestige, pay attention to it, and try and imitate it. You see chimpanzees, where lower-status individuals spend a lot of time looking at higher-status individuals, tracking each other’s every move. And the higher-status individuals just do their own thing, not paying attention to the lower status. The same is true of humans: Whatever gets defined as higher social status leads to attention holding power, grabs our focus and we can’t help but pay attention to what prestigious individuals do.

WWD: How have buying habits changed?
G.M.: A lot of consumers now want brands to give them a lot more bang for their buck. They don’t know where capitalism goes next, and people who lost a lot of equity and worth have become more frugal in their spending. The recession led to a questioning of runaway consumerism, especially in the fashion industry….Educated consumers now pay more attention to the antiglobalization, environmental and green movements, ethical investment and voluntary simplicity.

WWD: How long will the new buying habits last?
G.M.: As long as the recession, and then we’ll go back and pent-up demand will be needed to be released, like an earthquake.

WWD: What errors do people make in purchases?
G.M.: Most people are completely muddled about their goals when they buy something. One reason they’re confused is they are not honest with themselves about their social or sexual agenda. For example, it’s important for married people to still be attractive to other potential mates, so if a married woman sees a great new dress she’d look attractive in, it’s also important she not acknowledge that she wants to attract sexual attention from men other than her husband. She needs to be able to convince herself, and her husband, that she’s just buying it for self-esteem. The most effective advertising plays a subtle cat-and-mouse game with those instincts.

WWD: What were some major momentsin consumerism?
G.M.: The Volkswagen Beetle ads in the Sixties were a real turning point in the sophistication of advertising. They were the first ads to use self-deprecation and irony, and show an upfront savvyness about the nature of advertising itself, and were the first ads to appeal to the counterculture. Another turning point was Calvin Klein jeans in the late Seventies, early Eighties, which represented the understanding that even a counterculture icon, like blue jeans, could be given premium branding, and take advantage of the new mass affluence among middle class consumers and deliver aspirational goods that took advantage of the high-fashion associations of the Calvin Klein brand, but were affordable to the Iowa mall shopper.

WWD: What were some memorable consumerism mistakes?
G.M.: I think the sport utility vehicle trend was a real peculiarity that will be remembered as a kind of mass vanity in a few decades…and I think was an example of real runaway conspicuous consumption that in retrospect looks pretty silly.

WWD: Is it common for people to be fooled when they make purchases?
G.M.: Each sex misunderstands what the other sex wants. Research in psychology shows women think men are attracted to skinnier women, but they actually aren’t. Most women feel that to be attractive, they have to have really low body mass index and look like Kate Moss. But in fact, that’s a mass delusion. If you ask men what kind of body shape they are most attracted to, they typically give answers that represent a healthy, peak fertility normal woman. Conversely, men have the impression women are much more attracted to muscle mass, so men go around chasing diabolic steroids, working out and trying to bulk up, thinking that will be more attractive to women. And men select clothing that emphasizes upper body muscles, when, in fact, research shows women don’t care much about musculature. They just want a guy that’s in decent shape, healthy, energetic, but intelligent and kind.

WWD: Why do people sometimes have misconceptions about what they look like?
G.M.: That results from the conflict of interest between what advertisers feel is a cool campaign to work on, versus what may actually be profitable for the companies and useful to the consumer. A typical ad executive wants to work on campaigns aimed at young, cool, rich, skinny single people. In fact, a lot of premium brand clothing could make a profit by paying attention to overweight consumers, who are a huge proportion of Americans in general, including affluent Americans.

WWD: Is the state of consumerism changing?
G.M.: There is a mass of change from the social networking Web sites, where for free you can broadcast your musical tastes, fashion tastes and political values, without having to buy a product associated with those traits. For example, you can say you like the designs of classic Issey Miyake, or exotic cutting-edge designers or dressmakers just by seeing their advertising and coverage in fashion magazines, without actually buying anything. What you’re doing is revealing a lot about your aesthetic tastes, cultural sophistication, your openness to new design — but the designer is not actually making any money from you.

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