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Conspicuous consumption is over

Marketplace Staff Apr 4, 2008
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Conspicuous consumption is over

Marketplace Staff Apr 4, 2008
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s a question to ask as you consider your impact on the environment. Is that Prius you’re tooling around in all about reducing your carbon footprint? Or does a little part of you like the eco-cred you get from being seen driving a hybrid? Commentator Rob Walker wonders whether the days of status shopping might be over.


ROB WALKER: Thorstein Veblen introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption” in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” in 1899. And it’s still being recycled today.

Veblen gave examples like the man who parades down Main Street in “stainless” linen, with a superfluous walking stick. These objects supposedly projected “evidence of leisure” to an audience of strangers.

Today’s consumer is supposed to be a little more sophisticated than that. So it’s puzzling how many marketers still talk about how a certain beer or sneaker or handbag functions as a so-called “badge.” Even hybrid cars are said to be eco-status markers that show “conspicuous concern” about the environment. More scholarly observers call this “signaling.” But in the end it’s all repackaged Veblen: We buy stuff mostly to impress other people.

And maybe that used to be the case, but these days buying stuff to impress other people just isn’t practical.

That’s because Main Street today is a much more confusing place, crowded with niche consumer tribes. Some see status in sneakers, but others in handbags, and still others in eco-chic stuff, and, who knows, maybe some see it in fancy walking sticks. The point is, there’s not much consensus. Even a leading fashion expert recently confessed to a reporter he couldn’t remember the last time he saw someone on the street and thought definitively, “Oh, you’re hopelessly out of style.”

“Everything is equal,” is how he summed it up. And when a top trend tracker concludes that keeping up with the Joneses is a waste of energy, it’s probably time to admit that the whole concept is out of date.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of your hybrid or your limted-edition kicks. or the latest It Bag. Just don’t expect strangers to be impressed. Conspicuous consumption is over. We’re now in the age of the invisible badge.

RYSSDAL: Rob Walker writes the “Consumed” column for The New York Times Magazine. His book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are,” will be published in June.

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