Suppose You Own the World and No One Knows? Conspicuous Consumption, Materialism and Self

ABSTRACT - Is there a connection between materialism and conspicuous consumption? Materialism has been studied both as a personality trait and a value. Material possessions have also been seen to have both private and public meanings. What is the relationship between materialism and individual characteristics? For example, is there a correspondence between private and public meanings of possessions to private and public selves? What is the effect of societal values such as individualism and collectivism on materialism and conspicuous consumption? A study was conducted to look at the relationships between two existing conceptualizations of materialism and suggest some possible connections between materialism and conspicuous consumption. In addition, the study also tested the moderating effects of individual measures in self-consciousness and individualism-collectivism on materialism.


Nancy Y.C. Wong (1997) ,"Suppose You Own the World and No One Knows? Conspicuous Consumption, Materialism and Self", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 197-203.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 197-203


Nancy Y.C. Wong, University of Hawaii


Is there a connection between materialism and conspicuous consumption? Materialism has been studied both as a personality trait and a value. Material possessions have also been seen to have both private and public meanings. What is the relationship between materialism and individual characteristics? For example, is there a correspondence between private and public meanings of possessions to private and public selves? What is the effect of societal values such as individualism and collectivism on materialism and conspicuous consumption? A study was conducted to look at the relationships between two existing conceptualizations of materialism and suggest some possible connections between materialism and conspicuous consumption. In addition, the study also tested the moderating effects of individual measures in self-consciousness and individualism-collectivism on materialism.


Conspicuous consumption seems to be making a strong comeback. From New York to New Delhi, sales of luxury brands are experiencing double digit growth. ["Luxury steals back", Fortune, pp.112-119, January 1995; "The return of luxury", Fortune, p.18, October 17, 1994; "Luxuriating a bit", Economist, p.60, July 2, 1994; "Luxury's tide turns", Brandweek, pp.18-22, March 7, 1994.] After years of etreat, affluent consumers seems to be coming out of hibernation to indulge their appetites in finer things. America’s economic growth recovery over the past years has certainly helped, but it leaves the question of whether there is something more than simply a pure "income" effect to this phenomenon. Is it simply a pendulum's swing back to the free-spending days of the late 80’s, after the austere beginning in the 90’s? What is behind the "yuppie" culture anyway? What is the relationship between the "public" consumption of luxury products and materialism? Is materialism related to individual achievement and the desire to flaunt one’s success?

Why do we study materialism and the consumption of luxuries? Because materialists place a high level of importance on acquiring more possessions (Belk 1985, Fournier & Richins 1991, Richins & Dawson 1992), marketers may wish to learn how to better position their products to appeal to consumers’ materialistic desires. The business of catering to customers’ materialistic desires are by no means a small one. In a 1991 worldwide study of 14 product categories (haute couture, pret a porter, perfume, jewelry, watches, leather goods, shoes, cars, wine, champagne, spirits, tableware, crystals and porcelain), McKinsey & Co. estimated that the luxury goods market was around $60 billion (Dubois and Duquesne, 1993). In addition, since high levels of materialism have been empirically associated with low levels of happiness and life satisfaction (Belk 1984, 1985; Kasser & Ryan 1993; Richins & Dawson 1992), social policy makers may be interested in how to reduce levels of materialism. And because materialism is a central driving force in modern consumer society (Cushman 1990; Looft 1971), academicians studying the nature of marketing and consumption may wish to explore materialism simply because of its theoretical importance.


Popular notions of materialism

At the lay person’s level, there is a general tendency to equate materialism with conspicuous consumption. That is, behaviors most often associated with materialism involve conspicuous consumption, in which product satisfaction is derived from audience reaction rather than utility in use. Not only are materialists viewed as "driven" to consume more, they are also seen to focus on the consumption of "status goods" (Fournier & Richins, 1991; Mason, 1981). Ger and Belk (1994) also found that materialism is commonly related to the competitive display of success and status in a "Veblenesque" fashion in their cross-cultural qualitative research on materialism. The prototypical materialists mentioned as examples are Donald Trump, Imelda Marcos and the self- indulgent Sherman McCoy in the book "Bonfire of the Vanities" (Hirschman 1990).

On the other hand, materialism is seen quite differently in academia. Recent work on materialism has resulted in two different understanding of this phenomenon, materialism as a personality trait and materialism as a value. Neither of these explicitly define materialism as including a predilection for luxury items or conspicuous consumption. But closer examination will reveal that both of them are implicitly consistent with the popular belief that materialist favor showy luxury goods.

Materialism as a personality trait

In his study on the meaning of material possessions, Belk (1984) suggested that our possessions are a major contributor to and reflection of our identities. By ascribing such meaning to possessions, these possessions become the means by which we strive to assert, complete, or attain our "ideal" self. Based on his conceptualization of possessions as "extended self", Belk (1985)sees materialism as akin to personality traits. This includes three original traits of possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy; and a fourth trait of preservation, which was added in cross-cultural studies of the materialism scale (Ger and Belk, 1993).

Belk sees possessiveness as a concern about loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership. Since experiences are also potential possessions, there is a tendency to make experiences tangible through souvenirs and photographs. This tendency was later redefined as a new materialistic trait named preservation. Nongenerosity is defined as "an unwillingness to give or share possessions with others", which also includes a reluctance to lend or donate possessions to others and negative attitudes toward charity. Finally, envy is viewed as a desire for other’s possessions and the envious person resents those who own the desired possessions. (cf. Belk 1985)

While neither possessiveness, nongenerosity, envy, nor preservation explicitly include conspicuous consumption, materialism and conspicuous consumption are implicitly linked through the personality trait of envy. In the words of Veblen: "In order to gain and hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is only awarded on evidence" (p.42, Veblen 1899). In other words, expensive items will not serve their other-oriented function unless such possessions are "conspicuous" and in plain view. However, in addition to admiration, such possessions could also be the source of envy. (Such envy could be deadly too, as what have been witnessed in teenage killings for expensive sports jackets and athletic shoes in urban ghettos.) Envy is linked to conspicuous consumption because one only envies the possessions of others when one can not easily obtain comparable possessions. As far as commercially available items are concerned, the primary reason one could not obtain a comparable item is because one couldn’t afford it. Therefore, envy is almost always directed at expensive or luxury products. To be an envious person is to place a high value on these expensive products, so envy is inexorably linked to the dynamic of conspicuous consumption.

Materialism as a value

Richins (e.g. Fournier & Richins 1991; Richins 1994a, 1994b; Richins and Dawson 1992) sees materialism as a value (the basic enduring belief that it is important to own material possessions) rather than a behavior or personality variable. This includes beliefs about acquisition centrality, and the role of acquisition in happiness and success. Acquisition centrality refers to the importance materialists attach to acquiring more possessions which allows acquisitiveness to function as a life-goal for them. Materialists also hold strongly to the belief that owning or acquiring the right possessions is a key to happiness and well-being. Finally, Richins also defines materialists as people who believe success can be judged by the things people own.

In principle, none of these three belief domains (acquisition centrality, happiness, or success) is necessarily tied to conspicuous consumption. The devoted beer can collector may have no patience for designer suits and Rolex watches, yet he may be a materialist in all three of these areas; wishing to acquire more beer cans (acquisition centrality), believing that he would be much happier if he succeeds (happiness), and judging his success by the quality of his collection (success). Nonetheless, in mainstream capitalist culture, success is usually defined in financial terms, which is why the term "successful" is often used as a polite euphemism for wealthy. If materialists believe that success can be visibly demonstrated through possessions, it stands to reason that expensive luxury goods would be a natural mechanism for doing so. This inference is confirmed by empirical evidence which showed that in comparison with low materialists, high materialists are more likely to value expensive objects, items that convey prestig, and objects that enhance the owner’s appearance (Richins 1994). In sum, we have seen that in both the popular and the academic view materialism and conspicuous consumption are closely linked.

H1: The "success" and "envy" dimensions of materialism should be correlated.


Possessions and meanings

Past research had established the significance of our material possessions to our self identities. McCracken (1988) suggested that possessions may be especially important in cultures where social and cultural categories are diffused and when the environment undergoes constant and rapid change. As a result, given the amorphous and fluid quality of identity, people will "satisfy the freedom and fulfill the responsibility of self-definition....through the systematic appropriation of the meaningful properties of good" (p.80). In his examination of the relationship between possessions and our sense of self, Belk (1988) found that it is a dual process that works in both directions. That is, not only do we inject our self-identities into our possessions, we also incorporate our possessions into our self-identities, which is reflected in a process that he called "self-extensions".

In her study into the special meaning of possessions, Richins (1994a) found that in comparison to people who are low in materialism, people high in materialism are more likely to value things that signal accomplishment, enhance social status and appearance of the owners. This is also where the question of private versus public meaning of posseisions is raised. According to Richins (1994b), "public meanings are the subjective meanings assigned to an object by outside observers (non-owners) of the object, that is, by members of society at large". Although such assigned meanings often vary by individuals, it is the agreed-upon element of meaning by members of the general population or social subgroups that constitutes an object’s shared public meaning. On the other hand, the private meaning of an object is the sum of the subjective meanings it holds for a particular individual. Such meanings could include the object’s public meanings as well as the person’s personal history or experience with the object. Richins (1994b) further postulated that public and private meanings differ in their sphere of influence. Due to the consensual nature of public meanings, they influence the type of possessions people choose to communicate aspects of themselves to others. Public meanings are also likely to have an important influence in shaping desire, in determining the types of things people hope to acquire. Private meanings, on the other hand, are more important in determining consumers’ feelings about the things they already possess.

The self

It has been suggested that all cultures see the self as divided into an inner, private self, consisting of emotions, desires, personal values, memories, impulses, etc., and an outer, public self, based on social roles and the persona presented to others (Lebra 1992, Markus & Cross 1990, Markus & Kitayama 1991). In addition, there are different types of self-esteem that are based on one’s ability in reaching such goals. For example, the private self correponds to self-evaluation based on reaching personal goals whereas the public self is based on the evaluations of significant others (Beckler & Greenwald 1986). These different notions of self also have implications for the focus of attention and resources in the consumption of publicly visible possessions. It is postulated here that when purchasing publicly displayed possessions (e.g. a watch), the public self would predominate while in the case of possessions that aren’t as publicly visible (e.g. a bed), the private self would predominate. This relates to the current overt conspicuous consumption in several ways. First, people who are more concerned about how they may appear to others are likely to be more concerned with the public meaning of their possessions. This notion is akin to Richin’s findings that people high on materialism are more likely to value possessions that convey prestige, enhance appearance and social status. (Implicit in this argument is that the possessions must be "public". Such special meanings would be lost without an audience.) Second, people whose private self are more salient are likely to value the hedonic pleasures, the "being" aspects of their possessions. This is also related to Belk’s notion of self-extension in that when one invests one’s self-identity in a possession, it is likely to be the private meaning idiosyncratic to the individual’s experience/history with the possession.

H2: The public self should be positively correlated with the dimensions of materialism.

H3: The private self should be negatively correlated with the dimensions of materialism.

H4: Social anxiety should be positively correlated with the dimensions of materialism.

Another aspect of self that relates to materialism and conspicuous consumption is the construct of individualism-collectivism (Triandis, 1986; Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai, & Lucca, 1988; Triandis, McCusker & Hui, 1990). Although this construct is generally used in describing differences between cultures, many of the values associated with individualism and collectivism seem to bear important similarities to the value (i.e. Richins & Dawson’s Scale) conceptualization of materialism. In particular, the defining attributes of the construct could bear some significant relationships to materialism. First, individualism has been characterized by emotional detachment from ingroups, primacy of personal goals over ingroup goals, competition and individual achievement. These values correspond to the goal of conspicuous consumption, which is the very "public" nature of luxury consumption as a reflection of one’s success and achievement. Second, collectivism has been descibed by the attributes of family integrity, self definition through social roles, hierarchical social structures, and strong ingroup/outgroup distinctions. In a similar vein, these values could correspond to the primacy of personal relationships over "things" and physical possessions. Therefore, people who are highly individualistic are likely to invest more emotions/self-identities in things, be highly competitive, and value their own achievement and success. They may also value their possessions more for their public meaning. On the other hand, people who are collectivistic are likely to value things that enhance their relationships with others within the social ingroups but elevate their social status to members from the outgroups. As a result, they may value a possession due to its private meaning.

H5: Individualism should be positively correlated with the dimensions of materialism.

H6: Collectivism should be negatively correlated with the dimensions of materialism.


Materialism and conspicuous cnsumption

Based on the earlier discussion, among the dimensions of the trait conceptualization of materialism by Belk (1985), envy could be related to conspicuous consumption because of a person’s envy for others’ possessions which are better than his/her own. Also, among the values conceptualization of materialism (Richins & Dawson 1991), success could be most easily linked to conspicuous consumption because of a person’s desire to flaunt his/her success through material possessions. As a result, one would expect the dimensions of materialism that relate to conspicuous consumption, namely "envy" and "success", to be positively correlated to each other.

Materialism and self

Given that public meaning of possessions are consensual in nature, the type of possessions that people use to communicate their self-identities to others must also relate to their public self. In addition, since such public meanings are also instrumental in shaping people’s desires for acquisition, one would expect the existing measures of materialism to be highly correlated with the public self. Conversely, the same argument would also imply that materialism should be negatively correlated with one’s private self. Social anxiety is expected to be positively related to the dimensions of materialism for several reasons. First, in addition to the very public or other-directedness of the materialistic desires and motivation, many of these values or traits such as success and envy could well be anxiety arousing because they could raise doubts about one’s social standing and feelings of inadequacies. Second, due to the "image management" aspect of these values and traits, there could well be some amount of anxiety associated with many of them. Similarly, due to the correspondence in values between individualist’s emphasis in personal achievement and success orientation, individualist values and measures of materialism should also be highly correlated. Finally, collectivist values should lead to a preference of personal ties and collective identity over individual achievement and therefore, should be negatively related to the dimensions of materialism.



Data collection was conducted as part of a larger study in the fall of 1994 in a Midwestern university. Subjects were 200 (110 female) undergraduates from an introductory marketing course who participated in the study to fulfill a course requirement. The object of interest is to look at the relationships between the existing measures of materialism and the two operationalizations of self.


Materialism. Two different materialism scales were used in this study: Ger and Belk’s (1993) revised materialism scale and Richins and Dawson’s (1992) materialism scale. In their cross-cultural study on materialism, Ger and Belk (1993) modified and expanded some scale items from Belk’s (1985) original materialism scale. The modified scale (Matpers) includes 4 subscales:

(1) possessiveness-the inclination and tendency to retain control or ownership of one’s possessions. This subscale consisted of 4 items, e.g. "I get very upset if something is stolen from me, even if it has little monetary value."

(2) nongenerosity-an unwillingness to give possessions to or share possessions with other. This subscale consisted of 9 items, e.g. "I enjoy donating things for charity" (reverse scored), or "I don’t like to lend things, even to good friends."

(3) envy-a displeasure or ill will at the superiority of another person in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable. This subscale consisted of 5 items, e.g. "there are certain people I would like to trade places with."

(4) preservation-the conservation of events, experiences, and memories in material form. This subscale consisted of 3 items, e.g. "when I travel I like to take a lot of photographs."

Richins and Dawson (1992) on the other hand, conceptualized materialism as a set of centrally held beliefs about the importance of possessions in one’s life. Their scale (Matvals) consists of 3 subscales:

(1) Acquisition centrality-the importance materialists attach to possessions which allows acquisitiveness to function as a life-goal. This subscale consists of 7 items, e.g. "I usually buy only the things I need" (reverse scored).

(2) Happiness-the extent to which materialists view possessions as essential to their satisfaction and well-being in life. This subscale consisted of 6 items, e.g. "I have all the things I really need to enjoy life" (reverse scored).

(3) Success-the belief that one’s own and others’ success can be judged by what they own. This subscale consisted of 5 items, e.g. "Some of the most important achievements in life include acquiring material possessions."

Operationalization of Private vs Public Self: Self-Consciousness Scale. Fenigstein (1975) defined self-consciousness as the "consistent tendency of persons to direct attention inward or outward". Self-consciousness is also conceived as having three dimensions: public self-consciousness; private self-consciousness; and social anxiety. [Fenigstein's (1975) self-consciousness scale consists of 23 items that yield three distinct dimensions: public self-consciousness (7 items), private self-consciousness (10 items), and social anxiety (6 items). Research shows that the scale has high test-retest reliability; .84 for public, .70 for private, and .73 for social anxiety. The 23 items ar listed in Appendix A.] Public self-consciousness involves a general awareness of the self in relation to others and is related to Mead’s (1934) analysis of the self as a social object. Private self-consciousness, in contrast, is similar to Jung’s (1933) conception of introversion and is concerned with attending to inner thoughts and feelings. Finally, social anxiety is defined by a discomfort in the presence of others. Thus, public and private self-consciousness refer to the process of self-attention, while social anxiety involves a reaction to this process. Research shows that the three dimensions of self-consciousness have an impact on behavior. In particular, people high on private self-consciousness are more attentive and knowledgeable about their own attitudes than are those who score low on this dimension. Markus and Kitayama (1991) showed that people with independent construal of self are more sensitive to self-relevant stimuli and information on self-defining attributes. Therefore, a person with an independent view of self is likely to score higher on private self-consciousness and lower on public self-consciousness, in comparison to a person with an interdependent view of self. [The independent self has also been called individualist, egocentric, separate, autonomous, idiocentric, and self-contained, while the interdependent self is also called sociocentric, holistic, collective, allocentric, ensembled, constitutive, contextualist, connected, and relational.]

Operationaliztion of Individualist vs Collectivist Self: Individualism-Collectivism Scale. It has been suggested that cultures differ in the extent to which cooperation, competition, or individualism are emphasized (Mead 1967). Although allocentrism and idiocentrism are the psychological equivalents (i.e. at the individual rather than societal level) of the collectivism and individualism construct (Hofstede 1980), the individualism and collectivism measures have always been applied at the individual level and aggregated for the culture as a whole. Therefore, the use of individualism-collectivism scale as a reflection of individual value orientation toward allocentrism and idiocentrism is consistent with past researchpractices. [See Appendix B for the 21 item individualism-collectivism scale used in the study.]


Materialism and Conspicuous Consumption

First, reliabilities (coefficient a) of the subscale items are computed before composite measures are computed. The results are satisfactory for all measures. Coefficient alphas for the subscale measures are: .78 for public self-consciousness, .75 for private self-consciousness, .83 for social anxiety, .68 for individualism, .44 for collectivism, .82 for success, .76 for centrality, .77 for happiness, .74 for non-generosity, .55 for possessiveness, .27 for envy, and .74 for preservation. Table 1 below lists the correlations between dimensions of both materialism scales, Self-Consciousness Scale and Individualism-Collectivism Scale.

The results show that success and envy are highly correlated (r=.28, p=.000). Therefore, H1 is supported. As discussed earlier, among the dimensions of the trait conceptualization of materialism by Belk (1985), envy could be related to conspicuous consumption because of a person’s envy for others’ possessions which are better than his/her own. Similarly, among the values conceptualization of materialism (Richins & Dawson 1991), success could be most easily linked to conspicuous consumption because of a person’s desire to flaunt his/her success through material possessions. As a result, one would expect to find these two dimensions to be positively correlated because of the common element of conspicuous consumption. Although it is arguable that these two dimensions of materialism could well be linked as a result of other commonalities, it is at least the first piece of supporting evidence in a nomological network of relationships between materialism and conspicuous consumption.

Materialism and Self

All the dimensions of materialism (both traits and values) are also positively correlated with public self-consciousness and almost all relationships are statistically significant. Correlations between public self-consciousness, centrality, and success are r=.26 (p=.000) and r=.28 (p=.000) respectively, which is consistent with the notion that the public self should be more salient in the expression of materialistic values. Or conversely, materialistic values have a highly other-directed and public orientation. As expected, almost all dimensions of materialism are negatively correlated with private self-consciousness. Although there are positive correlations between some dimensions of materialism and private self-consciousness, none is statistically significant. Similarly, social anxiety is also positively correlated with the dimensions of materialism. However, only the correlations between social anxiety and envy (r=.19, p=.009) as well as nongenerosity (r=.25, p=.000 ) reach statistical significance. Therefore, there is support for H2, H3 and H4. Finally, a similar pattern of correlations is also found for the materialism and individualism-collectivism constructs. Again, individualism is positively correlated with all dimensions of materialism while the relationships are negative for collectivism. Both H5 and H6 are therefore supported as well.

Based on the preliminary findings from Table 1, it appears that the individual variables that could be most significant in determining levels of materialism (for both the trait and value conceptualizations) are the constructs of individualism-collectivism. In order to test if materialism levels do differ between individuals who are more individualistic or collectivistic, a dummy variable regression analysis is set up by constructing the dummy variable INDH (for high individualism), which takes on the value of 1 or 0 for individuals who score above or below the median on individualism respectively. The use of dummy variable regression allows the estimation of beta coefficients for oth groups (high and low individualism) simultaneously and makes use of the whole sample for testing the significance of the coefficient estimates. Since the relationships are exactly the opposite for collectivism using the dummy variable COLLH (for high collectivism), only one regression analysis is shown here. The sample is split at the median of the individualism measure and beta coefficients are estimated for the following formulations:

Matvals = a0 + a1 INDH + b0 IND + b1 INDH*IND

+ b2 COLL + b3 INDH*COLL + b4 PU + b5 PR

+ b6SA + e1

Matpers = a0 + a1 INDH + b0 IND + b1 INDH*IND

+ b2 COLL + b3 INDH*COLL + b4 PU + b5 PR

+ b6SA + e1


IND = composite score on individualism measure;

COLL = composite score on collectivism measure;

INDH = 0 if composite score below median     = 1 if composite score above median;

INDH*IND = interation term to capture residual effect of individualism on people who are above median in individualism;

INDH*COLL = interaction term to capture residual effect of collectivism on people who are above median in individualism;

PU = composite score on public self-consciousness;

PR = composite score on private self-consciousness;

SA = composite score on social anxiety.



Table 2 shows the results of the dummy variable regression analysis. First, it can be seen that the pattern of relationships are identical across both materialism scales (Matpers and Matvals). Also, the R-square for both regression analyses are .24 and .29 for Matpers and Matvals respectively, indicating significant amount of variance explained for the model. As expected, the main effect of individualism on materialism (b0’s) are positive but are not significant. In addition, for individuals high on individualism, there is a residual positive effect of individualism on materialism (b1’s). In the case of Matpers, this residual effect of individualism is even higher than the main effect on materialism (b0<b1). Collectivism, however, has a negative effect for both groups of individuals but the effect is stronger for people low on individualism than it is for people who are high on individualism (b2<b3). Also, the negative effect of collectivism for people low on individualism are statistically significant. Therefore, it can be concluded that levels of collectivism are significant predictors of materialism (for both Matpers and Matvals). Although individualism has te expected positive effect on materialism, it seems to exert a weaker influence than collectivism.


The above results give some empirical support to a popular criticism of materialists about valuing things over people. The results indicate that levels of individualism bear a direct and positive relationship to materialism as defined in our existing literature (Belk 1985; Richins & Dawson, 1992). To the extent that the individualism-collectivism scale is a measure of people’s propensities toward individual achievement, competitiveness, and success or toward community, group goals, and harmony, the results do suggest that high materialists value things and achievement over people and relationships. In addition, the results also support the other-directed orientation of materialism. That is, materialism is far more influenced by our desires for image management, keeping up appearances than what it really means to us personally. Finally, materialists in general do tend to link conspicuous consumption to the desire for display of success and to arouse the envy of others.

The findings from this study are exciting in several ways. First, it might be one of the first studies to look at the relationships between one’s value orientation (individualism-collectivism) and materialism, as well as the linkages between private and public meanings of possessions to the self. Secondly, it also brings up a potential linkage between materialism and conspicuous consumption that has not been explored in the past. The relationships between individualism-collectivism and materialism seem contradictory in view of the current surge in luxury consumption in many East Asian countries, which are generally considered to be collectivist societies. This suggest several possibilities for future research: (1) examine applicability of current conceptualizations of materialism in these cultures; (2) re-examine the linkage between materialistic values and their expressions; and continue to (3) look at relationship between conpicuous consumption and achievement motivation.


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Nancy Y.C. Wong, University of Hawaii


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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