Luxury and Fun

October 29, 2014

Umberto Eco’s most famous novel, The Name of the Rose, is a pretty cool murder mystery. It’s set in the Middle Ages, in a monastery in Italy where a friar called William of Baskerville is doing a bit of detective work trying to resolve a series of strange deaths. The monastery is very rich and has many treasures on display.

At one point in the novel the Abbot explains to William that the beauty of the jewels in the monastery helps him feel closer to God.

I think this is an interesting idea, that the physical beauty of a treasure, which is a very material thing, can cause a spiritual experience. This is usually the role of art or religion, but as the Abbot rightly puts it, luxury items, and more recently luxury brands, may also play a role in the search for the sublime.

The dichotomy of luxury and comedy

Luxury brands do not address needs, they address dreams.  Strictly speaking their products are not about everyday life. They are about mystery, adventure, and in one way or another, beauty. Similarly to art, coming up with an exact definition of luxury is difficult because many ingredients have to be considered: history, culture, taste, education, etc. There are, however, at least three elements that most experts on luxury brands agree must be present in order for a product to be classified as a luxury item: rarity, exclusivity, and aesthetics.

But something that is conspicuously absent in the marketing of luxury brands is humour. There are a few exceptions, like the Mercedes vs. Jaguar ad battle with its chorus line of hens and snoring cats (although some experts say that Mercedes and Jaguar aren’t true luxury brands anymore, slipping down to the “premium” range because they have become too accessible); and there’s Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Fendi, Chanel, and the Karl Lagerfeld brand itself, who in the last few years has used his cat Choupette in social media and for publicity stunts. But generally speaking luxury brands are not likely to include humour in their advertising, and there’s good reason for this.

Images L to R: Harpers BazaarV's September 2012 issue

Humour is a powerful, destabilising force. There are many examples of this. Dictators have always fought to silence satirists; Medieval and Renaissance courts had jesters whose job was to entertain, but also to critique the monarch and those closest to him/her by making fun of them; Mel Brooks said that one of the reasons why he wrote The Producers was to disempower Hitler and everything he stood for; and on a much lighter note, what about Apple’s Get a Mac campaign which ran from 2006 to 2009 and was aimed at subverting the dominion that PCs and Windows had over the market?

In this sense, luxury does the exact opposite to humour. Socially speaking, it defines clear limits; it organises and stratifies, while comedy usually sets the world upside down.  But subversion is only one aspect of humour, and like luxury and art, humour can also be a tool in the search for beauty and the sublime.  

‘Play’ as the bridge between luxury and humour

In his best-selling book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr Stuart Brown talks about the many benefits of “Play”, and its biological importance as part of who we are and how we evolve. According to him, “Play” involves “games…flirtation and fantasy”, elements that luxury brands have been using for a very long time to show the hedonic aspects of luxury, but “Play” also involves humour.

Brown is only one of many experts who have recently spoken about the many benefits of humour, which amongst other things, helps us cement information and connect and engage at a number of levels (one of the reasons why TED talks are so popular is their habitual use of humour; in fact, Ken Robinson’s TED talk, by far the most watched with almost thirty million views, is absolutely hilarious).

What this means for brands

So what does this mean? There is a largely unexplored territory for luxury brands involving humour in their stories. Humour is not necessarily antagonistic to exclusivity, aesthetics, or rarity. I wonder if used correctly, rather than being detrimental to a luxury brands’ identity, it could help engage the consumer at a more fundamental level? For some it would seem ironic that the treasures of the monastery in The Name of the Rose, the epitome of materiality, could be conducive to spiritual rapture, but Eco’s description, based on many years of research on the subject, proves otherwise. I think that comedy could be the flip-side of that same coin.

Gabriel Garcia Ochoa

Gabriel is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Latin American Literature at Monash University, Australia. He is a literary translator and the editor of Verge 2014: Everything and Nothing, an anthology of short fiction and poetry.