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European Journal of Marketing

Emerald Article: Conspicuous Consumption: A Literature Review


Roger Mason

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To cite this document: Roger Mason, 1984"Conspicuous Consumption: A Literature Review", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 18
Iss: 3 pp. 26 - 39
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26

Conspicuous Consumption:
A Literature Review
by Roger Mason

Since publication of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class at the turn of the century[l],
little attention has been given to the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption which
he so graphically described. Yet even today status and prestige considerations continue to play a significant part in shaping preferences for many products which may
appear to be purchased for their direct utility but which in fact serve only as a means
of displaying wealth and purchasing power. To the purely conspicuous consumer, the
satisfaction derived from any particular purchase comes not from its value in use but
from audience reaction to the wealth displayed by the purchaser in being able to secure
the product for "consumption". Consequently the cost of purchasei.e., product
pricebecomes the only factor of any significance to him or her.
As an exceptional form of consumer behaviour it is not realistic to expect any detailed
explanation of conspicuous consumption to be offered by those behavioural models
of consumer decision processes which attempt to develop a general theory of product
brand choice and selection. But to what extent do we now understand the nature and
mechanics of conspicuous economic display? How do the "classical" models seek to
accommodate such behaviour within general theory and what other contributions have
been made on the subject?
The first model of consumer decision processes to gain wide recognition was that
proposed by Francesco Nicosia in 1966. The Nicosia model is essentially one which
explores the process of product or brand choice and which identifies four "fields"
of activityconsumer attitude formation, information search and evaluation, the act
of purchase and finally post-consumption feedback [2].
Whilst the comprehensive scheme focuses necessarily on demand for "utility" products, there is some recognition throughout the analysis of the possibility that certain
acts of purchasing and consumption may be generated by status rather than by direct
utility goals. The potential role and influence of reference groups and of individual
levels of social aspiration are acknowledged in the first field of the scheme; these influences in turn are taken to affect internal and external search processes in field two
by directing attention towards more socially "visible" products; finally, for this sociallysensitive class of consumer, the need for store image and reputation to complement
product status and visibility (field three) is recognised.

Conspicuous Consumption

27

Throughout the analysis, non-economic or non-utilitarian demand is seen as a special


case which arises when a (status-inspired) "future state of affairs" is the goal orientation of the act of purchase. In such a case, the role of products and brands is that
of a means toward an end. However, the model is predominantly concerned not with
this atypical event but with consumer behaviour which is seen as largely purposive
and for which goods and services are conceived as the buyer's specific and exclusive
goals [3].
As a special form of status-directed behaviour, conspicuous consumption itself is
not examined or accommodated in the Nicosia model. The limited treatment of the
role of product price, for example, makes no reference to such perverse demand and
sees price only as an inhibitor. At the same time, there are several references to the
importance of the consumer's social psychological field and to the effect that this
may have on buying preferences:
"Social attributes have also become relevant variables in establishing the rapport
between consumer and product...Ultimately, what counts is the presence or absence
of these perceptions in the decision process...Only in this sense can we understand, for example, the finding that people of lower socioeconomic status have a
higher tendency to buy more 'conspicuous' items. This suggests that the attribute
'conspicuousness' is a relevant variable in the decision process of consumers of a
lower socioeconomic class!'[4]
Distinction is also made between "technical" and "social psychological" product
attributes and it is suggested that there may well be a trade-off between these objective and subjective realities when the consumer is reaching a purchase decision[5].
Finally, there is necessary recognition of the fact that the very existence of a social
psychological environment inevitably influences the working of any model of consumer behaviour and is capable of producing "random and unpredictable" outcomes
at both the aggregate and individual level [6].
In 1968, Engel, Kollat and Blackwell developed their own decision-making process
model of consumer behaviour which was once again concerned with brand choice
and so offered a "general" theory of demand [7]. As with the Nicosia model, buying
behaviour is seen to involve several inputs which result in actions (outputs) by the
consumer. However, whilst Nicosia saw attitude, motivation and experience as the key
elements, the Engel-Kollat-Blackwell model takes a broader view, and identifies the
major input variables as perception, values and attributes, personality and past
experience.
The model has been subject to two major revisions since the 1968 version was first
presented and the latest model "bears only a scant resemblance to its forefather, reflecting the dramatic growth in knowledge since that time"[8]. However, on closer examination, the changes brought about in the 1973 and 1978 revisions are concerned
for the most part with offering more precise definitions, with greater formalisation
of variables and their hypothesised linkages and with adapting the model to facilitate
quantitative field tests. Consequently, the fundamentals of the 1968 model have remained intact.
It is no real criticism of Engel and his associates to find that conspicuous consumption receives little attention in the original and revised models of consumer behaviour.

28 European Journal of Marketing 18,3

The models are primarily concerned with establishing a general theory and conspicuous
economic display can legitimately be regarded as lying outside such a field of study.
However, it is reasonable to expect that atypical forms of consumer demand need to
be identified and described if only to establish them as exceptional processes which
can be safely discounted.
The earliest (1968) analysis does, in fact, make reference to status-related consumption, in particular when dealing with social stratification and its effect on consumer
behaviour. Conspicuous consumption is seen as a phenomenon which is stimulated
entirely by social class differences and is described as a predominantly "lower-upper
class" (i.e. nouveaux riches) activity. This class, it is argued,
"use products as symbols or badges of their wealth. They buy the largest homes
in the best suburbs, the most expensive automobiles, swimming pools, yachts and
other symbols that are perceived by others as obvious indicators of wealth!'[9]
Having "located" conspicuous consumption as a form of consumer behaviour which
occurs only within a very limited social group, the phenomenon is implicitly established
as lying outside the general theory which is subsequently developed. Other random
references are made to status-related consumption, however. Social risk, for example,
is recognised as a factor which encourages external search for information, with the
intensity of search being determined by the level of social risk and the social "visibility" of the products under consideration[10]. And the advertising of certain products
is held to be more effective when showing the benefits obtained from social approval
rather than by emphasising actual product characteristics[ll]. However, there is no
reference to the potential attractiveness of high prices; it is recognised that price is
often used as a surrogate indicator of quality[12] but elsewhere it is claimed that the
role of price as an evaluative criterion "is frequently overrated"[13]. Overall, price
is seen in its conventional role as a cost-dependent inhibitor.
"The zone of acceptable prices may be the result of the consumer's perception of
prices asked or paid in the past, his attitude about what the fair price should be,
and/or the price that will allow the seller to cover his costs and earn a reasonable
profit."[14]
The 1973 revision reinforces the earlier view that conspicuous consumption is a
limited social class phenomenon but is more specific in making this claim. Reference
is made to a US study[15] which found consumption differences between high-status
(traditional) buyers and high-status (modern) buyers, with this latter group seen as
the "nouveaux riches" and the former as "old money" social elites.
"(The nouveaux riches)... have a strong need to validate their newly found status
yet have not been accepted socially by the traditional upper classes. They turn to
conspicuous consumption but with 'taste' if it is to validate their claim to high
status in respects other than mere money!'[16]
It is further argued that this need for "taste" in consumption is today easy to obtain
because there exists a class of professional tastemakers (e.g., architects, fashion
designers) and also taste-setting media which can communicate socially acceptable
products and innovations to potential buyers.

Conspicuous Consumption

29

Reference to this US research results in some implied modification of the EngelKollat-Blackwell view of lower-upper class conspicuous behaviour. Whilst continuing to locate conspicuous consumption clearly within this one social group it is now
suggested that such behaviour is "controlled" by the need to display taste and that
this need is met by suppliers (tastemakers) and advertisers (media) who can effectively "manage" such consumption. In essence, the 1973 definition of status-inspired consumption moves away from "pure" conspicuous consumption (in which the display
of wealth is the sole criterion used to judge consumption) and towards first-order
modification of such behaviour in which the display of wealth alone is not enough
and has to be complemented by an acceptable display of taste.
Whilst this modified view of conspicuous consumption is discernible between first
and second models, the latest (1978) Engel-Kollat-Blackwell analysis of consumer decision processes moves no further in exploring the subject. Conspicuous economic display
continues to be seen as lower-upper class behaviour which serves the needs and interests of the newly-rich who wish to make vertical status gains into the American
upper-upper class. In recognising social influences (class, family, reference groups,
etc.) as prime determinants of much consumer behaviour, the latest modelas with
the 1968 and 1973 versionsacknowledges that status considerations can heavily influence purchase decisions. The model can therefore theoretically accommodate conspicuous consumption but there is no specific attempt to do so, given that the
phenomenon is briefly described and clearly discounted as a perverse form of consumer behaviour observed within one small socio-economic grouping.
One year after the first Engel-Kollat-Blackwell model of consumer behaviour appeared in 1968, an alternative interpretation was put forward by Howard and Sheth[17].
This Howard-Sheth theory of buyer behaviour continues to be regarded by many as
producing perhaps the most satisfactory explanation of consumer decision processes
yet available.
Briefly, the model comprises four major elementsnamely, input (stimulus)
variables, output (or response) variables, hypothetical constructs (concerned with
perception and learning) and a set of exogenous variables (importance of purchase,
personality traits, financial status, time pressure, social and organisational setting,
social class and structure). Hypothetical constructs, as intervening variables, connect
the input and output variables within the model.
As a general brand choice model, the Howard-Sheth theory offers no detailed explanation of conspicuous consumption and is clearly not required to do so. However,
it could again be expected that some reference to this exceptional form of consumer
behaviour would be included in the analysis in recognition of the fact that some part
of buyer behaviour is entirely status-motivated and directed towards prestige goals.
In the event, references to such perverse forms of purchase preference formation
are minimal. In dealing with mass media and word-of-mouth influences on brand
choice decisions it is pointed out that in "certain situations" the attractiveness of the
communication source may create consumer identification:
"For example, identification is common in most conspicuous consumption when
Symbolic Communication comes from a number of buyers' reference groups"[18]

30 European Journal of Marketing 18,3

and later:
"...conspicuous consumption (expressive behaviour) seems to have enabled companies to differentiate brands and inject them with actual or perceived quality differences so that there are a number of brands that have become status symbols
or stereotypes with which to identify and which service the expressive function" [19].
In focusing on brand differentiation and on corporate communications policies
geared to encouraging the conspicuous consumer, the Howard-Sheth analysis implicitly
recognises conspicuous consumption as a "manufactured" form of buyer behaviour
and ignores the "pure" form of ostentatious display characterised by demand for highlypriced goods and services and the much reduced importance to the consumer of financial cost considerations. This is further demonstrated by references to various "exceptional" price and income attitudes none of which relates to the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption.
Throughout the analysis, price is seen as an inhibitor. Two special cases are
acknowledged in which this may not be true but neither case relates to "pure" conspicuous consumption. Firstly, for several product classes it is recognised that a
price/quality relationship may exist and that:
"... if such a price/quality association is empirically verified it may be advantageous
to bring this association to the buyer's attention by emphasising price. The effect
then will be not to create inhibitions but rather a more favourable attitude!'[20]
However, references made in the text[21] make it quite clear that "quality" in this case
is taken to be "utility in use" and is not measured in terms of perceived status gains.
Secondly, it is argued that:
"...brands may have certain characteristics that entail additional cost and make
the product more expensive. Under such circumstances high price may be emphasised
to explain why it is high!'[22]
Again, this exception to the general rule is linked to the direct utility rather than to
the perceived social superiority of products.
Finally, with regard to financial status, Howard and Sheth again see this as affecting "intention to buy" as an inhibiting factorlack of income building up frustration which in turn intensifies motivation. However, here again, they do see a special
case:
"If motivation becomes too great, the buyer will supposedly close off information
and tend to ignore the economic consequences of his purchasing, which would approach the type of stereotyped behaviour that is sometimes labelled as
'irrational? [23]
This special case clearly relates to conspicuous consumption when such behaviour
occurs among individuals who are significantly income-constrained. However, it is
also seen by Howard and Sheth as an exceptional case which lies well outside their
frame of reference and which therefore merits no further detailed examination.

Conspicuous Consumption

31

As with the Engel-Kollat-BIackwell model already discussed, the original HowardSheth model has been subject to some modification since it first appeared in 1969.
Two major revisions were made in 1974 and in 1977[24]. However, these revisions were
once again concerned with recognising insights gained through the testing process and
through the empirical contributions of others. Changes, therefore, focused exclusively on the general theory and not on broadening the model more easily to accommodate
"exceptional" behaviour. Overall, and notwithstanding these revisions and modifications, the Howard-Sheth model makes little reference, either implicitly or explicitly,
to status-motivated purchases in general or to conspicuous consumption in particular.
There is no doubt that the classical general theories of consumer decision processes
do not happily accommodate conspicuous consumptiona fact which cannot be considered surprising in view of the exceptional atypical nature of such behaviour. Whilst
there is considerable recognition of the importance of the consumer's social
psychological environment, status-directed consumption has been neglected primarily because of the necessity to accept two fundamental assumptions when developing
a general theoryfirstly, that while both rational (economic) and "irrational" (social)
elements will both often influence particular purchase decisions, the rational element
must be considered dominant; secondly, that product utility in use will be the consumer's prime consideration in product evaluation and purchase.
These are necessary assumptions for a general theory of brand selection and purchase. The problem, however, is that the resultant theoretical models will tend to
understate or even ignore so-called irrational consumer behaviour. And as conspicuous
consumption is predominantly "social" in its motivation and expression it has consequently received little attention within general theory.
The inability of general utility-based consumer decision theory to describe and explain adequately phenomena such as conspicuous consumption must not, however,
disguise the fact that the existence and importance of many "irrational" consumer
motives and preferences has been widely recognised for many years. Interest in the
social psychology of exceptional consumer behaviour pre-dates the development of
the Nicosia, Engel-Kollat-BIackwell and Howard-Sheth general theories. The new
motivation research theories put forward after 1955 borrowed heavily from the
behavioural sciences in arguing that consumer behaviour which might appear irrational to others could be entirely rational to the individual consumer whose behaviour
was being observed. The importance of social group influences on many purchasing
decisions was well established by 1960[25]. Bayton and others drew attention to the
importance of "ego-bolstering" needs which serve to enhance the personality, to gain
prestige and recognition and to satisfy the ego through domination of others[26]. The
role of products as symbols was recognised in that the things people buy have personal and social meanings in addition to their functions and most consumer goods
"say something" about the social world of the people who consume them[27].
In a paper published in 1960, Woods attempted to draw together the growing evidence
of the importance of social and psychological influences on consumer decisionmaking[28]. A distinction was drawn between consumer dimensions and product
dimensions in buying behaviour. In addition to the cognitive (i.e., rational) dimensions of buying decisions, Woods argued, many purchases are made on the basis of

32 European Journal of Marketing 18,3

other non-cognitive forces. Two such types were identifiedbehaviour in response


to affective appeal and behaviour in response to symbolic appeal, both often grouped
together as "irrational" [29].
Response to affective appeals is described as "impulsive" behaviour in which consumers react to physical product qualities such as colour, design, etc. Response to symbolic appeals is seen as "emotional" behaviour generated by
"...thinking about the meaning of a product purchase rather than the function
of the purchase. Thus the perceived prestige of ownership comes to be more important in bringing about a purchase than is the function which the product would
service." [30]
Woods concluded, therefore, that the market for consumer products can be broken
down into two basic buyer groupsone rational, the other seemingly irrational. As
rational buyers he identified:
a habit-determined group of brand loyal consumers;
a cognitive (rational) group, sensitive to rational claims and only conditionally brand loyal;
a price-cognitive (rational) group, deciding purchases on the basis of price or
economy comparisons;
and as irrational buyers:
an impulse group, insensitive to brand name; and
a group of "emotional" reactors, responsive to what products symbolise and
heavily swayed by "images".
Clearly, this last group, highly sensitive to symbolism, can accommodate conspicuous
consumers although no direct reference to such individuals is made in the analysis.
Complementing these various categories of buyers, several product groups are then
identified which cater to their specific needsin particular, "prestige" products which
are essentially symbols and whose function is to extend or identify the ego of the consumer in a direction consistent with his own self-imageand "status" products which
serve the function of imputing class membership to their users.
Whilst prestige products connote leadership, Woods argued, status products connote membership and both types of social need will lead the individual to prefer and
consume products with status connotations. It follows, therefore, that the emotional
reactors identified as a major buying group will tend to identify, purchase and consume both prestige and status products for their symbolic and social value.
The significance of Woods' paper lies with his suggestion that not only may irrational motives dictate consumer attitudes but that certain products are put on the
market to cater specifically to the needs of these "irrational" buyers. In this context,
products become symbols rather than bundles of utility and bear little if any
resemblance (in the consumer's eyes) to the products demanded for rational, cognitive
reasons.
The role of products as symbols was explored further by others who were concerned to explain (in more detail than Woods) why in fact such symbols can come to play

Conspicuous Consumption

33

an important part in determining certain consumer behaviour[32]. It was then argued


that the demand for "symbols" stems primarily from a need in individuals to develop
and project life-styles which seem most appropriate to their own particular cultural,
social and economic background. And as Woods had attempted to develop a theoretical
explanation of product symbolism, Grubb and Grathwohl subsequently proposed a
partial theory of consumer behaviour which formalised the relationships between this
symbolism and the consumer's life-style or "self-concept"i.e., they linked the
psychological construct of an individual's self-concept with the symbolic value of goods
purchased in the marketplace[33].
Grubb and Grathwohl suggested that the purchase and consumption of goods could
be self-enhancing in two ways:
"First, the self-concept of an individual will be sustained and buoyed if he believes
the good he has purchased is recognised publicly and classified in a manner that
supports and matches his self-concept. While self-enhancement results from a personal, internal, intra-action process, the effect on the individual is ultimately dependent upon the product's being a publicly-recognised symbol. Because of their
recognised meaning, public symbols elicit a reaction from the individual that supports his original self-feelings. Self-enhancement can occur as well in the interaction process. Goods as symbols serve the individual, becoming means to cause
desired reactions from other individuals!'[34]
Having developed a systematic relationship between self-concept and the use of goods
as symbols, a partial, qualitative theory of consumer behaviour is then proposed:
that an individual does have a self-concept himself;
that the self-concept is of value to him;
that because this self-concept is of value to him, an individual's behaviour will
be directed toward the furtherance and enhancement of his self-concept;
that an individual's self-concept is formed through the interaction process with
"significant others";
that goods serve as social symbols and, therefore, are communication devices
for the individual;
that the use of these good-symbols communicates meaning to the individual
himself and to others, causing an impact on the intra-action and/or the interaction processes and, therefore, on the individual's self-concept;
that the consuming behaviour of an individual will be directed toward the furthering and enhancing of his self-concept through the consumption of goods
as symbols[35].
The Grubb-Grathwohl model was primarily concerned with developing a theory
of consumer behaviour which could link individual self-concept with product symbolism and with subsequent market behaviour. However, it also provides, by accident
if not by design, a theoretical framework which could be made to accommodate conspicuous consumption. In seeking to develop a modified version which serves as a
partial explanation of conspicuous consumption, however, certain qualifications are
necessary.

34 European Journal of Marketing 18,3

Firstly, the model, in allowing for both intrinsic and extrinsic product values, most
effectively explains the behaviour of those consumers who are partly motivated by
"external" status gains but also by a desire to obtain personal "inner satisfactions"
from the symbolism of the products they purchase. The model, therefore, is able to
accommodate those conspicuous consumers who are interested in establishing certain external status gains but who may be equally preoccupied with their "internal"
self-concepts and so purchase products to communicate with themselves as much as
with other people. (Many middle and lower-middle class conspicuous consumers fall
into this category; in effect, they are seeking to establish "identities" not only with
social groups but with themselves.) However, as far as the "pure" conspicuous consumer is concerned, purchase satisfactions come entirely from external sources: i.e.,
all status gains derive from being seen to purchase and consume products which are
approved and admiredexclusively on the basis of their high priceby the target audience. The product or "symbol" must therefore be both expensive and visible, conditions which may not necessarily hold for the more egocentric consumer who is
predominantly concerned with resolving his own identity problem.
Secondly, Grubb and Grathwohl define the "audience" in their model very broadly, to include "parents, teachers, peers or significant others"[36]. For the conspicuous
consumer, this audience will be more clearly and more narrowly defined, it will be
that social group to which the individual aspires or of which he is a member. And
product "value" to this consumer will be decided not by his own interpretation of
the good's symbolic meaning but by that of the significant reference groups with which
he seeks to communicate.
The Grubb-Grathwohl model, therefore, whilst not intended to meet the special case
of conspicuous consumption, did represent a step forward in that it moved away from
the necessarily "rational" assumptions of general theories of consumer behaviour and
offered an alternative social-psychological explanation of much consumer decisionmaking. Unfortunately, whilst many researchers have since tested and confirmed the
importance of self-concept and product symbolism in empirical studies, little if any
additional work has been done at a theoretical level since the paper first appeared
in 1967. In particular, no attempt has been made to extend the model (which focuses
on needs and motivations) and to develop a complementary theory of consumer decision processes as they relate to the status-directed consumer of "symbols".
Whilst the importance of status-motivated consumer behaviour has been empirically
confirmed and is now widely accepted, the preceding sections have shown that
theoretical analyses of such exceptional buyer behaviour have been disappointingly
few. The tendency has been to "take-note" of status-related behaviour as and when
it has been observed in empirical studies but to do little in the way of offering an
explanation of such atypical decision processes. As a result, whilst the literature does
not lack for specific examples of conspicuous consumption, there is little complementary theoretical treatment of the subject.
The difficulties of accommodating conspicuous consumption within general models
of consumer behaviour have already been notedin particular, general theories have
to make (necessary) assumptions which can effectively exclude serious consideration
of atypical behaviour. Under conditions of scarcity (in particular, scarcity of income
and of other financial resources) the "rational" consumer is compelled to make the

Conspicuous Consumption

35

great majority of his purchases on utilitarian grounds and will assess his levels of indifference between competing products in rational economic terms. It is, therefore,
unreasonable to expect general models of brand choice and preference to have the
theoretical "breadth" to embrace a form of purchasing and consumption which is
seen as an "irrational" minority activity having little or no relevance to aggregate
(market) demand formation. However, once we move beyond general theories of consumer behaviour, this necessary concentration on economic rationality can be
relaxedand should be relaxed in order to be able to seek an explanation of much
seemingly irrational behaviour which lies outside the competence of general theory.
There can be little doubt that treatment of exceptional consumer behaviour remains
neglected primarily because of this failure to move away from theoretical structures
which are based on assumptions of rational behaviour. The difficulties raised by such
inflexibility were foreseen as early as 1953 by Katona who demonstrated the irrelevance
of traditional analysis to predominantly "psychological" buying[37]. In particular,
the assumption that consumers have a single motive to maximise personal utility in
their purchase decisions was recognised as a major barrier to a better understanding
of seemingly irrational purchasesespecially when any observed behaviour which does
not "fit" the theorem derived from utility theory "can always be attributed to a change
of tastes (a catch-all 'free variable' in the economic theories of consumer demand)
rather than to an error in the postulates or logic of the theory"[38].
Accepting Katona's reservations about the classical explanation of that part of consumer demand which lies outside general utility theoryand recognising the need to
move away from this restrictive base in order to develop a more relevant model of
"exceptional" or "psychological" demandit then becomes necessary to find an acceptable alternative to the set of assumptions which underpin traditional economic
demand theory.
Classical theory, derived from the marginal utility theories of value formulated in
the late nineteenth century, produced the Marshallian economic model which continues to form the cornerstone of modern microeconomic demand analysis and is implicitly used in the formulation of many general theories of consumer behaviour.
However, whilst Marshall still "dominates", alternative non-economic models for
analysing buyers and buyer behaviour are available.
In 1965, Kotler[39], for example, identified three buyer behaviour models which
do not derive in any respect from marginal utility theories of demand:
the Pavlovian Model (a partial theory) which is based on four central
conceptsdrive, cue, response and reinforcementand which argues that a
significant part of buyer behaviour is a learnt, associative process which "conditions" consumers to react in a predictable way;
the Freudian Psychoanalytic Model, which argues that buyers can be, and are,
motivated by product attributes which are sexually symbolic and which can
subconsciously shape and direct consumer purchases;
and the Veblenian Social Psychological Model in which man is seen as primarily
"a social animal conforming to the general forms and norms of his larger culture
and to the more specific standards of the subcultures and face-to-face
groupings to which his life is bound. His wants and behaviour are largely moulded by his present group memberships and his aspired group memberships."

36 European Journal of Marketing 18,5

Whilst these three non-economic models are all able to accommodate and explain
various forms of consumer behaviour which may be considered "irrational", the social
psychological model is clearly most appropriate in providing the philosophical base
for theory construction in so far as conspicuous consumption is concerned. This can
hardly be considered surprising as Veblen himself coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" and was at pains to describe such exceptional behaviour in his book[40].
However, Kotler overstates the case when he claims that Veblen's views of man as a
"social" consumer constitute a model of such behaviour. In fact, the "model" identified by Kotler is general in the extreme and goes no further than arguing the causeeffect of social relationships without analysing this process in any real detail. Having
accepted the need to locate conspicuous consumption theory within a broadly-defined
social psychological framework, therefore, the problem of model type and specification still remains.
In 1973, Schewe[41], developing Kotler's earlier work, identified four models which
can all be described as social psychological in the Veblenian sense:
(1) A model developed from achievement motivation theory[42] which deals with
one important but limited type of behaviour, namely achievement-orientated
activity. Such activity is seen to be affected by the conflict between the tendency to achieve success and the tendency to avoid failure and the implications
for consumer behaviour centre on the resolution of these two opposing
tendencies.
(2) A model developed from role theory[43] which sees persons as actors "playing
a role" in society. Here the focus is on overt social conduct and products become
vehicles for image projections as well as symbolic representations of status.
According to this theory, therefore, buyers purchase goods in accordance with
the expectations of their "audience" and not because of any intrinsic product
attributes.
(3) A model derived from the family of concepts called cognition consistency
theoriesi.e., balance theory, congruity theory and more particularly the theory
of cognitive dissonance[44]. In this model, people are assumed to be trying
to maintain a state of balance in their relationships with other people and strive
to eliminate all cognitive stress from their lives by purchasing products which
establish such balances.
(4) A model centred on "social character" which is itself shaped by the type of
society (tradition-directed, inner-directed or other-directed) in which the individual is operating[45]. Society is therefore seen to be capable of "directing"
consumer behaviour in a predictable way.
All four of these models are relevant to theory construction in so far as conspicuous
consumption is concerned. Moreover, by bringing Kotler and Schewe together it
becomes possible to develop a composite which provides an internally and externally
consistent model base.

Conspicuous Consumption

37

At the first stage, a range of consumer behaviour extending from irrational (i.e.,
social psychological) to rational (i.e., economic) is given. Whilst the latter is seen to
inspire utilitarian models of consumer decision processes, the social psychological
group produces three basic model types, namely Pavlovian, Freudian and Veblenian.
As far as conspicuous consumption is concerned, the Veblenian model is clearly most
appropriate for use. Finally, a composite model form can be derived which is then
able to draw on any or all of Schewe's model types (achievement motivation, role playing, dissonance reduction and social character formation) to identify and explain
various forms of conspicuous economic display.
Whilst the proposed model base seems consistent with what is known of conspicuous
consumption, one significant shortcoming must be noted: the composite omits random or innate personality variables and the influence such personal characteristics
(often unique to the individual) may have on propensities to consume conspicuously
and on associated buying decisions. However, we already know that innate personality differences may modify but certainly do not explain conspicuous consumption
behaviour and can consequently be considered a second-order rather than first-order
model characteristic. It would also not be difficult to introduce such secondary, random elements into a test model derived from the above base as and when necessary.
Whilst the above model base may subsequently be shown to need further refinement, there would seem to be no reason why a theoretical explanation of the social
psychology of demand for status goods should not be achieved. Clearly, any broader,
operational model would need to introduce other key elements into the equation
most obviously, perhaps, a far more detailed consideration of the economics of conspicuous consumption. Here again, serious study of the subject over the past fifty
years has been noticeable only by its absence and economists have contributed very
little to our better understanding of such perverse demand. Once the economics and
the social psychology of such consumer behaviour can be drawn together, however,
we shall have made substantial progress towards a comprehensive model of demand
for status goods and services.

38 European Journal of Marketing 18,3

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3. Ibid., p. 84.
4. Ibid., pp. 138-39, referring to the work of Martineau ("Social Classes and Spending Behaviour",
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11. Ibid., p. 247.
12. Ibid., p. 433.
13. Ibid., p. 429.
14. Ibid., p. 429.
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of Marketing, Vol. 22, January 1958, pp. 282-289.

Conspicuous Consumption

39

27. See Levy, S.J., "Symbols by Which We Buy", in Stockman, L.H. (ed.), Advanced Marketing Efficiency, Chicago, American Marketing Association, 1959, pp. 409-416.
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29. Ibid., p. 16.
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35. Ibid., pp. 25-26.
36. Ibid., p. 25.
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38. Ibid., quoting Stigler, G.J., Review of P.A. Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 1948, p. 603.
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44. See Festinger, L., A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Evanston, Illinois, Row, Peterson and Co., 1957.
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