Trust me, I am not saying that ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things’ are a good approximation of anyone’s holiday shopping list. Still, I think it is an economic indicator, of a type, just the same.
The Queen of Daytime Talk (and the Forbes-magazine certified 580th richest person in the world, thank you very much) debuted the list of the things she really liked and which would make excellent Christmas presents, in a segment on her daily talk show back in 2002. Not only that, she gave everyone in her audience every one of the thirty items on her list. It was pretty great stuff, ranging from an awesome Key Lime Pie (retail price, $11), through to a four-in-one camera ($400). For a lot of people who were happy to just have seats to the show in the first place, it was the best day, ever, ever, ever.
The die was cast. Everyone wanted to be in the audience for that show (although no one was ever told in advance when it was, and rumors are that even Brad Pitt was unable to get his mother a seat for it).
And why not? The giveaways only got more and more luscious. Oprah had really good taste. Some of my faves (and I found a complete list of her giveaways here, as tabulated by the website Jezebel) include the Neiman Marcus Cookbook (2003, $45), the Phillip Stein Teslar Diamond Watch (2005, $2,400), and the LG HDTV Refrigerator (2007, $3,800). She also had some clunkers over the years (Ugg Crochet boots? What were you thinking Oprah?) but very few actually.
Now, you could look back on that time and say it was a ‘pre-recession’ list, and that these days people would not have time for the silliness. That is not exactly true, as the experience of 2008 shows us.
The year 2008 was an interesting one (and by that, I mean ‘interesting’ in a bad way). If you have managed to blank it out, the autumn of 2008 was the time that a bunch of once-venerable financial giants (the names Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns come to mind) folded like a pack of cards, the housing market in the U.S. collapsed, and there was talk of a new Great Depression. To their credit, Oprah and her producers concluded that it was the wrong time to talk about $200 skin creams, so she went another way. It was a disaster.
The 2008 Favorite Things were thrifty choices. Oprah showed the audience how to glue gun fake flowers to a cardboard box, and then put a special note inside as a gift. She demonstrated how to make ‘Cocoa Cones’ (basically layers of hot chocolate mix and marshmallows packaged in cellophane pyramids) to put under the tree. She did include a couple of things you could buy in a store, but seriously compared to what was on view in other years, the $15 swimsuit from H & M was hardly going to get anyone excited. There might have been a point to it, but the entertainment value of the show was pretty low and the criticisms were fierce. There was no favorite things show done in 2009, and when the list came back it was luxury all the way.
The newly unveiled list for 2014 has some pretty cool stuff on it, though I would have to say that very little of it is likely to be purchased by me for family and friends, much a I know a lot of people who would enjoy the $700 Bluetooth headphones (sorry). I am also not springing for the $445 custom dog pillows for any of the pooches on my list (as a matter of fact, I have set no budget for them at all). In fact, it really is one of the luxest lists ever, packed to the brim with every kind of luxury good, with a few Target bargains thrown in. If you were to do your Christmas shopping from it you would have to have a pretty big budget, but chances are you would be pretty popular with the recipients as well.
I’d like to say that the 2014 list is a harbinger of good things to come, of confidence, of stock markets that are going to rise and of an unemployment rate that is going to fall, but I don’t think we can make that connection. Thing is, it seems like people like to look at nice stuff, period. If they can buy it, so much the better, but it is apparently entertaining to watch regardless. I think you can draw a rough parallel between the popularity of the list and the way that Depression Era movie-goers loved seeing as much glamour and glitz as they could on the big screen.
Does the popularity of the list mean that we can all live happily together, billionaires and wage slave alike? That income disparities bother us much less than the media sometimes suggests? Does it mean that we are an optimistic bunch in North America, and believe we will be able to buy our dogs those $445 pillows one day? Or is it that we are just materialistic and dumb, and will be pumping up the credit cards way too much this holiday season, the lessons of the past easily forgotten?
I am not sure of the precise answers to all those questions, but I think the enduring appeal of the list suggests that North Americans are still shopaholics at heart and will be making a very limited number of Cocoa Cones this year. Oh, and if anyone wants to know what to get me, I like those headphones just as much as Oprah does.