During World War II, members of “cargo cults” in the South Pacific literally worshiped cargo they salvaged from crashed aircraft or that washed ashore from ships. They believed that their ancestors piloted the ships and planes that passed near their islands, so they tried to attract them to their villages. They went so far as to construct fake planes from straw to lure the real ones overhead!
We may not worship products to that extent, but many of us certainly work hard to attain our vision of the good life, which abounds in material comforts. Most young people can’t imagine a life without cell phones, yoga pants, and other creature comforts. In fact, we can think of marketing as a system that provides certain standards of living to consumers. To some extent, then, the standards of living we expect and desire influence our lifestyles, either by personal experience or as a result of the affluent characters we see on TV in “reality shows” like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, in movies, and in the pages of Vogue or GQ. Exhibit A: The popular bumper sticker that reads “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”
Our possessions play a central role in our lives, and our desire to accumulate them shapes our value systems. Materialism refers to the importance people attach to worldly possessions. We sometimes take the bounty of products and services for granted, until we remember how recent this abundance is. For example, in 1950, two of five American homes did not have a telephone, and in 1940 only half of all households had indoor plumbing.
Materialists are more likely to value possessions for their status and appearance-related meanings, whereas those who do not emphasize this value tend to prize products that connect them to other people or that provide them with pleasure when they use them. As a result, high materialists prefer expensive products that they publicly consume.
A study comparing specific items that low versus high materialists value found that people who were non-materialists cherished items with personal significance, such as a mother’s wedding gown, picture albums, a rocking chair from childhood, or a garden. In contrast, high materialists preferred prestige goods such as jewelry, china, or a vacation home. Materialistic people also appear to link more of their self-identity to products. One study found that when people who score high on this value fear the prospect of dying, they form even stronger connections to brands. Another study reported that consumers who are “love-smitten” with their possessions tend to use these relationships to compensate for loneliness and a lack of affiliation with social networks. Yet another found that materialists tend to value a product before they buy it because they believe it will make them happy, but their satisfaction with it diminishes after the purchase when they realize this didn’t happen.