What Is Conspicuous Consumption?

Conspicuous consumption is the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one's wealth. Conspicuous consumption is a means to show one's social status, especially when the goods and services publicly displayed are too expensive for other members of a person's class. This type of consumption is typically associated with the wealthy but can also apply to any economic class. The concept of consumerism stems from conspicuous consumption.

Understanding Conspicuous Consumption

The term was coined by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1889 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. This type of consumption was considered to be a product of the developing middle class during the 19th and 20th centuries. This group had a greater percentage of disposable income to spend on goods and services that were generally not considered to be necessary.

How Conspicuous Consumption is Expressed Through Product Choice

Conspicuous consumption can be exemplified by the purchase of goods that are almost exclusively designed with the intent of serving as symbols of wealth. For example, while there are many types of high-end smartphones on the market from major manufacturers, specialty smartphones created strictly as luxury items have also been produced.

All smartphones effectively offer the same core communications features with software and apps installed on them providing much of the functionality. However, designer smartphones are available from such luxury brands as Bentley and Lamborghini. The hardware within the phones will almost always be the best available, but what often sets these smartphones apart are the exterior casings, which may be made from leather, titanium, or even granite. The infamous Black Diamond iPhone, priced at $15 million, was basically just a top of the line iPhone 5 encased in gold, encrusted with gems, and include a black diamond.

It might be argued that making such a purchase comes with some assurance that the user will have the best available device in their possession, however far less expensive versions of the same device are also on the market. Procuring such products largely is aimed at driving a conversation around its acquisition and the fact that the owner could afford to make such an extravagant purchase.

Similar might be said regarding limited edition, high-performance supercars, which are designed for speed and visual appeal but have little practical use. Such vehicles, from makers such as McLaren Automotive and Bugatti Automobiles, are produced in small batches and easily cost more than $1 million each. The top speeds of supercars typically cannot be safely, or legally, achieved on most roads. Ownership of these vehicles can be an expression of conspicuous consumption because the full capabilities of supercars can rarely be experienced – even by the owner.