A History of Conspicuous Consumption
ABSTRACT - Conspicuous consumption refers to the ostentatious display of wealth for the purpose of acquiring or maintaining status or prestige. This paper traces the roots of modern American conspicuous consumption and offers an explanation as to the underlying motive driving this unique consumption behavior. Further, it analyzes marketing's response to conspicuous consumption in both affluent and post-affluent societies.
Christine Page (1992) ,"A History of Conspicuous Consumption", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 82-87.
Conspicuous consumption refers to the ostentatious display of wealth for the purpose of acquiring or maintaining status or prestige. This paper traces the roots of modern American conspicuous consumption and offers an explanation as to the underlying motive driving this unique consumption behavior. Further, it analyzes marketing's response to conspicuous consumption in both affluent and post-affluent societies. INTRODUCTION Spending money to tout one's success is not a now phenomenon. The desire to conspicuously consume dates back to tribal times when men possessed women and slaves as trophies of their status (Vablen 1912). Since that time, although the players and what is consumed have changed, the game of ostentatious ownership has remained essentially the same, with the winners being awarded status, prestige and honor. Early in the game, only the aristocratic elite could play. Yet as societies became industrialized, players of achieved wealth, or the nouveau rich, followed by those of moderate and even negligible success entered the game. Some argue that flagrant consumptive behavior is the unfortunate result of capitalism (Veblen 1912, Marx 1848 Galbraith 1984, Toynbee 1973, Stanfield and Stanfield 1980), while others note that material ownership helps us to define who we are (Goffman 1952, Belk 1988, Solomon 1983, McCracken 1987, Levy 1959). McCracken (1987) notes that "conspicuous and competitive consumption are especially important to the study of the history of consumption because they play such an important role in the growth of a consumer society' (p. 50). Further, he suggests that by studying overt displays of wealth both between and within social groups, we may better understand what has propelled Western societies headlong into their present preoccupation with material possessions. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how modern American conspicuous consumption has developed through time and over societies. First, three theories of conspicuous consumption are briefly reviewed. Then, a periodization scheme is used to explain and compare traditional, achieving, affluent (Mason 1981) and post-affluent societies as they relate to conspicuous consumption. Finally, an analysis of marketing's response to conspicuous consumption along with discussion of some more recent explanations of this unique consumption behavior are incorporated in this presentation. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND Several themes have boon proposed as to why people feel the need to conspicuously consume. The earliest of which was put forth by Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899. According to Veblen (1912), the strength of one's reputation is in direct relationship to the amount of money possessed and displayed; i.e., the basis "of gaining and retaining a good name, are leisure and conspicuous consumption" (p. a4). He theorizes that
Conspicuous consumption refers to the ostentatious display of wealth for the purpose of acquiring or maintaining status or prestige. This paper traces the roots of modern American conspicuous consumption and offers an explanation as to the underlying motive driving this unique consumption behavior. Further, it analyzes marketing's response to conspicuous consumption in both affluent and post-affluent societies.
Spending money to tout one's success is not a now phenomenon. The desire to conspicuously consume dates back to tribal times when men possessed women and slaves as trophies of their status (Vablen 1912). Since that time, although the players and what is consumed have changed, the game of ostentatious ownership has remained essentially the same, with the winners being awarded status, prestige and honor. Early in the game, only the aristocratic elite could play. Yet as societies became industrialized, players of achieved wealth, or the nouveau rich, followed by those of moderate and even negligible success entered the game. Some argue that flagrant consumptive behavior is the unfortunate result of capitalism (Veblen 1912, Marx 1848 Galbraith 1984, Toynbee 1973, Stanfield and Stanfield 1980), while others note that material ownership helps us to define who we are (Goffman 1952, Belk 1988, Solomon 1983, McCracken 1987, Levy 1959).
McCracken (1987) notes that "conspicuous and competitive consumption are especially important to the study of the history of consumption because they play such an important role in the growth of a consumer society' (p. 50). Further, he suggests that by studying overt displays of wealth both between and within social groups, we may better understand what has propelled Western societies headlong into their present preoccupation with material possessions.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how modern American conspicuous consumption has developed through time and over societies. First, three theories of conspicuous consumption are briefly reviewed. Then, a periodization scheme is used to explain and compare traditional, achieving, affluent (Mason 1981) and post-affluent societies as they relate to conspicuous consumption. Finally, an analysis of marketing's response to conspicuous consumption along with discussion of some more recent explanations of this unique consumption behavior are incorporated in this presentation.
Several themes have boon proposed as to why people feel the need to conspicuously consume. The earliest of which was put forth by Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899. According to Veblen (1912), the strength of one's reputation is in direct relationship to the amount of money possessed and displayed; i.e., the basis "of gaining and retaining a good name, are leisure and conspicuous consumption" (p. a4). He theorizes that"pecuniary strength" confers not only "invidious distinction', but also honor, prestige, and esteem within the community. To Veblen, lavish spending was "symptomatic of the superfluous life-style of the rich. Wearing diamond-studded jewelry and overindulging in luxurious foods and alcohol ... were prerequisites of men of gentle breeding" whose lavish spending "redounded to their glory" (Diggins 1978, p.17). Above all, as Veblen notes, the objects of conspicuous consumption must be wasteful, or possess no useful value, in order to reflect credibly on one's reputation (1912, pp. 97-8).
Modernized Vablen's work, Duesenberry (1967) developed his own theory which he labeled the "demonstration" or 'bandwagon' effect. In essence, this effect is an attempt to "keep up with the Joneses" in order to preserve one's self-esteem (McCormick 1983). A reverse theory of the bandwagon effect, also expressive of modern day consumptive behavior, is the 'snob" effect (Mason, 1981). This theory states that people preoccupied with social status reject products that are perceived to be possessed by the common populace. Thus, the 'snob" consumer seeks to purchase products which have limited availability. This type of exclusive consumption guarantees a measure of social prestige (Mason 1981, p.128).
Combined, the Veblen, bandwagon and snob effects offer a skeletal picture of how conspicuous consumption has moved from the extremes of being an exclusive "invidious distinction' behavior (Veblen 1912, p. 26), to an activity enjoyed by mass consumers (bandwagon), much to the dismay of those fighting to keep it exclusive (snob). Between these extremes, various other schoiars have offered insights on buyer motivation to consume, further shedding light on conspicuous consumption behavior. Galbraith (1984), for example, agrees with Veblen that people behave ostentatiously to achieve status recognition, but attempts to bring Veblen's theory up-to-date. Specifically, he states that 'simple forthright display is now out of fashion and is often referred to as vulgar; required instead is a showing of what may be called obtrusive good taste. That, unlike the conspicuous consumption of earlier times, requires a certain measure of artistic and even intellectual effort' (1984, p. xxii). Likewise, Marx, while espousing social motivations to conspicuously consume, explains such behavior is the result of "commodity fetishism' whereby goods are erroneously believed to possess prestige value and hence confer respect, authority, and deference to those who acquire such objects of status (Marx 1848). Other explanations offering insights as to why people behave pretentiously include: social class identification (Levy 1959, Goffman 1952, Belk 1988, Solomon 1983, McCracken 1986); social class mobility (Goffman 1952, Solomon 1983); and pear or aspirant group influence (Rassuli and Hollander 1986, McCracken 1986).
In addition to highlighting various social reasons driving conspicuous consumption behavior, it should also be noted that there are those scholars who believe that social factors have nothing to do with such behavior. Instead they propose that personality or innate human desires drive such displays. Marshall (1890), for example, theorized that the desire to conspicuously consume comes with us from the cradle and never leaves us till we go the grave". Further, he notes that this desire is "the most powerful of human passions" (1890, p. 73). Similarly, Rae (1905) believed that it was a human innate desire to be self-indulgent in order to express vanity. He stated that if 'consumption is not conspicuous (it is) incapable of gratifying this passion" of vanity (p. 247).
In the following sections of this analysis, the methodology and limitations to the study are respectively discussed. Then, many of the theoretical explanations of conspicuous consumption just noted will be evaluated as they apply to traditional, achieving, affluent, and postaffluent societies. Again, the purpose of analyzing each societal period is to exemplify how conspicuously consumptive behavior has changed over time and through societies.
The method of investigation primarily follows Nevett's (1991) approach to historical investigation, adopted from the nineteenth century German historian Ranks. It involves the collection, analysis, and synthesis of data. Specifically, for this study, a judgement sample of research materials was taken from various economic, sociology, and marketing scholars. Although not written as specific historical investigations on conspicuous consumption, many offer an historical look at the then-to-current social and economic factors behind ostentatious behavior. Such research, when integrated with current studies on the use of goods as status communicators, and when compared across academic disciplines, provide for a rich understanding of the changing influences driving conspicuous consumption.
In using a judgement sample of studies to analyze the trend of conspicuous consumptive behavior, a limit is placed on the theoretical understanding of the topic. However, in selecting both a variety of disciplines (economics, sociology, and marketing), and major works within each discipline, may different viewpoints regarding conspicuous consumption are analyzed, enhancing the report's findings. Moreover, it is not the purpose of this study to provide an exhaustive detailed examination of this exceptional form of consumer behavior, but rather to review how it has developed and changed over time.
Secondly, it should be recognized that various limitations accompany the use of periodization schemes, such as "fitting' general behaviors into specific time structures when, in fact, many behaviors cut across categorical divisions (Stowe 1983). Yet the purpose of using a periodization framework for this study, is simply to identify dominant trends of conspicuous consumption over time in order to give the reader an overall understanding of the evolution of this unique consumption behavior.
The periodization scheme used in this study was adopted from Mason's (1981) work, Conspicuous Consumption: A Study of Exceptional Consumer Behavior. In his book, he divides the development of conspicuous consumption into three stages: traditional societies (feudal Europe to 1700 A.D.); achieving societies (1860's to the second world war); and, affluent societies (post-World War 11 through the 1970's). Building upon his work, this study incorporates a variety of economic, sociological, and marketing views not analyzed by Mason in order to demonstrate the influence of each in helping to expand the game of ostentatious ownership over time. In addition, a forth period is added, or the post-affluent society which characterizes the 1980's and early 1990's in America, in order to enhance our understanding of America's fixation with material possessions. Therefore, despite its limitations, in using a periodization scheme for this study, dominant conspicuous consumptive trends, as well as their interaction with social, economic, and marketing influences are identified. Other evolutionary analyses not evaluated in this study but which offer interesting alternative insights into the progression of the this unique consumptive behavior are examined by McKendrick (1982) and Mukerji (1983).
PERIODS OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION:
Traditional Societies. The outlook on conspicuous consumption in traditional societies predominantly encompasses the European experience from 1000-1700 AD (Mason 1981). Accordingly such societies 'were typified by hierarchical social structures, by marginal changes in population, and by a clear concentration of wealth at the top of the social pyramid' (p. 59). Social mobility was restricted, since people were expected to stay within their place in the social hierarchy. Conspicuous consumption was reserved only for those who, either by inheritance or by office hold, enjoyed ascriptive status and power. In order to keep the wealth in the hands of an elite few, it was rarely distributed downward. The only exception to this, was when wealth was given to the less advantaged of society in the form of 'feasts, ceremonies, gift exchange or alms giving" as a means of securing loyalty to those at the top of the social hierarchy (Mason 1981, p.50). Ostentatious displays within traditional societies were particularly obtrusive when ascriptive power was combined with military and political strength. The flagrant consumption practices of such leaders could indeed be considered Vablenesque as they were used to proclaim prowess or distinction over the rest of the community. As Finlay (1973) notes, the aristocratic elite of Rome would spend outrageous sums of money on gladiator celebrations lasting as many as three days, all in the name of entertainment (p. 130). Similarly, Ras notes that Cleopatra once had a pearl dissolved so that she could drink it, as a overt display of her wealth and vanity (1905, p. 246).
Beyond such superfluities of feudal times, the objects of conspicuous display in traditional societies focused primarily on servants, food, clothing, and housing (Veblen 1912, Mason 1981). According to McCracken (1995), the nobility of the Elizabethan Era engaged in a .riot of consumption' of these items in order to aggrandize the self, sometimes at the expense of the community or even ft family. Indeed in traditional societies, extravagant waste, as well as title and power were reserved for the privileged few at the top of the social pyramid. Although this way of life was more typical of ancient societies, it is still evidenced today in impoverished and nonindustrialized pockets of society throughout the world. Modern day examples of such primitive communities can be found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America (Mason 1981).
Achieving Societies. Achieving societies emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the result of the Industrial Revolution which provided income, job, and geographic mobility opportunities. As a result, a financially and politically powerful middle class emerged, adding numerous players to the traditionally restricted conspicuous ownership game. Using their achieved wealth as a weapon, the now rich challenged the aristocratic elite for social recognition, which resulted in a lavish spending battle between the two.
In America, the heyday of this competition between the old and now rich took place during the Gilded Age (1860-1914), a period distinguished by the self-help doctrine, which rewarded individual effort and merit with increased prestige and social position (Mason 1981). According to Hofstader (1962), this period could be referred to as the "era of the status revolution' (p. 138). Expenditures of this time were clearly conspicuous: bath tubs were cut from solid marble; artificial waterfalls were installed in dining rooms for entertaining; garden trees were decorated with artificial fruit made of fourteen carat gold (Lord 1960). Spending was intended solely to achieve status and recognition (Mason 1981). Newly found wealth was buying the middle clan elite status. Even during the height of ostentatious spending during this period, many people of this country did not look unfavorably on such behavior for the United States had no clear out class distinctions. Exemplifying this point, Brogan (1941) states:
... In a truly class-conscious and caste-dominated society, the marks of difference are universally recognized even if resented. In America, they must be stressed or they might easily be forgotten, and they must be added to, as the old standards of distinction cease to serve their purpose. Apart from the simple economic criterion of conspicuous display, there are no generally accepted marks of social difference in America (p. 116-17).
The classlessness of America was strengthened with the 19th century advent of the department store, which further allowed the middle class to purchase status through the possession of luxury and/or frivolous merchandise. This development, coupled with the introduction of department store credit and the impersonal atmosphere of such stores, revolutionized the culture of consumption allowing for the purchase of status goods, regardless of the true Status of the buyer (McCracken 1985, Rassuli and Hollander 1986). Women of the time, as Vablen observed, consumed unproductive clothing such as high heals, impracticable bonnets, and corsets for the purpose of "putting into evidence their master's ability to pay' (Veblen 1912, p. 182), hence conferring good repute to the head of the household, at least in appearance. As more and more people were allowed to play the ostentatious ownership game, goods increasingly conveyed status value.
In sum, in achieving societies in America through the early twentieth century, it is noted that the Veblen effect is still very prevalent although losing ground to the bandwagon and snob effects. Although invidious distinction was practiced throughout much of this period, continued economic expansion increasingly provided the ability to the masses to conspicuously consume.
Affluent Societies. Using Rostow's (1971) stages of economic development, affluent societies may be characterized as those in the "age of high mass consumption" (p. 10). They are highly technologically advanced, compete in the global market arena, and utilize extremely sophisticated communication systems. In addition, they provide increased educational opportunities which create greater job and income possibilities than those of achieving societies (Mason 1981).
The 1950's has been recognized as the first affluent society decade in the United States (Mason 1981). Converse (1959) nick-named the buying trends during this decade as the "gadget economy". He states that following World War 11, the U.S. experienced increased distribution of wealth and income which allowed more people to acquire more things such as; automobiles, houses, refrigerators, airplanes, etc. (p. 83). The gadget economy continues today, characterized by an ever increasing number of people able to behave ostentatiously. As a result, conspicuous consumption has predominantly lost its effectiveness as a means of providing invidious distinction for the rich. Galbraith (1984) notes this trend in the United States:
Once a sufficiently impressive display of diamonds could create attention even for the most obese and repellent body, for they signified membership in a highly privileged casts. Now the same diamonds are afforded by a television star or a talented harlot. Modern mass communications, especially the movies and television, ensure that the populace at large will see the most lavish caparisoning on the bodies not only of the daughters of the rich but also on the daughters of coal miners and commercial travelers who have struck it rich by their own talents or some facsimile thereof (p.77).
Therefore, as lavish spending has become commonplace, i.e. 'vulgar' (Galbraith 1984), the rich have needed to find other venues to advertise their success. One way they have done this is to purchase outrageously expensive goods that ensure the general exclusion of the great majority of potential customers (Mason 1981). According to Galbraith (1984), such goods would not be considered vulgar, since they are accessible only to the very rich of affluent societies. Here we witness the snob effect: the very rich refuse to purchase mass promoted and merchandised products, and instead only buy products for which they are the exclusive market.
However, as affluent societies become more educated, they no longer consider outrageous flamboyance as the leading symbol of status. Instead, education and occupational achievements are valued more as the criteria for esteem (Mason 1981). Consequently, the man of wealth is forced to compete with the rest of society for his status (Galbraith 1984, p. 78). Conspicuous consumption of such societies is displayed more through educated or 'tasteful" expenditures than through flagrant exhibitions of wealth. The ownership game, then, allows distinction based on taste, so anyone who can command the necessary financial resources can play (Mason 1981).
This broadening of the players has transformed the ownership game into a true middle class phenomenon. Possessions now not only reveal status, but also identify the taste and values of the possessor. Objects of conspicuous display can disclose the ideal self, whether congruent or not with the real self. Sartre (1956) proposed that possessions not only give people the means to act a certain part, but also the confidence to carry out the part. Specifically, he argues that possessions are instrumental in giving us identity and the ability to feel more capable of doing and being. Further, Belk (1988) suggests that possessions symbolically extend our sense of self. They allow us to convince ourselves that we can be different people than we would be without them.
Arguing along these same lines, Solomon (1983) proposes that consumers rely upon the social symbolism inherent in products to "define and clarify" the appropriate behavior patterns when a discrepancy exists between the ideal set of behaviors associated with a given role and the individual's ability to enact those behaviors. For example, he states that when the appropriate behavior for a role is unknown, the individual will rely heavily on material possessions to not only help the individual "get into' the role, but also to bolster the person's confidence of appropriately enacting the role. Therefore, in one form or another, Sartre, Balk, and Solomon all place significance on material possessions in heightening self confidence and providing individuals with the ability to move or compete in different social positions.
Taking into account the various personal and social influence of affluent societies, Mason (1981) offers an overall explanation as to why the conspicuous consumption patterns of such societies differ from their traditional and achieving society counterparts. Specifically, he notes that, unlike their predecessors who were inner-directed, people of affluent societies are other-directed. The primary difference between the two, is that in inner-directed societies, individual lifestyles are governed and shaped predominantly by family and friends, whereas in other-directed societies, lifestyles are additionally influenced by media personalities and the mass public in general. This, he argues, is a direct result of the highly advanced communications systems which not only introduce now ideas and cultural values, but also effectively cut across class boundaries. As individuals of affluent societies have became more "socialized" through mass media, they have also become more sensitive to the influences of their poem and of those they aspire to be like. The manifestations of these influences are evidenced in the horizontal and vertical emulation behavior of people consuming in accordance with the values of their desired reference group. We euphemistically call this 'keeping up with the Joneses', or the bandwagon effect.
In response to affluence, marketers have utilized promotional tactics to associate products with an attractive life style. Capitalizing on the bandwagon effect, manufacturers of socially 'acceptable' goods promote their products to appeal not only to a distinguished social group, but also to lower social groups who aspire to increase their status position. To successfully accomplish this, producers de-emphasize the price, focusing instead on the social prestige value at the good (Mason 1981). In stressing the social status associated with the product, or in ^selling the sizzle and not the steak" (Pollay 19155), advertiser's establish a connection between a particular way of life and the commodity. To Marx (1867), such promotion enhances people's fetishism with commodities which, he concludes, leads them to believe that happiness is inherent in the products themselves. Arguing along this line, Galbraith (1984) believes that such promotion not only creates unnecessary wants, but also contributes to consumer indebtedness. In his assessment of advertising's influence on altering consumption patterns, he states that "advertising and emulation, the two dependent sources of desire, work across society. They operate on those who can afford, and those who cannot" (p.147). This he contends is the unfortunate result of capitalism.
Along with advertising, Mason (1981) notes that selective product planning and distribution are also important to the promotion of status goods. To ensure that the product's image is properly conveyed, manufacturers of status goods must not only advertise the product's quality, but must also select the "correct" store in which to promote the good. "Being seen" at prestigious stores enhances the satisfaction of the status sensitive consumer (1981, p. 122). In addition, for manufacturers to maintain the production of status goods, they must actively seek to shorten the "life' of their products (planned obsolescence) to secure a repurchase rate. Here again, advertising's influence is used to convince people that the .new' or "improved" version of the same product is not just functional, but "socially superior' to the old (1981, p. 123).
In addition to being credited as creators of wants, marketers have also be credited as being creators of now cultural categories in order to establish new market segments (McCracken 1986). As Belk (1986, p. 515) notes, prime examples of this are the "preppie" (a person who consumes signature products indicative of elite prep school lifestyle), and the "yuppie" (young urban professional), whose quality consumption pattern makes him or her an ideal roll model for others to emulate. Further Belk observes that although these groups are created more as a media rather than a marketing phenomenon, they indeed help styles to trickle down as a result of the media heavily publicizing their consumption patterns.
There is little doubt that marketing has been successful in promoting status goods to either signify group belongingness or denote a particular way of life. As conspicuous consumption has became a predominantly middle class phenomena in affluent societies, the promotion of a commodity's social value is increasingly important as status goods confirm a person's social position.
Beyond Affluence. The post affluent society is characterized by the heightened materialism of the 1980's. Not since the 1920's was conspicuous consumption so lauded. The difference between the two decades however, is that during the eighties conspicuous consumption continued to be manifested as a middle class phenomenon, whereas in the twenties it was predominantly an elite class behavior. This is not to say that the ultra rich of the eighties did not consume pretentious objects, only that they did not resonate their social position as loudly as the affluent minded middle class. While displaying wealth was back in fashion during the decade, the snob effect endured among the elite as their consumption items continued to place them in a class by themselves.
The spending patterns of the pretentious members of the baby boom generation, or yuppies as the media called them, contributed much to the materialistic image of the eighties. According to a Newsweek cover story, yuppies are defined as those people born between the years 1945-1960 earning over $40,000 in a professional or managerial position (Andler, 1984). Conspicuously consuming a variety of status symbols, yuppies sought not only to impress others, but also to express themselves as members of an elite professional class.
Although yuppies comprised only 4.6 million, over half of the 76 million baby boomers were found to act like this unique group (Marketing News 1985; Rice 1989). Yuppies' well publicized consumption patterns provided a distinct template for other generations to emulate as well. Common status expenditures as defined by this group included BMW automobiles, cellular phones, Rolex watches, ]aft apartments (Andler, 1984), CD players, and designer clothing (Belk, 1986).
Also appearing on the scene as a status expenditure of yuppies was cosmetic surgery. Clearly Veblenesque, cosmetic surgery was to the eighties what corsets were to the early 1900's; each designed to visibly enhance certain body features thereby bestowing increased status recognition to the recipient. With cosmetic surgery, a usually healthy patient pays an extravagant fee to undergo pain, medical risk and a period of social isolation to remove wrinkles, enlarge breasts, tuck tummies or siphon unwanted fat from the buttocks, hips or thighs (Brooks, 1981). No more worthy of serious concern than having a tooth filled, the amount at people having cosmetic surgery during the eighties increased 150% (Findlay, 1989). Liposuction was the most popular procedure increasing from 1,000 procedures in 1981 to 250,000 in 1989 (p. 69). Indeed, cosmetic surgery gave now meaning to displaying the "correct' look to gain social prestige.
As a product of the consumption excessiveness of the 1980's, consumer debt doubled from ten years prior, despite a decline in real income during the same period (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1980-1990). Belk (1986) reasoned that "compensatory consumption' drove such extreme spending during this period. Specifically, he states that affluent baby boomers sought immediate consumption gratification to compensate for a loss of job gratification. Faced with slow job mobility, due to the vast number of people competing in the job market, coupled with a sagging economy and a decline in real income, ambitious baby boomers rewarded their career efforts with consumption items. By surrounding themselves with status products and even resculpturing their bodies to further convey the image of social perfection, pretentious baby boomers redefined conspicuous consumption in the 1980's.
When Too Much Is Passe. The flashy consumption of the 1980's, like many fashions, wore itself out by 1990. Faced with harder economic times, the aging baby boomers that lead their generation headlong into debt are turning their attention away from self indulgence to concerns for family, community, and the environment (Boutilier, 1990). Flagrancy is out, and philanthropy is in. Status is bestowed to those who "do' rather than those that "have" (Sherry, 1985) Increasingly, status seekers in society are becoming involved in volunteerism, recycling, and promoting affairs for the good of their community or society in general. To Inglehart (1990), such a shift in priorities from excessive self indulgence to community welfare reflects a move toward postmaterialism, or a concern for quality of life.
However, one must ask whether this revival of social awareness is just a passing fancy or if it is a permanent trend. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., contends that history oscillates in thirty year cycles in which periods of hedonism and self interest (the Roaring Twenties, the Eisenhower years, and Materialism of the 1980's) alternate with periods of benevolence and activism (the progressive era at the beginning of the century, the Now Deal era of the thirties, and hippie activism of the sixties) (Schlesinger 1986). Accordingly then, the current social revival of the 1990's may be short lived and a return to opulence could occur around the second decade of the twenty-first century. Galbraith, agreeing with Schlesinger, states that American's pursuit of a simpler life is merely a fad (Castro, 1991). Sociologist Robert Bellah on the other hand, argues that the altruistic trend of the nineties will flourish. Specifically, he believes that because the present mode of social awareness is driven by pragmatic rather than messianic motives, as evident in the sixties, it has greater staying power (Castro, 1991).
Marketers' have been quick to incorporate society's concern for community and the environment into their marketing promotions. The marriage of commerce with ecology and social responsibility has manifested itself in promotions of products ranging from beer to luxury automobiles. Marketers are deemphasizing lavishness and stressing instead quality, safety, and value. The self indulgent themes of the eighties are declasse. Today, status is imputed on products through pragmatic, conscientious themes. For example, BMW is trying to change its eighties yuppie image by redefining its promotional theme from the "ultimate driving machine", to the automobile that "meets the demands of the nineties" emphasizing quality and safety with its driver seat air bags, antilock brakes, and extended warranties (Serafin, 1991). Indeed selling the sizzle in the nineties means promoting the inherent utility attributes of a product. By reasoning that a commodity is healthy, environmentally safe, or durable, marketers help consumers to feel better about their status purchase.
Although marketers and society in general are promoting more humanitarianism within our culture, money still remains the symbol of success in America. Despite efforts to awaken the altruistic conscience of the status-minded middle class, as well as the elite class, luxury possessions continue to be viewed as the gauge for pecuniary distinction, Conspicuous consumption most assuredly will continue to find its niche among status sensitive consumers.
This paper has attempted to trace the roots of modern American conspicuous consumption. Various theoretical explanations of the motives driving such overt displays of wealth wore offered from sociological, economic, and marketing disciplines. Through this historical and interdisciplinary analysis, it is hoped that America's preoccupation with material possessions may be better understood.
Indeed the game of conspicuous ownership has not disappeared, but rather has been modified to allow for the entrance of more players. Over time, it can be argued that the primary motivation to behave ostentatiously has remained the same-status and prestige. If compared to a pyramid, witnessed at the top would be traditional societies, represented by an elite few whose status and prestige motivation is manifested by invidious distinction over all others in the society. In the middle, would be achieving societies, depicted by an increased number of nouveau rich players exhibiting their wealth either to gain invidious distinction over the aristocratic elite, or to acquire social acceptance from their peers. At the bottom would be affluent and post-affluent societies, where industrialization and advanced communication systems have brought conspicuous consumption within the reach of the masses. While still desirous for status and prestige, their motivation is instead primarily manifested by a pursuit for social and group acceptance. Gone, then, is Veblen's depiction of ostentatious display solely for reasons of invidious distinction. Instead, affluent societies tastefully consume to denote belongingness to a particular group (Rassuli and Hollander 19M).
This study notes that, over time, the primary motivations to conspicuously consume are to gain status and prestige. However, postulating that other influences drive this exceptional consumer behavior, three areas of future research are proposed. The first would examine the relationship between crime and conspicuous consumption evidenced in highly industrialized countries. By investigating why people are willing to lie, rob, steal, or even kill merely to enhance their lifestyles, further light may be shed on the social influences driving this behavior. Secondly, it is proposed to examine the evolutionary trends of ostentatious behavior of currently non-industrial nations. By tracing the history of present day conspicuous consumption behavior patterns of non-industrialized countries, insights may be gained regarding the influence that industrialization has had on conspicuous consumption in affluent societies. Finally, a third area of research focuses on the differences in male and female conspicuous consumptive patterns to determine which types of status goods, if any, are characteristic to each gender class. Such an analysis may lend insight into more effective ways of targeting and promoting prestige items.
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Christine Page, Department of Marketing, University of Colorado
SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992
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