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There is a link between the desire for social mobility and conspicuous spending – particularly in a society like South Africa’s with a marked difference between “haves” and “have nots”.

The recent Ask Afrika Icon Brands survey identified certain social influencers and behavioural dynamics that are currently at play in the South African consumer market. One of these is the drive towards social mobility and the research showed that conspicuous spending is still very evident, but that it co-exists with reserved spending. This is not as simple a dynamic as it sounds and it is at play across the South African demographic to varying degrees and is expressed in different ways.

These two tendencies of conspicuous and reluctant consumption are even present within the same individual when it comes to different product category consumption choices. Certain product categories that are linked to status and mobility may encourage conspicuous consumption and this will in turn be balanced out by saving when it comes to other product categories.

According to Wikipedia, “conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on, and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power – either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth. Sociologically, to the conspicuous consumer, such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status. Consumption is regarded to foster economic benefits, by some accounts.”

The definition adds it could go further, to invidious consumption. “Invidious consumption, a more specialised sociologic term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.”

Sarina de Beer, MD of Ask Afrika, comments: “According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey Anthology, conspicuous consumption is very evident in South Africa. It increases in groups or segments where average incomes are lower and inequality is higher. Conspicuous consumption in the middle class is sometimes linked to insecure membership of the group and is often negatively related to asset ownership. As asset ownership rises it is likely that conspicuous consumption would decrease, perhaps because the need to signal economic status declines commensurately.”

The web site “Conspicuous Consumption” explains that the term was introduced by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class” published in 1899. It says that conspicuous displays of consumption and leisure are a means to demonstrate one’s superiority. Typically, conspicuous consumption is not sustainable and leads to social dependency; and it appears that there is a link to education levels and reluctant consumption.

The Ask Afrika Icon Brands survey uses a nationally representative random sample, 15 690 consumers were surveyed, representing over 23,3-million adult South African consumers. An enumerated area sampling design was employed and the universe includes all communities with more than 8 000 inhabitants 15 years old and above. The data was weighted using the Statistics South Africa’s population mid-year estimates and audited by independent experts BDO and Dr Ariana Neethling.