Christmas gifts and the Diderot effect

The trouble began when Denis
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
or expensive
that refused to be poured into regular wine
. Or a new
that forced you to go out and buy matching shirts and ties. According
to Grant McCracken,
some products
form constellations or ‘Diderot unities’ – we see them as naturally belonging
together. Champagne and champagne
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
an iPod
or digital
won’t work properly without a computer,
there is nothing to physically stop you from listening to
while dressed up like Slim

According to McCracken, the thing that stops you drinking Moet
and Chandon
from old Vegemite
or wearing a Hugo
Boss suit
to a Bestial
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
. Many women’s magazines have regular shaming rituals for the
dressed celebrities

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
seizes control.

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
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

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2024 years ago

Interesting, amusing and true. The Christmas post of 2004.

Scott Wickstein
2024 years ago

Shameful Christmas confession of 2004- I have been known to drink Moet straight from the bottle.

Yes. I know. I will explain it thusly:

The inner redneck and the thoughtful writer do battle in my soul, and both strive for mastery- neither one has dominated the other.

2024 years ago


moet out of the bottle mmmm…..but scott,
I am a very selective and ritualistic champagne drinker.
One time I was horrified to know that if I wanted a bit of the Dom action I was going to have to drink it from a tea stained enamel mug, outside, standing up, in the snow.
but no, I couldn’t believe how little the ritual mattered. The snow became warmer and the country even more beautiful.
…. proving to me, therefore, that when it comes to the drinking of fine champagne Diderot doesn’t matter.

Thankyou Don for a very lovely reintroduction to online.

2024 years ago

I don’t know whether I would call some of your examples Diderot effect.
From the example of Diderot, a thing of relatively small value caused him to buy articles of ever increasing value.

Buying a good tie to complement a new suit doesn’t sound like Diderot to me.

Being given a new tie, then finding that the suit was shabby, and buying a new suit, then a new wardrobe, then redecorating the bedroom, &c, – isn’t that the Diderot effect?

2024 years ago

Brilliant and timely expose of Warhol(a) effect … (smile)

2024 years ago

If you’re interested in McCracken’s ‘Diderot effect’ idea the place to read about it is chapter 8 of his book ‘Culture and Consumption.’

McCracken deals with Trojan horse gifts (p 126) and rolling and spiral versions of the Diderot effect.

The rest of the book (which I bought a couple of days ago) is packed with equally interesting ideas.

He has a blog at:

2024 years ago

I’ve been Dideroted now and then but I’m about equally susceptible to the Toredid Impulse (aka Reverse Diderot) where I actually try to maximize the incongruity of the desirable object and it’s milieu. That said, sex in a dumpster has it’s limitations no matter who.

2024 years ago

Well, I’ve just been somethinged this Xmas, (not sure if you could call it “Dideroted”)

A friend of mine with an evil sense of humour who also knows my love of whizzy planes, gave me a pretty good flightsim game. It’s detailed, complex, realistic, challenging and the aircraft, scenerios and theatre of operations are all based on the real thing.

I’m starting to get into it and it looks like a lot of fun. However it’s called “Operation Iraq Freedom”, and yer flyin’ an Marine F/A-18 over Iraq, with a choice of “mission packages” to, as the backcover says, “kick some Ba’ath!”

Hmmm. On the other hand, on my first live fire mission, I took out a B-52, three hangers and the control tower on my home airfield and then headed for Kuwait City with a couple of 1000 pound bombs-but ran out of fuel and had to eject before getting there.

“Operation Iraq Freedom” is published by Graphsim Entertainment and I give it a tentative one and half thumbs up.

“ in a dumpster has it’s limitations no matter who”
Yer clearly not hanging round the right dumpsters. There’s few in the Lonsdale St alleys, between Elizabeth and Queen, where a lot of the print shops are, that are full of soft rustling paper with a fragrent whiff of ink.

So I’ve heard.

2024 years ago

Thanks for your good opinion.

I think Diderot Effect is not just buying bad babbits but along with human nature.

We were educated to pursue better life. It caused us to go higher ladder. Like this, we pursue the higher desires.

As we buy or present something good to our friends or companies, we want to express our sincerity, affection or other good will.

It make us choose more expensive ones. Unless recepients do move, it doesn’t matter. However it causes our recepient changed their life for fitting with our luxurious goods.

With all reflecting those, we give our clap to the luxury marketers who find and catch our deep desires and push us to it and finally we are addicted.

17 years ago

that plugg about the video game was quite useless…and I don’t get how it’s related to the diderot effect…