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Keeping Up With the Joneses: Professor Explores Why We Buy

  • Jeff Podoshen
  • Associate Professor of Marketing Jeff Podoshen studies post-war consumerism and our motivations to buy material goods. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Jeff Podoshen, an associate professor of marketing at Franklin & Marshall College, studies post-war consumerism and our motivations to buy material goods. He has published several papers on consumer behavior in collaboration with fellow professors and students.

In this interview, part of an occasional feature called "Three Questions," Podoshen discusses the relationship between materialism and conspicuous consumption – the excessive spending or acquisition of goods and services to demonstrate or suggest wealth and power – and its effects on marketing and the U.S. economy.

As part of your research, you explore American consumerism and the motivations behind materialism and conspicuous consumption. What are some of the central questions of your studies and what do you hope to learn?

I hope to learn more about the outcomes, attitudes and values related to living a materially-centered and conspicuously oriented consumer lifestyle. The world has changed, and more global consumers have adopted the American "buy now, pay later" way of consuming, and that's not a good thing. Consumers in developing economies are believing that the acquisition of more material possessions will lead to increased happiness, and the reality is that a materially focused lifestyle generally disappoints and leads to wide-scale economic problems. Currently, I'm examining how commonly embraced marketing strategies such as the promotion of brand loyalty and impulse buying relate to materialistic attitudes. I'm also examining materialism and conspicuous consumption among specific global subcultures, such as the hip-hop subculture.

What are some of the implications of materialism on the U.S. economy and society and why is it important to examine them?

Some might say that the Great Recession was caused by massive structural and cultural materialism and conspicuous desires in a race to "keep up (and overtake) the Joneses." The problem, of course, is that spending money you don't have can take you down a dangerous path. Adding to the misery is the fact that our economy is weak and continues to falter. We have gone from an economy that used to produce goods to one that primarily consumes goods. That's not sustainable. U.S. economic policy needs to encourage entrepreneurship, sustainable job creation, domestic production and real gross domestic product growth, not rapid consumption. In this respect, U.S. economic policy has been a dismal failure for quite a while and there are no signs of policy change.   

How did you become interested in these topics and what are the next steps in your research?

Americans in my generation will live worse than our parents' generation. We will be saddled with massive consumer debt, the destructive after-effects of a government that prints money recklessly and overspends, and a planet decimated by overconsumption and climate change. Overconsumption, government encouragement of overspending and unlimited material desires have led us down this path. Governmental policy these days encourages more consumption to "stimulate" the economy without thinking about the long-term implications.

Marketers try and get consumers to buy more, and to do so impulsively. These are destructive strategies and in the long run these strategies will cause more problems than they solve. Values about consumption need to change, and we have to stop looking for the quick fix and the impulse buy.  We have to stop letting government dictate our consumption and investment patterns. Drowning our sorrows in a shopping spree is not the long-term answer to what ails us. These are problems that we can no longer put off. We can't hope that our children will come up with solutions to our overconsumption; change has to happen now.