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Issue 47 - 01 | The Invisible Badge: Moving Past Conspicuous Consumption

By Rob Walker
Published June 4, 2008 9:04 p.m.
Thorstein Veblen introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption” in The Theory of the Leisure Class, in 1899. And it’s still being recycled today. Veblen gave examples like the man who parades down Main Street in “stainless” linen, with a superfluous walking stick. These objects supposedly told a story—“evidence of leisure”— to an audience of strangers.

Today’s consumer is supposed to be a little more sophisticated than that. So it’s puzzling how many marketers still talk about how a certain beer or sneaker or handbag functions as a so-called “badge.” Even hybrid cars are said to be eco-status markers that show “conspicuous concern” about the environment. More scholarly observers call this “signaling.” But in the end it’s all repackaged Veblen: The idea is that we buy stuff mostly to impress other people.

Perhaps this was true in the past. But the time has come to retire the conspicuous consumption idea. Observers of consumer culture (marketers, to name an example) need to understand that as a concept, it’s inadequate. The rest of us (consumers, that is) need to understand that even if we wanted it to work, it just doesn’t anymore.

There is a better idea—the invisible badge.

About Rob Walker | Rob Walker is the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, published in June 2008 by Random House. He writes the weekly column “Consumed,” a blend of business journalism and cultural anthropology, for The New York Times Magazine. Previously, he created and wrote the popular “Ad Report Card” column for Slate, and he has contributed to a wide range of publications and media outlets, from public-radio program Marketplace to Fast Company, from The New Republic to AdBusters. Walker continues to write about the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are at his own website, Murketing.com. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife, photographer Ellen Susan.

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