Word Wednesday

Conspicuous Consumption

conspicuous consumption


public enjoyment of possessions that are known to be costly so that one's ability to pay for such things is flaunted.
lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige
Origin:  used by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class  (1899)

I work for a company that does screen printing and embroidery. Our shop is located just a few blocks away from a high school and we do work for several of the school's sports teams and activity clubs and occasionally, some of the students place personal orders as well.

A few years ago, I worked with a young, entrepreneurial,  student who came in seeking an estimate to have his artwork printed on t-shirts.  I thoroughly explained the the process, minimum order, and the terms of a 50% deposit with the balance due COD.  Thinking that he may have been discouraged by the 50% deposit and that he may need ideas on how to finance his project, I offered the suggestion that he could always have people pre-order a t-shirt and collect their money so that he could pay for the deposit.  It turned out that he wasn't at all concerned about the deposit and he was completely confident he'd sell out immediately.

He went on to explain that all he needed was for one popular kid to wear his shirt and then everyone else would buy one too.  He was absolutely certain of it.  He went on to explain that he wasn't one of the popular kids but his neighbor was, and he and his neighbor were tight.  I don't know if he had ever been taught the term "conspicuous consumption," but he definitely mastered the concept in his understanding that the other students would emulate the popular kid and buy a shirt in attempt to purchase popularity status.  In this case, the currency is more about social affluence than actual financial affluence.

I was reminded of "conspicuous consumption" by my old high school economics teacher, with whom I'm still Facebook friends.  This morning, we were discussing Greg Karber's video and proposed #fitchthehomeless movement in response to  statements made by Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.  It has surfaced that Abercrombie & Fitch intentionally limits the size offering of ladies' tops to size large, and the largest ladies pant size offered is a 10, because they want only thin and beautiful people to wear the brand. Jeffries is quoted as saying to Robin Lewis,  "In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."  Jeffries was quoted in a 2006 interview with Salon, as saying "That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores.  Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that."

"Conspicuous consumption" is the theory behind my young customer's confidence in banking on the fact that the other students would buy his shirts in a display of social affluence because his popular neighbor endorsed it, and it is essentially the foundation of Jeffries' practices to artificially inflate the perceived status and exclusivity of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand by limiting the sizes offered in ladies styles and by hiring only good looking employees.  How do we let this happen?  Because people buy into it.  We buy brands like Abercrombie to, in a sense, flaunt and to fit in.

Thorstein Veblen's "conspicuous consumption"  has taught us all about human behavior as it relates to one's personal economy and that people spend money and make purchases to show off their financial status.  Now, we make these purchases whether or not we even have the budget to do so. In this specific situation, Abercrombie isn't priced to be completely out of range for people, so by limiting the sizes, one also needs the currency of being thin and beautiful in order to wear the Abercrombie brand.

Up until Jeffries' committed brand suicide with these comments - Abercrombie & Fitch was a much desired brand. Parents have been pressured by their kids to shop there because failure to do so would have resulted in the kid becoming a social outcast simply because they weren't wearing the right brand.

My former Economics teacher put it so perfectly this morning when she reminded us in our Facebook conversation: "anybody that wears someone else's advertising needs to stop and think what the brand stands for.  Remember 'conspicuous consumption' from Econ 101."

Judging by all of the backlash on social media and Greg Karber's video and #fitchthehomeless campaign, I'm actually starting to see a possible upside to the Abercrombie & Fitch drama.  I'm hoping that Jeffries' comments and the subsequent backlash has given parents the opportunity to explain to their children that being a jerk isn't cool.  Nice is the new black.

I hope that parents will remind their children to keep an eye out for, and befriend, the real "cool" kids, not the ones who are only cool because of the brands they sport. The real "cool" kids are often times unnoticed.

The cool kids are the ones who are on the yearbook staff and write for the school newspaper.

The cool kids are in band, choir, and orchestra.  You may think they're band "nerds", but they  grow up to be our rock stars.  If these people aren't cool, please tell me what is.

The cool kids are sitting on the bench of your basketball, football, or volleyball team. You have to look beyond the captain of the team to see the really cool kid who sits on the bench for every single game, yet still shows up to every single practice and gives it his very best, simply because they love the game and want to be a part of the team.  That kind of dedication is not only cool, but it is inspiring and the kind of person I would want on my team in the real sport of life.

The cool kids are the ones who bolt as soon as school lets out because they're working a job or caring for a younger sibling.  Having this sort of work ethic is cool and someday when you have a job, you'll want that person as your co-worker.

The cool kids are the ones who hang out in the art department and who are so bashful, they're hardly able to make eye contact with you when you pass them in the hall. Some day, they'll be showing at a gallery and it is their cool art that you'll want for your walls.

The cool kids are the ones who are so overweight, or who have such severe acne that they're tormented relentlessly, yet they still continue to show up to school in spite of your cruelty.  That kind of strength is cool and I would be willing to bet in their adult life, they will have developed a beautiful personality.

The cool kids are the dreamers such as my entrepreneurial customer. They have vision,  hopes and ideas.  They can see beyond their limited time in school and they are planning for their future. They are cool because they can see just how un-cool things can be in school, but how very cool they'll be in the future.

I hope that as a result of Jeffries' comments, parents will encourage their kids to develop and define their own sense of style, rather than covet a brand. I hope that kids (and adults, too) will learn to experiment with their creativity in putting together outfits, and that they'll learn to create their own personal brand.

I hope that as a result of the Abercrombie & Fitch mess, local artists and designers in towns all across the country will see a huge boost in business as people spend a little more wisely and a little less conspicuously.