Subrationedei brought my attention to this quote from Raymond Williams. In Culture and Materialism, p. 185:
It is often said that our society is too materialist, and that advertising reflects this … But it seems to me that in this respect our society is quite evidently not materialist enough, and that this, paradoxically, is the result of a failure in social meanings, values and ideals.
It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly. A washing-machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward looking or an object of envy to our neighbors. But if these associations sell beer and washing machines, as some of the evidence suggests, it is clear that we have a cultural pattern in which the objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meaning which in a different cultural pattern might be more directly available. The short description of the pattern we have is magic: a highly organized and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies, but rather strangely coexistent with a highly developed scientific technology.
That seems highly salient to anyone who would like to live a simpler life or, indeed, merely a rational life. Our superstitious brains seem to be built to see magic even in the midst of a world crafted by our rationality. We buy objects of “value” for the same reasons and with no better justification than a cave man trading food to the witch doctor for a love amulet designed to attract affection from the prettiest cave woman.
Imagine I go buy a really nice car for a lot of money. Now, a car seems to have more value than a horse bladder pouch filled with herbs and teeth (a voodoo love amulet). You can drive the one, but the other you just hang around your neck.
But consider: the price difference between a Honda and a BMW doesn’t represent a real increase in functional utility – the one costs twice as much but it won’t get you to twice as many destinations. What are you buying with that extra money?
Social meaning. You’re buying others’ perception that you are a man (or woman) of means. Some people might even perceive themselves differently if they own a BMW. This might give them confidence. Confidence and conspicuous wealth (perceived according to our society’s measure of such things) may actually help a person get a mate… and within another society the material object that imbues its owner with those qualities might take the form of a magical charm. And it might, therefore, work.
So let me say it again: your expensive stuff is expensive because you are buying magic.