Trickle-Down Effect: Definition and Example

What Is the Trickle-Down Effect?

The trickle-down effect, in marketing, refers to the phenomenon of fashion trends flowing from upper class to lower class in society.

Similarly, it may also refer to how new consumer products, when first introduced into the market, are costly and only affordable by the wealthy, but as the product matures its price begins to fall so it may be more widely adopted by the general public.

Finally, the trickle-down effect is a phenomenon where an advertisement is rapidly disseminated by word of mouth or by viral marketing.

Key Takeaways

  • The trickle-down effect is a term used in marketing and advertising. 
  • It can refer to the notion that fashion trends “trickle-down” from upper-class citizens to lower-class citizens, or that as a product becomes widely adopted, the price falls.
  • The trickle-down effect isn’t to be confused with trickle-down theory, where the latter refers to trickle-down economics and the passing down of tax breaks from the wealthy to the less-wealthy. 
  • The trickle-down effect has theoretical implications in the world of fashion, as the spread of fashion is often described as a "movement" of sorts.
  • In trickle-across movement, fashion moves horizontally between groups on similar social levels.
  • In the trickle-up movement, specific fashion trends start from lower-income groups, or the "streets," and then work their way up through the hierarchy of society.

How the Trickle-Down Effect Works

The trickle-down effect in advertising works under the assumption that social classes are influenced by the higher social classes. The lower classes seek to imitate the fashions of the higher classes to lay claim to higher status themselves, while the higher classes seek to differentiate themselves by creating or adopting new fashion trends. Such behavior leads to greater innovation and accelerated change. 

The trickle-down effect works when an ad is so compelling, either because of its uniqueness, humor, entertainment value, or another outstanding trait, that people are excited to share it with their friends, family, and coworkers. When the trickle-down effect works, it can generate a great deal of exposure for a company in a short period of time and, in some cases, at a low cost. 

The trickle-down effect commonly employs social media, and an advertisement that goes viral through these channels can gain mass media coverage as a news story, giving the ad wide distribution without the costs traditionally associated with advertising through mainstream channels.

History of the Trickle-Down Effect

The trickle-down effect can trace its origins to the 19th Century, with the work of Rudolf von Jhering, who was the first to write about cultural diffusion.

He traced how fashions filtered down from the upper classes to the lower classes. The key position of von Jhering's work was that the value of fashion is reduced to nothing when it has been adopted by everyone. As such, the upper classes are compelled to find and adopt new fashion trends, which the lower classes will eventually adopt as well.

The trickle-down effect is incorporated into the theory of conspicuous consumption by Thorstein Veblen in "The Theory of the Leisure Class," which says that individuals buy luxury goods and services to display their wealth to others.

In a more modern context, the trickle-down effect is applied not to classes but to age, ethnicity, or gender by Grand McCracken in "Culture and Consumption."

Trickle Down vs. Trickle Across vs. Trickle Up

The trickle-down effect has significant theoretical implications in the world of fashion. That's because the spread of fashion is often described as a "movement" of sorts. In other words, fashion generally flows or "trickles" from one area of life to another.

The manner in which these movements occur can be defined in several ways. Aside from the trickle-down effect, fashion can also move horizontally or even upward.

Trickle-down. In the world of fashion, trickle-down describes a situation where particular trends are first accepted by people in the top social class. Then, over time, those fashion trends become gradually accepted by those in the lower classes.

Naturally, for the trickle-down effect to work, the given society has to be largely hierarchical with a high level of desire for upward mobility. That's because the trickle-down effect carries two main assumptions:

  • Those at the top of society seek distinction from the lower rungs of society and, therefore, constantly look for ways to "set the trends"
  • People in the lower strata of society seek to identify with the affluent members of society and thus integrate, mimic, and accept the fashion trends set from the top.

According to trickle-down, copying the looks of those in high society is a relatively easy way for people to display upward mobility. However, once a particular trend is too widely accepted, those in the upper strata tend to reject that look as outdated or "played out," and will then look for another new trend to set.

Trickle-across. In trickle-across movement, fashion moves horizontally between groups on similar social levels. In other words, peers set the trend for other peers, as opposed to coming down from only those who are most affluent. In this model, the particular fashion trend spreads very quickly from one group to another.

Researchers have suggested several reasons for trickle-across fashion including rapid methods of mass communication, marketing campaigns from both manufacturers and retailers, and natural trend following from fashion designers, themselves.

Trickle-up. The trickle-up pattern of fashion is the opposite of the trickle-down movement. That is, specific fashion trends and looks start from lower-income groups, or the "streets," and then work their way up through the hierarchy of society.

Designer Chanel is one of the most popular supporters of the trickle-up pattern of fashion distribution. In fact, many of her designs were based on the need for working women to have both functional and comfortable clothes.

Pea coats, khaki pants, and t-shirts are all examples of comfortable and practical clothes that were originally worn by working-class people and are now widely accepted as fashionable casual wear.

Trickle-Down Effect vs. Trickle-Down Theory

The trickle-down effect is tangentially related to the trickle-down theory of economics, which posits that rewarding the wealthy or businesses with tax cuts will stimulate the economy and benefit society. 

The trickle-down theory essentially argues for income and capital gains tax breaks to large businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs in order to stimulate economic growth. The assumption, of course, is that all members of society benefit from higher economic growth.

Trickle-down theory is closely related to the general principles of supply-side economics, or Reaganomics, which called for widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, and deregulation.

Example of the Trickle-Down Effect

A modern example of trickle-down distribution is the way social medial influencers on sites like Instagram set fashion trends; sometimes with a single post.

For example, in 2018, Kim Kardashian posted a picture of herself wearing a neon pink Yeezy dress for her half-sister Kylie Jenner's 21st birthday party. The post sparked a fashion trend that spread to runways, fashion brands, and retail outlets, with reports of a 743% jump in neon products in the short period following Kardashian's post.

Trickle-Down Effect FAQs

How Does the Trickle-Down Effect Bring Change to Society?

The trickle-down effect brings changes in society through a hierarchical system. Each social class is influenced by a higher social class. Thus, change is brought about when (and only when) the top social group decides to differentiate themselves.

What Is Trickle-Down Communication?

Trickle-down communication is a form of organizational communication where the leader only distributes messages and information to the people working directly under him or her. They, in turn, communicate to those working beneath them, until communication flows all the way down through the organization.

Article Sources
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  1. Yahoo Entertainment. "The Ripple Effect of Kim Kardashian's Yeezy Neon Pink Dress." Accessed July 1, 2021.