Mike Kueber's Blog

December 21, 2012

Conspicuous consumption

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 11:17 pm
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Conspicuous consumption is defined as the acquisition and display of expensive items to attract attention to one’s wealth or to suggest that one is wealthy.  When I was going to college in the 70s, conspicuous consumption was one of those things that our generation promised to marginalize, and since then I have tried to do my best to wage war against this indefensible behavior. 

In the 90s, whenever friends (or even acquaintances) pulled out an American Express card, I invariably challenged them about their status-conscious conduct.  In the 00s, whenever they moved into a 4,000-sq.ft. mcmansion, I asked them how they used all that space.  And whenever they talked about buying a Mercedes or BMW, I grilled them about what was special about the cars.  Unfortunately, I suspect I failed to alter any minds.

In constrast to conspicuous consumption, there is theoretically a possibility that something less expensive is junk while something more expensive will actually last longer or serve you better.  That is why Levi in the mini-series Centennial spent the extra money to get a better team of horses to go West with.  But nowadays I think most expensive items include a conspicuous-consumption surcharge that renders them bad values.

As Christmas approached this year, I started thinking again about conspicuous consumption and decided to refer to my Bible – Wikipedia.  There I learned that my generation did not discover either the concept or the term.  Indeed, the term was first used in 1899, although at that time it was directed exclusively toward the behavior of the nouveau riche.  Several decades later, the concept was extended to the middle class by economists who suggested that conspicuous consumption might provide motivation and an insatiable desire:   

  • “… changes in the style of life, made feasible by the economics of the industrial age, had induced to the mass of society a “philosophy of futility” that would increase the consumption of goods and services as a social fashion; an activity done for its own sake. In that context, ‘conspicuous consumption’ is discussed either as a behavioural addiction or as a narcissistic behaviour, or both, which are psychological conditions induced by consumerism—the desire for the immediate gratification of hedonic expectations.”

Coincidentally, several weeks ago I blogged about a book titled How Much is Enough, which deals with the apparent failure of successful capitalism to improve happiness. 

In addition to providing a solid discussion of conspicuous consumption, the Wikipedia article describes some related concepts:

  • Invidious consumption.  This is a specialized sociological term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.
  • Conspicuous compassion.  This term emerged in the early 21st Century, describing a variant consumerist behavior wherein one makes public disclosures of financial contributions to charity not due to altruism but rather to attain social status. 

Last week, shortly after I had pontificated on this subject, someone asked me about the ostrich-quill Lucchese boots that I was wearing.  Although I could have make some specious defense about the strong, yet soft leather, I simply responded with, “Touché.”


1 Comment »

  1. mike, once again i remind you that all human decisions are emotional. it is economics 101 and marketing 101. in fact, after we get thru maslows heirarchy levels 1, 2, 3 (which are all driven by the emotions to survive) levels 4 and 5 are nothing but ego (emooooooootion). only the affluent have time and motive to worry about their image (level 4) which is emotional in itself since wealth is relative – every significant culture has the haves and the have-nots.

    Comment by q — December 23, 2012 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

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