“Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small” - Virginia Woolf
“Business class tickets for your parents’ first international vacation - a hundred and ten thousand rupees. Renting a luxury car - eight thousand rupees; tickets to the amusement park – five thousand six hundred rupees; watching your parents become children again – priceless. There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s MasterCard.”
To me, one of the most well-known creative concepts around the world - MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign, best explains Virginia Woolf’s observation – “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” We live in times where we usually measure our happiness with our possessions; there are non-materialistic things that make us much happier but life is more complex and commercial in the modern world. We “Live For Now” with Pepsi and mark our “Celebrations” with Cadbury’s… there are some things money can’t buy but for everything else we do need to swipe that card!
Marketers like us have realized that it is no longer only about the benefit of the product but it is about the larger emotion that they want to drive. So, if we buy insurance, we are buying protection and peace of mind; if we buy a specific car, we are buying a certain lifestyle and the pride that comes attached with it. This reminds me of American psychologist, Frederick Herzberg’s Dual Factor theory, popularly known as Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory in a workplace. I remember reading about it in college and it provides an interesting layer to what Ms. Woolf has to say. According to Mr. Herzberg, there are certain factors in the workplace that cause employee satisfaction and another set that causes dissatisfaction. The motivators or the satisfaction factors include larger things like recognition, sense of achievement, satisfaction derived from doing positive work for the society, among others. While the dis-satisfiers or the hygiene factors include mostly materialistic things like salary, comfortable work environment, perks, etc. The presence of these hygiene factors do not lead to motivation but their absence causes great dissatisfaction. Similarly, things that are considered small or materialistic in nature may not be the main cause of happiness but their absence definitely causes distress. So, according to me life exists fully in both what is commonly thought big and what is commonly thought small in today’s world.
Let us look at the recent Presidential inauguration in the United States of America. Returning to office for his second term, President Barack Obama talked about a number of important topics including the economy, gay-rights, guns and gender equality, among others. It was an important speech and millions in America and around the world took note. However, there is another element that grabbed the headlines that day – the First Lady’s dress! Michelle Obama’s red Jason Wu gown for the inauguration ball created as much excitement as her husband’s address to the nation. Now, in larger scheme of things what the First Lady wore may not be considered important but it was given prominence in all prime time news segments and in all other media vehicles. Someone tweeted that Jason Wu is now an inspiration for Asian kids who do not want to be engineers. All that fuss around a dress may seem superficial and materialistic on surface, but it is not for Jason Wu, his team, the fashion industry, design students and probably that Asian kid who does not want to be an engineer. Who decides what is small and what is big and if life fully exists in either? What is trivial and small for one may be a source of big joys or sorrows for another. It is all about the prism through which we choose to view our lives.
Media and marketers have played an important role in shaping the modern consumer’s mindset. I use the word “consumer” and not “person” as we are driven and defined by the materialistic choices we make. What is commonly thought big and what is commonly thought small are not mutually exclusive now. For instance, a mother buys a specific lotion brand for her child as she thinks that it offers the best care she can provide. If she is unable to purchase that brand and has to compromise with a cheaper brand that is considered but is not actually inferior, she may not feel the same satisfaction. The larger emotion here is caring for her child but the small element of buying a specific product that is considered the best does lead to her happiness.
People today do not take for granted that life fully exists in what is commonly thought big but probably give more than required importance to what is commonly thought small. These are also the times of instant gratification and shorter attention spans – so we grab onto the small things while usually not letting go of the larger agendas. We remember the larger picture but also revel in the small joys of life or shall I say materialism like Ms. Woolf’s critique of modern fiction writers? We love Christmas or Diwali for the festive spirit, joy and love of our families; but we also love these festivals for the gifts we exchange and the new things we acquire. Take the gifts out and you may not enjoy the festival too much… the larger emotion of love and togetherness remains but the small worldly possessions make it more special. This may not be the ideal world but is the world that we inhabit today where life fully exists in both small and big things.