American Heroes, Fools, and Villians of Consumption

ABSTRACT - Heroes, fools, and villains are social types that exist across cultures and time periods. While the role of production has long been recognized as being critical to assessments of these types, the role of consumption has not been commonly appreciated. The present study investigates the role of a highly conspicuous consumption artifact, the mansion, in the social judgments we make about its owner. These student-based survey data suggest that Americans have ambivalent feelings about these owners and other rich and famous celebrities, regardless of whether they are foreign or domestic. These findings appear to be due to the simultaneous American reverence for worldly success and its disdain for aristocracy.


Russell W. Belk (1993) ,"American Heroes, Fools, and Villians of Consumption", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 287-292.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 287-292


Russell W. Belk, University of Craiova, Romania

[I would like to thank Thomas O'Guinn for helping to gather data at the Biltmore and San Simeon research sites.]


Heroes, fools, and villains are social types that exist across cultures and time periods. While the role of production has long been recognized as being critical to assessments of these types, the role of consumption has not been commonly appreciated. The present study investigates the role of a highly conspicuous consumption artifact, the mansion, in the social judgments we make about its owner. These student-based survey data suggest that Americans have ambivalent feelings about these owners and other rich and famous celebrities, regardless of whether they are foreign or domestic. These findings appear to be due to the simultaneous American reverence for worldly success and its disdain for aristocracy.

All societies have archetypal characters, real or imaginary, who embody and epitomize heroism, foolishness and villainy (Jung 1964, Klapp 1962). This is not without cultural significance, as Belk (1989) points out:

heroes and villains are social types by which we pass judgments on ourselves. They express cultural values by representing that which society reveres as being admirable and desirable as well as that which the society fears and considers deviant...our heroes and villains allow us to encapsulate our values by involving these reified social types in mythical battles where the "good" inevitably triumphs over the "evil".

Given the linkage between such social types and cultural values, it is likely that a culture's heroes, fools, and villains will change as its values change. For instance, Wecter (1941) sees the heroes of Western civilizations changing from kings and aristocrats to the self-made middle class (following the industrial revolution) within capitalist nations.

In America, the self-made man (rarely the self-made woman) has been a compelling heroic type who seems to epitomize American ideals of rugged individualism, freedom of action, and movement from humble origins to great wealth via entrepreneurial success. This traditional American hero is based on the man's actions in the production sphere rather than in the consumption sphere; in doing rather than in having. However, based on a content analysis of popular American magazine stories, Lowenthal (1961) detected a shift in the source of American heroes from the sphere of production to the sphere of consumption. Having seemingly replaced feats of doing as a focus of the popular American imagination. Spindler (1983) finds a similar shift in the heroes of American literature. The existence of such heroes (and fools and villains) of consumption is the focus of the present investigation.

The realm of consumption that is the primary focus of the initial portion of this research is the highly visible consumption artifact of the house or mansion. In addition, the present research examines images of public figures whose consumption was widely visible to the American public at the time of the study in early 1988. Americans appear to have been alternately fascinated and appalled by revelations concerning the consumption patterns of such public figures as Donald and Ivana Trump, Harry and Leona Helmsley, Malcolm Forbes, Elizabeth Taylor, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Saul Steinberg, Ivan Boesky, Bunker Hunt, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Sunny and Claus von Bulow, and occasionally foreign public figures such as Adnan Khashoggi, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, and Baby Doc and MichTle Duvalier. There seems ample room for heroes, villains, and fools of consumption to emerge from such a list. Categorizations of a particular person may also change with current events, as with the increasingly foolish portrayals of Donald Trump as his financial successes turned to failures, the increasingly heroic portrayals of Malcolm Forbes upon his death, and the increasingly villainous portrayals of rich Arabs following the oil embargo of the early 1970s and the Gulf War of the early 1990s (Morsy 1986, Shaheen 1984).


Two influential critiques of American historic conspicuous consumption were Thorstein Veblen's (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class and Mathew Josephson's (1934) The Robber Barons. The concepts of conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, leisure class, and robber baron entered the popular vocabulary from these works and remain familiar terms to most Americans. As Cohn (1979) and Shi (1985) note, having rebelled against the aristocratic privilege of Europe, Americans have always had mixed feelings about luxurious consumption. As Barton (1989) observes:

Ambivalence about luxury is a national tradition. Americans have honored the rich and admired their possessions, at the same time imagining their corruption and comforting their enemies (p. 55).

The American ambivalence toward conspicuous consumption showed in a popular press article by Godkin (1896) that both praised and condemned the expenditures of the wealthy:

It is only of late years that we have had among us a class capable of equalling or outdoing the European aristocracy in wealth. American fortunes are now said to be greater than any of those of Europe, and nearly, if not quite, as numerous (p. 497).

To erect "palatial abodes" is to flaunt, in the faces of the poor and the unsuccessful and greedy, the most conspicuous possible evidence that the owner not only has enormous amounts of money, but does not know what to do with it (p. 500).

In these passages Godkin shows a certain pride in belonging to a nation which has very wealthy people, but also an anger at the lack of taste shown in their ostentatious consumption, particularly their mansions. When wealth is spent too conspicuously, Godkin implies that it provokes envy and pours salt in the wounded egos of the poor. The very wealthy in America may have learned to curb some of their conspicuous expenditure in subsequent generations (Allen 1987), at least until recently.

The Mansion

The primary conspicuous consumption artifact of America's wealthy is the mansion. Most of the mansions studied here were American homes built in the Gilded Age by the same industrialists Josephson (1934) termed robber barons. In spite of this pejorative label, and contributing to American ambivalence about its wealthy, there have also been those who have defended or praised such mansions. As suggested in the quotations from Godkin's article, mansions may be a matter of local and regional pride (Bargainnier 1978, Hewison 1987). A turn of the century New York Times editorial suggested that "Nothing denotes more greatly a nation's advancement in civilization than the erection of palatial private residences" (quoted in Cohn 1979, p. 121). In this view, fine mansions are an indication of the hard work, intelligence, and the resulting prosperity of the city, state, and nation. To the extent these mansions are also considered to express artistic taste (a contentious judgment for many), this too is attested by their presence. In a famous essay advocating philanthropy by the rich and shaming those who died with substantial wealth not given to the public, Andrew Carnegie (1889) characterized such mansions as havens for the fruits of civilization:

It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the homes of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor (p. 653).

Russell Conwell earned enough on his famous essay on obtaining wealth that he founded Temple University. He too praised the rich and their mansions:

My friend, you take and drive meCif you furnish the autoCout into the suburbs of Philadelphia, and introduce me to the people who own their homes around this great city, those beautiful homes with gardens and flowers, those magnificent homes so lovely in their art, and I will introduce you to the very best people in character as well as in enterprise in our city, and you know I will (Conwell 1904/1915, p. 19).

Both Conwell and Carnegie invoked the New Testament Christian doctrine that the rich are the stewards of wealth for all of society. It may seem strange that this doctrine should be invoked during the era of the robber baron, for it is more commonly associated with feudal societies in which an imponderable gulf separates the rich and the poor. But on second glance, such a gulf did arise with the robber barons, even if society was not feudal in the normal sense of that term. The mansions constructed in this era were also historically unprecedented and raised fears of an American aristocracy:

Previously, rich men built bigger houses than other men, but for the most part, their houses were similar in conception and style to more modest American homes. This similarity disappeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century, so that by the end of the century, millionaires had created imitations of European Chateaux and palazzi, and had, in these versions of the residences of European nobility, assumed an aristocratic pretension altogether inimical to egalitarian republicanism (Cohn 1979, p. 117).

Another objection to the mansion derives from on what Cohn (1979, p. 116) terms "an instinctive American distrust of excessive display." The attitude underlying this "instinct" has roots extending from the Puritans, who even outlawed celebrations of Christmas (Barnett 1954). The transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau also made the house a focal point of simplification in Walden (1854/1937; Fink 1987). One argument is that extravagant living is dissipating and inherently damaging (Marcus 1985). In Cohn's (1979) analysis, "luxury itself was seen as unwholesome, threatening the rich themselves by sapping their moral fiber, and providing not an incentive but a dangerous model for the young" (p. 125). Lundberg's (1938) indictment was even stronger: "Judged by the way they squander their money on vapid personal amusement and bizarre decoration, the rich are a psychopathic class, waltzing obviously toward a hidden precipice and, apparently, dragging the nation along" (p. 409). Lundberg went on to charge that (1938):

It is in their palatial country estates that the rich families, niggardly in philanthropies, really extend themselves, for in these places they are sheltered from the prying eyes of the sweat-stained, fatigue-racked proletariat and the ever-trusting, infinitely gullible middle class (p. 418).

But such polarized American views of mansions and their owners are largely from an era when their builders were still alive. What do contemporary consumers make of these same people and places?


In order to examine how such conspicuous mansion consumption is viewed by contemporary consumers, the present research investigated the impressions of the original owners of various historic U.S. mansions, more modest contemporary houses, and a European palace, as well as reactions to various rich and famous people. The study was conducted in 1988 using four classes of MBA students (n = 83; 27 = female and 56 = male). They were first shown unidentified slides of the exterior and interiors of a set of 12 mansions, palaces, and large houses. In order to see how the presentation of some of these houses (e.g., those that are now museums) may contribute impressions of their owners, the slides were presented a second time with the descriptions of their origin and owners, taken, where applicable, from the presentations and brochures currently employed at the site. These descriptions detail the means that provided the wealth of the builder, when the structure was built, and who currently owns it. There was a systematic randomization of the order of the slides between the classes, with a fixed order within each class for both showings. A sample of the descriptions used in the second showing appear in Table 1.

In order to provide reference points for the evaluations of the owners of these mansions, the stimulus set includes a foreign palace (Topkapi) and three contemporary "executive houses" that are considerably smaller and less ornate than the mansions. Of the mansions, Edison's winter house and Hunter House are more opulent than the executive houses but less opulent than the robber baron mansions, even though they are of the same era (Edison house) or same area (Hunter House) as most of the mansions.

Slides were presented on two side-by-side screens, with a single exterior of the house on the left and three interior scenes shown sequentially on the right. To the extent it was possible, the interior rooms shown were the same across houses and the last interior slide was always a bedroom. The exterior and the last interior slides remained on the screens while the students responded to open-ended questions asking them to describe what they thought the original residents (or, for the executive houses, the contemporary residents) of each house were like. Two minutes were given per house. Between the slide set without descriptions and the set with descriptions a questionnaire collecting demographic information and information about visits to mansions as tourists was administered. Following both sets of slides, a final questionnaire was administered that asked the students to think about the consumption of specified people of contemporary fame and to categorize each as a hero, fool, villain, or none of these.




Responses to the slide stimuli were coded by the author and an assistant into fourteen categories and disagreements were arbitrated between us. These categories were later collapsed into positive, neutral, and negative categories yielding the results presented in Table 2. The most frequent positive descriptions of owners were that they were tasteful, happy, family-oriented, kind, wise, warm, hard-working, practical, or heroic. The most frequent negative descriptions were that the owners showed poor taste, and were unhappy, foolish, villainish, mean, ostentatious, snobbish, or cold. Frequent descriptions judged as neutral were that the owners were conservative, formal, middle class, upper middle class, religious, social, or wealthy.

The most favorably evaluated owners when no description was given were the owners of the smallest, most contemporary, and least expensive houses. The only predominantly negative evaluations of the owners of the unidentified houses were for the most elaborate American mansions: Cornelius Vanderbilt's Breakers, George Vanderbilt's Biltmore, and William Randolph Hearst's La Cuesta Encantada. Thus, it appears that modesty versus ostentation in houses is the strongest determinant of evaluations when only consumption (i.e., not production) information about the owners is presented. For the sample of largely middle class American MBA students, ostentation reflected unfavorably on the houses' owners and relative modesty reflected favorably.

When additional information was added, evaluations changed C in some cased markedly. One of the key pieces of information added in the descriptions given for the second evaluations concerns the source of the wealth that built the mansion. The additional effect of this information appears to be consistent with Belk and Wallendorf (1990) who argue that both sources and uses of money are important in determining our reactions to it. In general, when this information was added, evaluations became more extreme. Initially nearly 50 percent of the evaluations were neither positive or negative. With descriptions, only 30 percent of evaluations remained neutral.

The predominantly positively evaluated house owners were the same as those of the undescribed slides with one new addition (Kingscote). Possible explanations for the shift in evaluation of Kingscote from neutral to positive when information was added include the description's mentions that Jones (the builder) was not only a merchant but a painter (a more humanistic occupation) and that the house once sold for (only) $35,000. A change from neutral ambivalence to a clearly negative evaluation was found only for Topkapi Palace in Turkey. Possible explanations of this change include the disclosures of royal status, foreign status, and harems.



A potential example of the effect of myth-making in the descriptions used in presenting these houses to the public is seen with Edison's winter house. Without a description, 55 percent of the sample evaluated the owner favorably, with only 7 percent giving negative evaluations. But with a description derived from guided tour scripts, 76 percent evaluated Edison positively and 21 percent negatively. Even though negative evaluations also increased, the net change was strongly positive. While the descriptions of the three houses that were most negatively evaluated initially (The Breakers, Biltmore, and La Cuesta Encantada) served to soften the negative evaluations of the owners to some degree, they also resulted in a decline in positive evaluations. In fact, these were the only three houses for which net evaluations became more neutral rather than more extreme. While statistical regression toward the mean (ceiling effects) is a possible explanation, initial evaluations were not so extreme as to make this likely. Thus, heroic myth-making may be a more feasible explanation for some changes (Edison) than others.

The houses that come closest to being "everyday people" houses, tended to receive more extreme evaluations with descriptions added. These were the houses that initially resulted in the most favorable evaluations. They remain the most favorably evaluated houses with the descriptions presented, although in each case negative evaluations of these houses increased as well. Besides Edison's house, only the Keeler house failed to lose in net evaluation (percent positive minus percent negative). A potential explanation is that (unlike the Hunters, Schlingers, and Parks), only the Heelers were revealed as not being involved in manufacturing or trade. He is an attorney and she runs an interior decorating business out of their house. They are also the only two-worker household and have the least expensive house among the contemporary houses.

Although this portion of the study yields some provocative insights into impression formation based on information about sources and uses of wealth, it has some important limitations. It is based on limited visual and written information, involves repeated measures, and is shaped by the context of the twelve houses chosen for investigation. It is possible, for instance, that the generally ambivalent reaction to the original residents of Rosecliff and the Elms would have been different if measured in the context of only less extravagant houses. Nevertheless, the findings show that information about sources of money can be an important influence on evaluations of its use in mansion construction and furnishing.

The second data set collected from these graduate students was the forced choice categorization of 14 prominent persons as heroes, fools, villains, none of these, or unfamiliar. They were asked to make judgments of these people based on what they knew of "Their lifestyle and consumption." These results are shown in Table 3. The heroes in this group were, at the time of the study (Spring, 1988), judged to be Ronald Reagan, Reggie Jackson, and Donald Trump. Nancy Reagan, Prince Charles, Lady Diane, and Jacqueline Onassis were also judged heroic, but they were more clearly seen as fitting none of these categories. The fools from this list were Michael Jackson, Jim Bakker, and Tammy Bakker. And the clearest villain was Adnan Khashoggi, with Hugh Hefner and Malcolm Forbes fitting the category also, but receiving more frequent designations as belonging to none of the categories offered. Notably, at the time the data were collected, Khashoggi had recently defaulted on loans and promises for a huge local construction project he started in the city where the study was conducted. The project was to have effectively moved the center of the downtown area of this city of one million people, and thus the default received great local publicity.

The other business persons evaluated were more highly regarded. Among those clearly judged a hero, fool, or villain, Malcolm Forbes was judged to be a hero almost as frequently as he was judged to be a villain. Donald Trump, who was just beginning to receive major media attention at the time and was not yet in financial or marital difficulty, was clearly judged to be a hero by those who recognized his name. Only businessman Hugh Hefner joined Adnan Khashoggi as a villain among those who thought one of the three categories offered fit. Apparently his lifestyle was found by most to be too sybaritic. Males as well as females shared this negative judgment.



With the exception of Adnan Khashoggi, the clearest heroes and villains were not businesspeople, but evangelists, politicians, politicians, royalty, and the one sportsperson included. It is these people who are more often the celebrities and stars worshipped fervently by some (O'Guinn 1991). In the present study Reggie Jackson trailed only then-president of the United States Ronald Reagan in the percentage of the sample judging him to be a hero. The next most popular heroes (and heroines) were Lady Diane, Prince Charles, and Nancy Reagan. The clear non-business villains were Imelda Marcos (whose enormous wardrobe, jewelry collection, and shoe collection had recently been featured in the media when her husband fell from power C Goldstein 1987) and Jim and Tammy Bakker (whose opulent consumption had also received recent media attention in the wake of their own fall from power C O'Guinn and Belk 1989). These findings suggest that we still have, and perhaps need, heroes, fools, and villains, and that the status of a person within these categories may be at least as much a function of consumption as production.


The mansion is as important to American values as the log cabin. It provokes a far more ambivalent reaction however. It is not always clear whether the mansion builder should be regarded as a hero, a fool, or a villain. Furthermore, these judgments change over time and may differ over social classes. In the turn-of-the-century mansions which form the major focus of the present research, there is only limited evidence of envy, anger, and resentment. This lack of resentment and envy has been observed more generally to attend stars (Alberoni 1962/1972). This may be because we live and consume vicariously through these rich and famous persons. Time also dissipates feelings of resentment, although not entirely. And a predominant symbolic function of the mansion may be to serve as a material goal to which all Americans imagine they can aspire. In this heroic sense, Gurko (1953) may have been correct in concluding that "Thoreau may be a great name in American literature, but J. P. Morgan is a greater name in American life" (p. 70).

What has apparently changed since the days of J. P. Morgan however is that the rich serve less as models of production and instead their houses and lifestyles serve more as models of consumption. The greater their unrestrained extravagance, the greater our relief from lingering guilt about our own extravagant consumption. So intense is our need for consumption heroes that, as Zygmunt Bauman (1987) notes,

The crowded world of consumer heroes leaves little room for all the others; in a news broadcast, time devoted to sport, entertainment and 'people' (a considerably expanded 'gossip column') occupies most of the space and draws most of the viewer's or reader's attention (p. 167).

For if we instead regard the consumption of the rich to be foolish or villainous, it would make a mockery of our own consumption aspirations. In this view, our villains may instead be the poor who remind us that for most people the aspiration to be rich is untenable.

Both sources and uses of money continue to affect our reactions to wealth. Thus, the mansions of Columbian "drug lords" have been seen as tasteless, decadent, and vulgar (Harris 1989). The examples of heroes, fools, and villains continue to play a part in our own lives, as they have done for millennia. They provide models to emulate, deride, or condemn. The present research suggests that so long as the American Dream of material success persists, we will continue to regard people who have legally acquired wealth as basically heroic, because Americans endorse the freedom to achieve great fortune. But so long as we retain egalitarian ideals, we will continue to see the extravagant "aristocratic" expenditure of this wealth with mixed emotions.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Craiova, Romania


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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