October 18, 1997 in Nation/World

Americans Big On Consumerism Good Things Don’t Come In Small Packages Anymore

Brigid Schulte Knight-Ridder
 

In America, the land of sweeping horizons and end less opportunity, bigger has always been better. Big sky. Big ideas. Big belt buckles.

But these days, big is getting even bigger.

It’s not hard to spot: Streets are crammed with two-ton, four-wheel-drive “urban assault” vehicles. Furniture is oversized and overstuffed. And popular restaurants serve mounds of “farm portions” loaded onto fashionably oversized plates.

King-size mattresses have morphed into giant California Kings. New houses are three rooms bigger than they were 20 years ago, even though families are smaller. The venerable bathtub is giving way to the “soaking tub, ” with jets. And even Americans are bigger than they used to be - one third of us now are obese.

“We’re having a harmonic convergence for bigness,” said Jon Berry, editor of Public Pulse, put out by the polling firm Roper Starch Worldwide. “We’re more prosperous as a nation. The economy is doing well for the first time in almost a generation. Gas prices are low. And people are in the mood to splurge. It’s party time.” Clearly, the foul mood of the recession and the era of corporate downsizing have lifted, and Americans, weary of scrimping, are letting off a little steam, Berry said. Sociologists say the bigger refrigerators, superstores, econo-sizes, sprawling airports-cum-shopping malls and bicycles with a minimum of 21 speeds are a reflection of the “wealth effect.”

‘My generation’

The Census Bureau announced in September median incomes rose for the third straight year. The number of American billionaires has jumped in a decade from 66 to 149. The stock market is way up, and the new status symbol is a fat 401(k) plan.

But it’s not just about money. Trend spotters say baby boomers feathering their middle-aged nests, and an emerging sense of self-reliance, of rewarding yourself in the face of the stresses and betrayals of modern life, add to the giganticizing of America.

Said Berry: “We’ve shifted from the ‘me generation’ to the ‘my generation’ - my family, my career, my home.”

Stacey Giulianti, of Hollywood, Fla., is a case in point.

“I’ve got a 61-inch TV, which, diagonally, is 1 inch bigger than my own mother,” the 29-year-old lawyer said. “I’ve got an 11-speaker surround-sound system. I’ve got oversize plush couches and a monster-size kitchen with a huge bread maker and a commercial-size mixer. And I’ve got a large master bedroom with a walk-in closet that was the size of my bedroom in my old house.”

He has a soaking tub, 12-foot cathedral ceilings and a “great room” to give his huge house a feel of “casual elegance.” And, he and his pregnant wife have an enormous Infiniti four-by-four truck which, needless to say, they never drive off-road.

“I think our lease prohibits it. But look, life is hard enough in the ‘90s. I got people bumping into me and in traffic jams, I need to go over the median,” he said.

And as for all the other big stuff in his life?

“Life is messy, and it’s nice when you’re done with your day to be able to come home and soak in the big tub, grill in your big back yard and watch your 61-inch TV. It allows you to escape the daily stress. You work hard, you want to enjoy your comforts.”

J. Walker Smith, Atlanta-based managing partner with the trend-watching Yankelovich Partners, said marketers and advertisers are trying to tap into this new sense of bigness. They see it as a sign of optimism, of people wanting to have fun again.

The bigness is not just about the sheer size of things, Smith said. It’s big, but it’s also lush. Comfortable. Pampering. And a bit nostalgic, like curling up for an afternoon nap on a plump chenille sofa. “In the 1980s, bigger meant status and superiority,” Smith said. “Now, it’s less how it looks, it more how it feels.”

Now, he said, “People are realizing all the sacrifices they made in the ‘80s didn’t get them anywhere. They worked 80 hours a week and still got laid off. They went to the gym and still got divorced. Now, people are trying to feel better.”

One way they do that is by throwing their diets out the window. One in six of us now tell pollsters they eat what they want, when they want. The guilt helps fuel the $30 billion diet industry, but there is a growing sense of statuesque acceptance. Loose-fitting fashion, like Dockers, and “plus” sizes for the larger women are selling briskly. Even sleek celebworshipping People magazine celebrated bigness on its cover recently, featuring such “big” stars as Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell and Delta Burke.

To be sure, some things are actually getting smaller, such as cellular telephones, computer chips and tape recorders. “It’s all about the abundance of the era,” argued Roper’s Berry, “and of your wallet that enables you to own and use it.”

Big means safe

Judy Langer, who researches consumer trends, says the baby boomers, weaned on credit cards and instant gratification, have a lot to do with the move toward big and lush.

“Huge home entertainment centers and big-screen TVs became big about the time baby boomers started having kids,” she said. “They wanted to show it was cool to stay home with the kids, they weren’t being a party poop.”

Bernard Beck, a sociologist at Northwestern University, sees something different in the big trend: insecurity.

“Why is everyone driving what is, in effect, a truck?” he said. “So you can go off-road? Nonsense, only a handful of people do that. I think it’s feeling vulnerable and wanting a place that feels safe. And look at the size of shoes. They’re enormous. You get the sense people are armoring themselves. The real thing that’s being projected is not self-indulgence, but self-protection.”

Elaine Bergmann, 36, a mother of four in Portland doesn’t go in for the chunky Doc Martens shoes that so concern Beck. But she has fallen in love with her forest green Chevy Suburban for reasons both Langer and Beck predicted.

“I feel like a Road Warrior in my green Army tank. You feel like no one can harm you,” Bergmann said. “I know it’s very much a status symbol, it’s THE car to have. But it also has nine seatbelts. And when I drive carpools to school or ballet, tap or gymnastics, I’m driving my own children, but also a lot of other people’s children.”

America’s obsession with abundance is not new. Throughout much of its relatively rich history, Americans have spent more money, used more energy, driven more miles and wasted more food - currently 96 billion pounds a year - than any other nation. While 3 billion people around the world live on $2 a day each, an American spends $90. The average American tosses between 1.5 and 4 pounds of stuff into the trash every day.

God’s chosen people

But riding lawn mowers for the average suburban lawn? Color TV screens bigger than your mother?

“Americans have always felt that we’re God’s chosen people, the Holy Land transferred across the Atlantic, and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, which is be big and live big,” said Ray Browne, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio. “But I suspect America has never been so flashy, and I know it’s never been as self-indulgent as it is now.”

Americans, it seems, don’t just want BIG, they simply want MORE.

Roper Starch has been tracking what Americans consider the “Good Life” for more than 20 years. In the 1970s, people wanted a steady job, a home, a happy marriage and college for their kids. Today, the wish list is twice as long and includes things like a swimming pool, travel abroad, a second car and a pile of money.

“In the 90s, we see more emphasis than in the 1980s on things like children and a return to family values,” said Roper’s Jon Berry. “But when it comes to material possessions, Americans want it all.”

Will this last? Bowling Green University’s Ray Browne likens the current big trend to a balloon. “It may not explode,” he said, “but it will lose air and come back down.”

And then? Perhaps Americans will realize that bigness is not necessarily greatness.


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