As luxury becomes just another commodity, status seekers in need of an exclusivity fix are literally going out on a limb.
In the 18th century, life at sea on the tall ships was so miserable that crews had to be press-ganged into service. In the 21st century, people not only volunteer for the job, they call it a vacation.
For the past few years, ostensibly normal Americans have been paying good money to spend a week working on a replica of the Endeavor, the sailing ship Captain James Cook sailed to the South Pacific in 1768. In return, they experience such authentic sea-going moments as climbing to vertiginous heights in lashing winds, and heaving their dinner over the bow during night watch. "I wanted to know what it feels like to sail a tall ship," one volunteer swabbie told The Wall Street Journal. "Now I know. It feels like dying, except it doesn't end."
Counterintuitive as it may seem, a week of picturesque torture aboard the Endeavor is considered something of a luxury cruise, despite its lack of midnight buffets, pampering spas, and air-conditioned cabins equipped with satellite TV. By definition, the highest status belongs to those things which are most scarce, and nothing is more rare among the richest members of the richest society on earth than hardship. In an economy in which consumers are willing to pay a premium for "experience," suffering has acquired a new aura of prestige.
And remember those rare and costly pashmina shawls the fashionistas were coveting two years ago? This Christmas, pashmina ceased to be either, thanks to the dozens of catalogs and dot.coms hawking it at a range of price points, proving once again that any product - even a luxury good - can be reduced to a commodity. But more than that, in the current economy of intangibles, experience trumps possessing. Today's most coveted, inalienable product benefits are not embedded in the objects themselves but in the minds and hearts of consumers.
This phenomenon has changed the nature of that great American sport: conspicuous consumption. After an almost decade-long, prosperity-fueled shopping spree, no one is impressed any longer by a Viking stove or a mammoth Lincoln Navigator with enough cup holders for an entire soccer team. How about impressing your friends and co-workers with tales of a week on horseback following the eagle hunters of western Mongolia as they pursue fox and wolf across the steppe? This winter, Boojum Expeditions is offering just such an exclusive experience, complete with tent accommodations in temperatures that never get above freezing. "At times," the travel outfitter's disclaimer croons, "you may find yourself frightened, cold, hungry and uncomfortable." But such wretchedness is just the cost of keeping up with the souls of the Joneses.
Sometimes pain isn't just the by-product of an inimitable experience, but the whole point. No one would buy a car with a lousy suspension, hard, cheaply covered seats, and no heat if he could help it; to do so would be sentencing oneself to a daily regime of misery, since we use our cars all the time. But bragging rights accrue to saddle sores earned on a cattle drive in Argentina. Once we tried to escape pain. Now pain itself is an escapist pleasure.
Some marketing gurus see pain as the last unexplored frontier of the American marketplace. Until now, suffering has been the business of religion, according to B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in their book, The Experience Economy (Harvard Business School Press). And American business has been too involved in eliminating consumer discomfort and promising pleasure to appreciate pain's possibilities as a profit center. But now that marketers have learned not only can they sell the things that money can't buy, but charge more for them, too, the economic value of pain is becoming clear: In a marketplace that can exact a higher price for intangibles than for mere stuff, it is the ultimate subjective experience.
It's not that the market for eliminating pain is disappearing altogether. Consider the changing attitudes toward childbirth, Mother Nature's own transforming experience. For decades, advocates of natural childbirth argued that enduring the agonies of delivery without drugs brought its own reward: a sense of accomplishment and empowerment. These are among the highest rewards a consumer can seek in the experiential marketplace and they've been available to every woman since time immemorial, free of charge.
But over the past 15 years, advances in anesthesiology have allowed doctors to administer painkillers in smaller, more localized doses. It has become possible to dull the perinatal mother's pain without affecting her mobility or mental awareness. The result, according to a recently released survey of 750 hospitals, is that the percentage of women using epidural anesthesia - an injection of painkiller near the spine - has tripled to 66 percent in 1997, up from 22 percent in 1981. At one Manhattan hospital, the percentage of women opting for drugs during delivery soared from 10 percent to 90 percent in a decade. Soul, shmoul, American women are saying. Give us the shot.
Still, natural childbirth's precipitous decline in market share does offer its advocates at least one consolation prize: more status. Once the inheritance of all Eve's daughters, the rigors of natural delivery may develop cachet precisely because consumers can choose to endure them. Unnecessary pain is an experience. Necessary pain just hurts.