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The surprising link between your politics and what you buy

It’s a no-brainer that a desire for luxury goods is tied to social status—now, a new study links it to political affiliation.

The surprising link between your politics and what you buy
[Source Images: freestocks/Unsplash (photo), wacomka/iStock (pattern)]

American political conservatives care more about advancing and asserting social status through luxury goods than the average Joe—and certainly more than liberal consumers—according to a new study by a team of researchers from INSEAD, Hong Kong’s UST Business School, and Georgia State University. The empirical study, led by David Dubois, a marketing professor at INSEAD, suggests political leanings are a significant indicator of how and why you buy luxury items.

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To conduct the research, published in the Journal of Marketing, Dubois and his colleagues looked at survey data from consumers of nearly 22,000 car purchases made between October 2011 and September 2012. Participants of the survey, who drew from across all states of the U.S., were asked to respond to questions regarding political affiliations, social status, and factors contributing to their desire to buy luxury goods.

“We found that Republicans with high social status were 9.8% more likely than high-status Democrats to buy a luxury car. Intrigued, we dug a little deeper and discovered that while high-status Democrats spent $29,022 on average, their Republican counterparts were spending $33,216 on cars. For luxury car sellers, that meant a median difference of 14.45% increase in sales to conservative customers,” cited Dubois.

[Source Images: Alvin Mahmudov/Unsplash (photo), wacomka/iStock (pattern)]

The researchers hypothesized that these patterns in consumption behavior stemmed from an urge to assert a sense of social hierarchy and socioeconomic order. They tested their hypothesis across additional sample groups and product categories, including eyewear and headphones, and measured their response and the amount they were willing to pay for products, according to variances in how they were framed in messaging and marketing. A mix of participants from both sides of the political aisle were shown one of three varying ads for the same eyewear product: The first read, “keep your status with status” (meant to convey an assertion of existing status); the second, “update your status with status” (conveying status advancement); and the third, “eyewear for everyone” (used as a status-neutral message). While participants from both parties showed a preference for eyewear associated with status, only Republican respondents showed a clear willingness to pay significantly more to obtain it. Essentially, Republicans were shown to be more comfortable as social climbers, even, it bears mentioning, with poorly written mock-ads written to play to their money-driven egos.

While the notion of “conspicuous consumption” is hardly new—we can thank Thorstein Veblen’s seminal Theory of the Leisure Class, penned at the turn of the 20th century, for that handy term—Dubois’s data-driven study builds upon it by linking the desire for social stratification to political beliefs.

The takeaway is not so surprising and, in fact, conforms to many a popular stereotype about conservative and liberal values. In a country that now has a despotic real estate developer and crooked businessman as president, this all brings dark new meaning to the idea of voting with your wallet.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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