Conspicuous Consumption

The psychology of the human brain plays a critical role in advertising because uncovering the primitive transaction-inducing mechanisms means owning the knowledge to make millions in sales. One of these behavioural schemes is conspicuous consumption, and the aim of this blog post is to evaluate the idea that conspicuous consumption needs to be inserted in the right context in order to be beneficial to the consumer.

The term which was famously introduced by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who defines conspicuous consumption as:

“[…] A means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure’


“[…] a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself”.

Veblen, T., (1899), The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, (4, 35–36)

Here the comfort of the consumer isn’t just provided by the leisure good itself, but rather by the reputability this consumption brings him. If we add the following further definition to Veblen’s initial concept,

“The tendency for individuals to enhance their image,

through overt consumption of possessions,

which communicates status to others.”

O’Cass, A., McEwen, H., (2004), Journal of Consumer Behaviour Vol. 4, 1, 25–39, Exploring consumer status and conspicuous consumption, (pp. 34—35).

we understand that the action is a form of non-verbal communication between the consumer and ‘others’. Feeding off Veblen’s research, O’Cass and McEwen conclude that this kind of consumption is unsuccessful unless ‘others’ observe and, as Wong and Ahuvia (1998) found, ‘the desire for conspicuous goods is determined by the consumer’s social networks’. 


This 2015 BMW ad was part of a revival campaign that showed how the German company made each year special by releasing  cars that became icons throughout the decades. It challenges the reader to consider the fact that the new BMW model could become the new icon of the summer. If the consumer wants to be seen as cool, confident and an expert that has great taste in cars, this car is the one because it will become an icon like the past models. The context in which the consumption of this product would work is stated right at the top of the ad: ‘BMW will guarantee a great summer’. This immediately transports the reader in the context of the hot season, when the social gatherings multiply and showing off, arriving in a cool car is something that would benefit the consumer’s image greatly.

the_palm_beach_post_sun__mar_27__1994_Source: The Palm Beach Post, (27 March 1994),

This Jaguar ad appeared in the Palm Beach Post in March of 1994. It features a beautiful 1994 Jaguar XJS convertible in what seems to be a hot Californian summer day, parked outside of a high school building. The copy states with confidence that this car would be perfect to show off at a high school reunion. Obviously catered to a wealthy male american, it puts the product in a very specific context where the opinion of the public is clearly important for the consumer’s image. This ad wouldn’t have worked if it was placed in a luxury automobile show, for example, because the car wouldn’t have stood out as being special and expensive.




Veblen, T., (1899), The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, (4, 35–36).

Cass, A., (2004) Exploring consumer status and conspicuous consumption, Journal of Consumer Behaviour. (Vol. 4, 1, 25–39).

Wong, N. Y., Ahuvia, A. C., (1998) Personal Taste and FamilyFace: Luxury Consumption in Confucian and Western Societies.


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