The trouble began when Denis
Diderot received a new
dressing gown as a gift from a friend. It was far more luxurious than
his old gown and he took to it at once. But next to the new dressing gown
the furnishings of his study looked shabby. One by one Diderot replaced
them. Soon he had new chair, bookcase, desk, and artwork for the walls.
The comfortably worn objects just didn’t fit in with the new robe. And
before long Diderot himself was feeling as if he didn’t fit anymore.
Perhaps you’ve had a gift like this. A bottle of spirits
champagne that refused to be poured into regular wine
glasses. Or a new
suit that forced you to go out and buy matching shirts and ties. According
to Grant McCracken,
form constellations or ‘Diderot unities’ – we see them as naturally belonging
together. Champagne and champagne
flutes are parts of a Diderot unity, Nirvana
CDs and flannelette shirts
are part of another.
The reasons they belong together are cultural rather than functional. While
camera won’t work properly without a computer,
there is nothing to physically stop you from listening to
metal while dressed up like Slim
According to McCracken, the thing that stops you drinking Moet
and Chandon from old Vegemite
jars or wearing a Hugo
Boss suit to a Bestial
Warlust gig is the ‘Diderot effect.’ McCracken defines it as “a force
that encourages the individual to maintain a cultural consistency in his/her
complement of consumer goods.” In its mild form it might be a nagging feeling
that the faded
tires on your luxury four wheel drive are making it look shabby. In
its stronger forms it is expressed as public
ridicule. Many women’s magazines have regular shaming rituals for the
Two things can happen when a person receives an upscale gift that clashes
with everything in their home or wardrobe. They can accept the gift graciously,
display it for a day or two, and then send it to the back of a closet.
But if the recipient is especially enamored by the gift (or is under close
surveillance by the giver) then the Diderot effect can strike in its radical
form. The new sofa declares war on the old arm chairs and carpet. The new
DVD player and surround sound system forces out the old small screen TV.
Armed with the Diderot effect and the recipient’s credit card the gift
And perhaps this is what some givers are hoping for. On some level they
want to see their gift as a Trojan horse with the power to overwhelm the
recipient’s current lifestyle and reshape them into something more acceptable.
Girlfriends buy their boyfriends colorful shirts. Parents in-law buy the
newly weds plain
white dinner settings. The girlfriends hope that their boyfriends will
buy other colorful shirts for themselves and the parents in-law hope that
their daughter in-laws will eventually remove the Ken Done prints from
the living room.
These ‘Diderot givers’ see the lifestyle their gift represents as clearly
superior to the one they hope to defeat. Most, however, will be disappointed.
The boyfriends may dress in dark colors because they see these as masculine
and serious. They worry about looking
gay or frivolous. A brief experience of life in a bright yellow shirt
will not convince them to switch. And the daughters in law thinks plain
white china is lifeless and dull. Bright
colored crockery with stripes is cheery and full of life. The expensive
white china will only emerge when the in-laws come to dinner.
For the Diderot effect to take its radical form the recipient must share
the giver’s opinion of their current consumption patterns. They must find
the new constellation of goods that the gift represents more attractive
than the one they are used to. This is where most Diderot giving fails.
The new dressing gown goes to the back of the closet for ‘special occasions’
and the old one continues to support its owners chosen way of life