Keeping Up With The Joneses

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In one of my Consumer Behavior classes we discussed the concepts of the Sacred and the Profane. While these terms are used closely with religion, they also find their use in explaining the consumerist economy we are surrounded by and indulge in. What does sacred signify in the context of Marketing? Well, to explain this let’s trace back to the French philosopher and sociologist Emile Durkheim who borrowed the concepts of the Sacred and the Profane to explain societies. Sacred quite simply signifies what is scarce. At that time, in 1899 when Durkheim wrote about this, jobs were scarce and was therefore considered sacred. But industrialization brought mass production creating jobs, changing our concept of what was sacred.

Mass produced goods became accessible and were cheaper than the ones that were hand-crafted, which were expensive and scarce and hence now considered sacred . The resulting situation was one where people who could afford these exclusive items i.e. had the wealth became the upper class. The rest started aspiring to reach that level, and thus began the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. Our constant want/desire to have what we see others can afford, to fool ourselves into believing that buying these products makes us a part of that aspirational class and sub-culture. We, as consumers confuse these desires with the need we have for basic necessities.

The omnipresent advertising acts upon our subconscious to aspire for more. And while the purpose, as a marketer, is to create the awareness of a brand and its products to reach consumers who are  in the process of making their purchase decisions, inevitably the abundance of messaging and glittering products indeed makes us want more of everything. It is little surprising then that Americans consume 815 billion calories of food each day. We are a nation that is consumed by consumption and for a long time could afford to do so.

The downturn in economy and rising unemployment has had an effect on consumer behavior. People are constantly faced with making trade off and soon this might become a habit as the recession continues. But exactly this point was debated in my class and the guest lecturer hypothesized that people who can ill afford to spend tend to continue spending even more as their income declines to find “happiness”.

At the end, while there was no definite consensus, we were left thinking what our responsibility is towards our customers, how do we keep our profits but not exploit consumers knowingly or unknowingly. The thought starter was responsible marketing- Sacred vs. Profane