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Symposium: Crossed Signals

Sheila J. Gibson

While many porschephiles are upset about the new Cayenne SUV, their ire is not focused on any shortcomings that the vehicle might exhibit. Instead, they decry its very existence. The Cayenne is Porsche’s first attempt at a family-friendly vehicle, and that is precisely the problem. Porsche drivers do not want to see their beloved marque neutered, reduced to something a soccer mom could embrace. For them, the Cayenne is no mere marketing misstep; it is a blasphemy against all things Porsche. Robin Sun, an owner of a 1996 Porsche 911, made a telling comment in a December New York Times article. “People will buy these Porsche SUVs because they’re a fad, and they’ll embarrass the real Porsche crowd,” he told the paper. “They’re not going to know how to drive, and they’ll do stupid things. It’s scary to think about.”

The Cayenne arrived in the United States only in February, so it is too early to determine its effect on the marque’s testosterone-driven image. Still, it is hardly the first example of a luxury brand’s attempting to expand into a less elite market. Calvin Klein, Halston, and Fabergé come to mind. Each of these companies’ experiences illustrates the perils of expansion and the notion that you cannot make a prestige brand available to the masses and expect it to retain its prestige.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to the human marketplace. The animal kingdom’s equivalent is addressed in journalist Richard Conniff’s amusing new book, The Natural History of the Rich (W.W. Norton). Conniff has spent years writing for both National Geographic and Architectural Digest, so it was only, well, natural that he would eventually hit upon the idea of observing the wealthy as a unique subspecies of animal. (The concept only sounds insulting. The author succeeds in turning an assortment of anecdotes, observations, and scientific findings into a witty and insightful read.)


In nature, Conniff asserts, it all comes down to signals. A signal, he explains, is something that broadcasts a specific message about its owner, and often, it takes the form of a badge of status. An example that Conniff cites is the large, shimmering fan of tail feathers displayed by a male peacock. Although the aerodynamics of the tail impair the peacock’s ability to flee from predators, peahens in-variably choose to mate with peacocks that have the largest, most beautiful fans. (With the ability to accelerate from zero to 60 in just over 4 seconds, it seems that a 911 owner has the best of both worlds.)

Conversely, there is the issue of signal inflation, the animal kingdom’s version of mass marketing. Conniff quotes biologist Amotz Zahavi regarding signal inflation: “[If] the cost of a signal is reduced to the extent that every individual can use it equally well, then the signal can no longer reveal differences in quality or motivation of individuals.” In other words, if the wrong sort can possess an item, or if everyone can acquire it, it loses its value as a signal. As an example, Zahavi describes the plight of Australia’s satin bowerbirds. The males compete for females by building elaborate nestlike structures called bowers. The best way for males to attract females is to demonstrate their superior hunter/gatherer skills by incorporating something blue into their bower designs, such as blue feathers, which are rare, or blue flowers, which quickly wilt and constantly have to be replaced.

However, humans, by their very presence, tend to disrupt the birds’ system for determining pecking order. Bowerbirds who live too close to cities or towns find their environment flooded with nonbiodegradable blue items, such as blue plastic debris. “For the bowerbirds, it must be like Croesus seeing his whole world turn to gold,” Conniff writes. Faced with a scenario in which even the most unskilled, unqualified, undeserving member of the flock can effortlessly collect massive amounts of blue currency, the birds have fallen back on a less civilized alternative: wholesale vandalism. “Instead of stealing blue objects,” Conniff writes, “they devote all their competitive energy to demolishing one another’s bowers.”

While no one is advocating that a 911 or Boxster owner should take a tire iron to the next Cayenne that he encounters, a lesson can be learned from the peacock and the bowerbird, and that lesson is this: Not only is it OK to practice a little snobbery now and then, it is, in fact, natural.

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