September 20, 2008

Conspicuous consumption and your iPhone

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Conspicuous consumption is one of the classic concepts in sociology. It was developed by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. I know, it’s hard to believe that people were actually alive back then, let alone creating ideas that we still find useful, but it’s true.

This concept describes how wealthy people spend large amounts of money on goods and services as a way of showing their status. It doesn’t refer to all large expenses—sometimes you get a lot more things when you spend more; instead, it refers to spending as a way of showing off who you are. In fact, sometimes what you end up with is no better, or sometimes worse, than what you can get for less money.

A classic example of conspicuous consumption is using silver utensils and fine china for meals, especially when guests are over. Bringing out the good stuff does show that you’ve attained a certain level of material comfort, but it’s also not very practical. Silver has to be polished, china breaks easily, and neither can go into the dishwasher. Their main purpose, then, is one of status display.

There’s no reason to limit the concept of conspicuous consumption to just the well-to-do. Even college students engage in it. I don’t know about where you go to school, but here at the University of Connecticut the fashion among students is to wear jackets and pullovers (preferably black) by Northface and, for women, boots made by Ugg. Now, Northface’s slogan is “never stop exploring”, and its website has pictures of people doing all sorts of brave, active things, like rock climbing and canoeing. My guess, however, is that most college students don’t need that high level of performance. Why spend the big money on name-brands when generic wear is also available? One could make the case that it’s an issue of style and cultural taste, and that makes sense. The main reason for their appeal could be that name brand clothes show status. They show that you have the money and prestige to wear the coolest things.

I’m writing about this concept now, even though it has been around for literally a hundred years, because I read about the perfect illustration of conspicuous consumption. As everyone under 40 knows (and some of us over 40 have heard about), Apple makes a wicked-cool cell phone it calls the iPhone. You can load little software programs on it, called “apps”, that do various functions.

One of these apps is called the “I am rich” application. It costs $1,000 and serves absolutely no purpose other than to shine a red ruby on your iPhone that lets others know that you could afford to buy this app. That’s it. It shows that you’re rich and doesn’t do anything else. Apparently Apple no longer carries it at its stores because it was getting bad publicity (again, making decisions on how people perceive something).


In thinking about how this concept plays out today, I suppose there is something that we could call “inconspicuous” consumption. Here you consume goods and services, and present them to others, as a way of hiding status. Perhaps back in Veblen’s time, when I think dinosaurs still roamed the world, all status was seen as good, so if you got it, you flaunt it. Now, however, we’re sufficiently suspicious and cynical about wealth that some people may make choices to hide status. Here are some examples that might illustrate this idea.

My wife went to a fancy, well-known liberal arts college, and when people ask her where she went to school, she’ll usually answer “in the Boston area.” Now, this conflicts with other people I know who went to Ivy league schools. You can be pretty sure that within five minutes of meeting someone, these people will let drop that they went to an Ivy.

Last year a family member gave us a used car that he didn’t need anymore. It’s about seven years old, doesn’t have too much mileage, and runs reasonably well. The big downside: It’s a Mercedes. Besides paying extra for mechanic bills, I have to put up with my friends ribbing me about thinking I’m high status because I drive a Mercedes. I’ve even thought of yanking off the hood ornament to disguise the manufacturer of the car. From a straight conspicuous consumption approach, I should seek to display status with this car, but in reality, I want to avoid what I perceive as negative stereotypes associated with it. I suppose, then, that I really am looking for status with my car choices, it’s just that I see “wealthy-display” as undesirable and maybe I’m looking for a status I value more, maybe “broke intellectual”?

If nothing else, the discussion above points out that conspicuous (or inconspicuous) consumption involves more than simply what we buy and hire, for it also includes how we make it known to others. To make a status display, you need not only to have the goods, but you need for other people to know.


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Well, I think you also have to bear in mind there's such a thing as "negative signalling".

If you're a junior Hollywood executive trying to impress, you turn up to a meeting in the most expensive suit and tie you can. If you're an A-list superstar, you turn up unshaven wearing scruffy sweatpants. The message is "I am of such high status I don't need to bother".

Most people, if asked where they went to school, will just name it. Being coyly evasive sends its own message...

I'm not a sociologist so I don't know the exact term, but there's also a 'competence signaling' in technical fields. You don't see it all communities, but it's often there.

Some manifestations? Preferring cheaper hardware for your personal use. It signals that you're smart enough to recognize when you're being oversold and competent enough to add in the stuff you do need. Go top-end and you risk being seen as so insecure that you might call in Geek Squad.

Another manifestation is casual attire. It's signaling that we feel we can demonstrate our worth through competence. Dress up too much and you risk being seen as playing to the boss instead of just getting your job done. (This doesn't excuse slovenness. That sends another, and undesirable, signal.)

I visited this blog first time and found it very interesting and informative.. Keep up the good work thanks..

Marx identified this type of consumption some 50+ years before Veblen. He refers to this as 'Commodity Fetishism'. Basically we pay excessive amounts of money for goods above their actual use value. They are a statement of our financial capability & status within a capital system.

That was my thought,too.

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