Malaysians love trends and food. Mix them together and you get a craze. What gets certain products/fashions popular are the symbols attached to them and their increased value when displayed in full view of the public. These symbols often signify status that conflate certain aspects of economic and social power, and constructs a particular image the wearer of those symbols wants to project.
Before I get too abstract, I’d like to present a case in point: the role of cupcakes in urban Malaysia. This year unfolded upon Malaysians the zenith of the humble cupcake. Not that cupcakes themselves are anything special; they’re easy to bake and can be purchased cheaply in just about every bakery and confectionery in town for as long as I can remember. But what makes them special and a status symbol is the fact that they are sold in upmarket cafes in the trendiest shopping districts. In other words, cupcakes have become in themselves a mark of urbanity, sophistication, and aspiration.
Similar to the way brand names like Starbucks inspires its patrons to adopt a particular lifestyle; one that “appreciates” world cultures (Kenyan, Java, Columbian, Italian), one that is tech-savvy, and in touch with Western-style modernity, upmarket cupcakes is just another extension of Malaysia’s aspirational consumerist culture.
Malaysia’s affair with conspicuous consumption is nothing unique. It is a cultural phenomenon of the burgeoning middle class in many developing and developed nations. Allow me to borrow some historical gravitas from Wikipedia:
The term conspicuous consumption was introduced by Norwegian American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’. Veblen used the term to depict the behavioral characteristic of the nouveau riche, a class emerging in the 19th century as a result of the accumulation of wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution. In this context, the application of the term should be narrowed to the elements of the upper class who use their enormous wealth to manifest social power, whether real or perceived.
With significant improvement of living standards and the emergence of the middle class in the 20th century, the term conspicuous consumption is now broadly applied to individuals and households with expendable incomes whose consumption patterns are prompted by the utility of goods to show their status rather than any intrinsic utility of such goods. In the 1920s, economists such as Paul Nystrom theorized that lifestyle changes brought on by the industrial age were inducing a “philosophy of futility” in the masses, which would increase fashionable consumption. Thus, the concept of conspicuous consumption has been discussed in the context of addictive or narcissistic behaviors induced by consumerism, the desire for immediate gratification, and hedonic expectations.
Note, cupcakes are harmless. They are sweet and often very pretty. In fact, they are very likely to be ethical too. Unlike Starbucks’ less than ethical means of production, cupcakes and even doughnuts are guilt-free pleasures of the rich. Just before cupcakes became the in-thing, ring-shaped pastry became a must-have for shoppers. It’s a little strange that doughnuts and cupcakes from Angel cakehouse or from Carrefour don’t have the same effect on Malaysians the way Cupacakes and New York doughnuts do, because they all taste the same to me – sickly sweet. Yes, it’s all about marketing strategies you say. You say that Cupacakes shops have ambience and that Carrefour is not as innovative enough to come up with doughnuts with durian filling the way JCo doughnuts so. But maybe it has something to do with Starbucks and its subliminal messages: