Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The value of glamour

I just discovered that a couple weeks ago Cyclelicious ran a summary of my series on glamour and transit. But Engineer Scotty's discussion of glamour made it clear that my original definition ("Everything non-tangible that affects mode choice: status markers, fantasies, the presence of attractive people (or conversely, their absence)") was not an accurate description of this concept as I use it.

Scotty's inclusion of things like aesthetic, status and self-actualization under the category of "glamour" are consistent with my previous definition. They're not wrong, but they don't fit the category as I actually use it. In fact, I'm using glamour in a very technical sense. I'm building on the concept as it's been developed by Virginia Postrel. Her best explanation to date is probably her Weekly Standard article "A Power to Persuade," and her best discussion of glamour in transportation is "Up, Up and Away" in the Atlantic Monthly. You can read more in Postrel's article archive, and at her Deep Glamour blog, which has frequent guest posts.

The understanding that I've gotten from Postrel's writing is that glamour is an illusion, and therefore it is unobtainable. It vanishes if you try to grasp it. Despite the multiple attempts by Postrel and her guest bloggers to pin down what's glamorous and what's not, I've come to the conclusion that it's an incredibly personal thing. Like anything personal, it may be shared by millions, but it may not.

Most critically, and I'm not sure that Postrel has come to this conclusion yet, I'm convinced that glamour is an escape fantasy. Her review of a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House makes it clear how glamour's effect on people is proportional to their yearning for a different life.

Another important aspect that doesn't always come through in Postrel's writings is the distinction between having glamour and being dazzled by glamour. Glamour is a tool for marketing and advertising, whether you're selling computers, houses, cars, bus rides, government subsidies, politicians - or yourself, as a potential friend, mate or sex partner. By tapping into people's escape fantasies, you can harness that longing they feel inside and attach it to your product.

I would argue that it's a rare person who doesn't have some escape fantasies, so you shouldn't feel guilty about being susceptible to glamour. You should also keep in mind that eventually glamour wears off and reality sets in, and if you don't have some underlying value you're going to be facing some problems.

It seems to me that there are four ways that people can interact with glamour:
attraction, fascination, emulation and creation. If it helps, you can think about people being attracted by the glamour of Lady Gaga, fascinated by what makes people pay attention to her, trying to emulate her, and then Gaga herself creating the glamour. If you don't get Lady Gaga, pick your own glamorous woman: Marilyn Monroe? Marlene Dietrich? Danica Patrick?

In terms of transportation, let's take vintage streetcars. There's the attraction that many people feel to streetcars, and the fascination that some people have for streetcars. Just as with a glamorous icon like Marilyn Monroe, people have varying degrees of success when trying to emulate vintage streetcars, from heritage systems to modern streetcars to the tourist "trolleys" sometimes described as "transvestite buses." And just as Madonna created her own, new glamorous image while incorporating elements of Marilyn Monroe's image, the Portland Streetcar has built on elements of the old trolleys to create its own glamour.

In terms of the clusters of factors that influence people's choice of transit over cars, Glamour only refers to the attraction that people feel. The fascination that people feel for trolleys is only relevant to mode choice if it makes them feel attracted. We can emulate the glamour of other forms of travel, or create new glamour, in order to attract more riders and subsidies.

The effect of travel modes on people's personal glamour is actually not a Glamour factor, but a Value factor. It's fairly well-known that customers, friends and dates tend to be attracted to different degrees if they see someone on foot, on a bicycle, in a beat-up car, in a fancy car, on the subway, or on a bus. Who gets attracted to what is, again, personal and context-dependent.

The key is that the people who choose their travel mode in order to impress others are doing it not because they're attracted to the glamour (they may or may not be), but because they find value in it. Saying "I'll be so cute riding this bike" is about Glamour; saying "Guys will think I'm so cute riding this bike" is about Value. The Value of Glamour.

No comments: