Conspicuous Consumption, Consumerism & Commerce

Why We Buy?

Why do we all make purchases? The quick answer is to meet our needs. But that’s hardly ever the true answer, especially in America. Everyone knows that we generally buy what we want, and ignore whether we need it. Parents know this, but their example often belies what they tell their children.

Conspicuous Consumption Reconsidered. In 1899, Sociologist Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class. It dealt with a small group of business men who took advantage of the ‘Technological Revolution’ (also called the Second Industrial Revolution) from 1860 – 1914). In that short time Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Henry Ford, Marshall Field, John D. Rockefeller and a couple dozen more men became fabulously wealthy. Rockfeller was the wealthiest American of all time. Some commentators of the time called these people at the top of the heap the Robber Barons. One artist – Udo J. Kepler (1872 – 1956) depicted Rockefeller’s Standard Oil as an all consuming octopus, controlling Congress, The White House, the State of Ohio, etc. It was his monopoly that brought about our federal anti-trust laws. Unfortunately these have gradually been all but eliminated.

Veblen discussed the “Conspicuous Consumption” as well as the conspicuous leisure of these enviable few. I have no doubt they worked hard much of the time, but they had the privilege of leisure when and where they chose, which set them a great distance from their employees, and the rest of the working world.

They could travel the seven seas, or rest in their luxurious estates. Compare two examples of the latter, 100 years apart – the Donald Trump residence on the Florida coast, and the Randolph Hearst residence on the California coast. Lest we forget what real ‘upper class’ means.

Today things are different. For one thing, the ‘class’ of businesses has multiplied enormously (over 440,000 in 2018), and ‘conspicuous consumers’ now includes ordinary people everywhere who buy what they don’t need, for many reasons – mostly psychological. Consumerism has become the norm, even for those who can least afford the products. Like so many emotion-laden terms, ‘consumerism’ has changed radically from a positive term meaning the need for businesses to keep close tabs on consumer practices, for capitalism to work well, to a negative term, meaning excessive materialism and waste. This was largely due to Vance Packard’s 1960 book The Waste Makers .

In the era before online shopping, there were open air fairs and markets, sponsored by counties, towns and even neighborhoods, to sell food, clothing, home wares, art work, etc. Unlike grocers, clothiers, chain stores and other fixed indoor businesses, such street markets depend on the weather. Like the iconic Parisian Marché aux Puces (Flea Market) – opened in 1885 – these places sell used goods, and people are expected to bargain. They’re part of the culture in most cities, around the world. In Chicago, the largest ‘flea market’ was on Maxwell Street (and still is nearby, though it was moved by the City to accommodate other developments. Its history is very interesting. I’ve lived in Chicagoland for almost 60 years, and experienced Maxwell Street as a popular place for poor or frugal people to find what they want at bargain prices. Their ‘conspicuous consumption’ might be some eye-catching ‘flashy’ outfit. (The customer needs some caution, lest that suit in a box should be missing trousers!) I was surprised to learn the earliest buyers and sellers were mainly Jews who had emigrated in the late 19th C – primarily from Eastern Europe, where they were ill treated. Their story of persecution and displacement is ancient , starting with the Babylonian captivity (about 600 BCE), and still generates many contradictory viewpoints.

Today pressure on people to buy stuff is enormous. ‘Shop Until You Drop’ is the caption of this cartoon by Banksy – an anonymous and ubiquitous London street artist. (Yes, we’re not alone!) Data and algorithms allow any company to target individual potential consumers, if they can afford the marketing services. And knowledge of motivational psychology has steadily improved during the hundred years since Edward Bernays introduced his uncle Freud’s principles into America’s marketing industry (euphemistically labelling them “public relations”). Today’s popular social media are the primary means of delivering these almost irresistible pressures to buy, described by Jennifer Cobbe as “Surveillance Capitalism” in this piece from Open Democracy. And consumer protection has all but disappeared for lack of government funding, in the name of ‘free markets’, thanks to Milton Freeman, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and other ‘neoliberals’ of whichever political party. Currently, according this very long Wikipedia article, Neoliberalism refers to ‘market-oriented reform policies such as eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and reducing, especially through privatization and austerity, state influence in the economy’.

One of my favorite examples of conspicuous consumption comes from the Pet World. I like pets. They were part of my friends and relations’ families, on both parents’ side, but for some reason, my home had only one dog – Rex – for a short time. I’ve had many pets – some less successful than others, including dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, a squirrel and several ferrets. Pets have been a part of American society since pioneer days, but their role was usually practical, e.g. as hunters or protectors – especially in farming areas. But they became part of city life too, gaining affection, and being treated like ‘family’. In the last, say, fifty years, they are so much part of American city culture that emigrants feel compelled to find a pet to ‘fit in’, even if in their native land they wouldn’t think of doing so. E.g., in China, Nigeria, Switzerland, Vietnam and other countries dogs are eaten – in various tasty cuts shown here – not petted.

Pets are hugely popular in America, especially urban and suburban. (I sometimes joke that it’s because people don’t like their compatriots, but they can count on being loved by their pets.) They constitute a large market – roughly $100 B in 2021 – which is on a par with Comcast, Wells Fargo, Citi Group, General Electric, and the 4 illegal drugs. So pet owners get lots of sales pressure.