The Run for Conspicuous Responsibility

I had the good fortune of partaking in my first Kentucky Derby this past weekend. Oh, my! As a Southerner and veteran people watcher, it doesn’t get much better than this! Unfazed by the rain and mud, all strata of society turned out to enjoy the grand tradition of this spectacular event. Not to mention how ironically sweet that amidst our hopeful economic recovery, a horse by the name of Super Saver would win the Run for the Roses!

As we left Churchill Downs, maybe it was one too many mint juleps, but the contrast in state of dress hit me as an amazing backdrop for the subject of this blog post: the evolution of conspicuous consumption. Outwardly … metaphorically, signaling class (or aspired class) identification, those privileged enough to have watched the race under cover, paraded out as they entered: in fabulous hats, gorgeous floral dresses, perfectly pressed seersucker and painfully high designer heels. While the masses, many of whom had spent the day in shorts, standing in the rain, were drenched to the bone, covered in mud, happily slogging out in rain boots and makeshift garbage-bag raincoats.

The outward signals of social class over the ages have been explored in a paper by Christine Page from the department of marketing, University of Colorado, titled “A History of Conspicuous Consumption” . Her paper demonstrates how throughout history the individual’s need or desire to outwardly signal social status through buying behavior has evolved along with economic and cultural shifts. What’s particularly interesting is what has happened since the Industrial Revolution, when purchasing power of the emerging middle class began to blur formerly distinct class lines.

The two eras of conspicuous consumption since the Industrial Revolution that Page describes are the “Affluent Societies” of the mid to latter 20th century and the “Too Much is Passé” period that began in the 1990’s. The “Affluent Societies” time frame gave birth to two social phenomena Page explores in her paper: the Bandwagon Effect (otherwise known as “keeping up with the Joneses”) and the Snob Effect. The Snob Effect is where one signals elite social status by dismissing mass merchandised, easily accessible options in favor of choices that are available only to a privileged few. Also during this time frame possessions became even more purposeful expressions of one’s personal tastes and values.

In our current “Too Much Is Passé” period, flashy consumption has become out of fashion.  With the economic downturn, many are struggling, pinching pennies and picking up unemployment checks. At the other end of the spectrum, status seekers are working to gain esteem through volunteerism, recycling, community welfare and society activism.

We’re seeing these social signals play out in brand positioning and buying behaviors in the business-to-business as well as consumer arenas. For example, as part of a recent, very industrial, new product introduction effort, we gathered audience insights across multiple industries to help prioritize a long list of potential issues of value. Among the attributes we tested included the ability to save the business audience significant amounts of money, to improve the quality of manufacturing output, and on and on, and on …

If I were a gambler, I might have laid my bet on the promise of cost savings (go, Super Saver!) as the most important attribute. However, among the business executives who were surveyed, it was the ability to signal that a company was doing the socially responsible thing that won out by a long shot. While the majority may be looking to save money (the savings bandwagon), in this atmosphere of economic crisis, highly publicized scandalous behaviors and public distrust, we are all hungry for what’s righteous, respectable, wholesome… (aspired higher level distinction). This is clearly playing out as companies are embracing a variety of initiatives that overtly signal social responsibility.

Moving closer to the consumer, another example can be seen in the grocery store. Economic private-label products have been booming. In study after study, if given the choice, the average consumer purchases on price. But at the same time, the grocery categories that can still command a premium and are growing despite the recession include organic, natural foods and green cleaning products. It would seem that while it’s hip to save, many of those who can afford it are buying what’s healthful, natural and environmentally responsible.

Perhaps the most obvious signals are being sent out by those frequently featured in the media. Many stars (who, depending on one’s tastes and values, are often considered socially elite) are actively promoting socially responsible causes and green lifestyles. And finally, like a cherry on top, as the ultimate signal to the masses, President Obama issued a budget titled “An Era of Responsibility.”

Judy Begehr
Senior Vice President, Account Planning