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The Invisible Badge: Moving Past Conspicuous Consumption

Rob Walker

June 04, 2008

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.

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