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- 8 Jun 2010
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Is Conspicuous Consumption Still Politically Incorrect and Socially Taboo?


As the age of austerity drags on a little longer, those who do have money to spend ostentatiously are coming under continued political and media scrutiny.

As the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, all eyes are on the players; and it seems that political eyes in particular, are unimpressed with what they are witnessing. Footballers are of course known for their lavish lifestyles. But whereas previously WAG-watching (that’s ‘Wives And Girlfriends-watching’) was an alternative World Cup activity, this year the wives, girlfriends and their wardrobes have been banished, and politicians in France, Italy and Spain have criticised the insensitivity players have shown by reveling in “excessive luxury”, while fans endure public service cuts and tough unemployment rates.

Is this an isolated incident of European politicians attempting to express solidarity with the electorate? Or is it a symptom of a broader pattern, which could and should impact on the choices the luxury sector makes?

In Italy, not only are players coming under fire for their predilection for the finer things in life, but should they lift the World Cup one minister also demanded that they each forego their €240,000 ($287,000) bonus. “It would be the right thing for footballers to participate in the sacrifices being made by Italians during the crisis,” said Roberto Calderoli, of the Italian Northern League Party.

There is similar anger in Spain where the national football federation revealed that if the national side were to win the competition, each player would be on course to win €600,000 ($720,000).

The scrutiny of hefty, performance-related bonuses in particular, is reminiscent of the scorn poured upon bankers, particularly in the UK and America, at the peak of the financial crisis. Arguably, this recent, and very public, political condemnation of footballers’ luxurious lifestyles, may still be indicative of a wider distaste for conspicuous consumption.

When Louis Vuitton opened their spectacularly extravagant ‘maison’ in London, a fortnight ago criticism emerged in circles from the pragmatic to the puritanical. Popular Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones even managed to be snide about artists such as Takashi Murakami and Gilbert and George whose work appears in the shop : “It is an homage to culture, you see. Not greed”, before advising her prodigious number of readers to “leave with a shudder, and without a backwards glance.”

Marc Jacobs evidently felt inclined to defend the move: “Clearly it’s gross if you carry on spending in an insensitive way when people are being laid off or having a hard time…The question is how to indulge those impulses in a way that’s sensitive to others and doesn’t ultimately ruin the experience by leaving you feeling guilty.” It was a placating statement that would have been unheard of in ‘boom times’.

Net-a-Porter offer a different solution – if you can’t stop shopping ‘insensitively’, just do it secretly. They aim to allow shoppers to preclude the ‘shame factor’ attached to luxury shopping by offering ‘discreet packaging’: “Keep all your NET-A-PORTER purchases hidden from inquisitive eyes with our ‘discreet packaging’ … Your items will arrive in an unbranded, recycled brown paper bag with no indication of what’s inside,” reads the website.

Despite the recovery mood prevalent among many consumers, it seems that attitudes in the media and politics are taking longer to rebound. In fact, we may never return to the guiltless, carefree spending which characterised the boom times.

Luxury companies need to bear this in mind as they navigate a new and challenging consumer climate.

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