By now, almost everyone has seen the viral South Korean music video hit Gangnam Style by Psy (also known as Park Jaesang).
Not only is Psy’s distinctive invisible horse dance showing up on Good Morning America and in NFL end zones, but the rapper will also be appearing live on The Today Show to perform on Friday, September 14.
This is a pretty huge crossover for a South Korean musician.
The most interesting aspect of this giant viral hit has less to do with the catchy music and the easy-to-reproduce dance style (which, by the way, shows just how savvy a marketer Psy happens to be) and more to do with the message behind the song.
Gangnam is a nouveau riche area of Seoul where conspicuous consumption is rampant. According to Korean blogger Jea Kim of My Dear Korea,
“Psy’s Gangnam Style is a satire about the Gangnam life itself, which is nothing but materialistic and about people who are chasing rainbows, dreaming of becoming a Gangnam resident someday.”
Even though the lyrics are incomprehensible to the average American music-lover, Psy’s viral hit has a great deal to teach Americans about conspicuous consumption, as well. America may not have one single Gangnam neighborhood that represents the culture of wealth for the country, nor do we have quite the level of credit card debt plaguing South Korea—Max Fisher of the The Atlantic reports that
“in 2010, the average [South Korean] household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent)”
—but we certainly have our own version of “Gangnam Style.”
That is, there are certainly silly items—like the high-end coffee that South Korean Gangnam wannabes will drink while skimping on meals—that Americans will buy just to impress others. Are you guilty of spending money on any of these American Gangnam style items?
1. Technology. Smart phones, tablets and e-readers may be incredibly cool and convenient gadgets, but I know of very few people who really need to use them. In the same way that car phones and pagers (remember them?) were once status symbols, being connected to the internet 24/7 via a smart phone or tablet that you are never without confers a certain status to users.
As an iPad owner who loves the convenience of so much computing power in such a small device, I will never knock anyone for wanting to be able to get their Angry Birds on anytime and anywhere. These devices really can make your life more convenient (and fun). But it is really important to look at the cost of that kind connectivity and convenience.
The monthly price of data plans for smart phones really can make it difficult to justify the purchase. I do not own a smart phone specifically because I do not want to pay for the data plan for something that is basically just another gadget.
Unless and until I find that I can no longer do my job or fulfill my obligations without a smart phone, I will continue to use my dumb phone—no matter how much I may drool over the iPhone. Because I would be paying money just to look cool and add only a little bit of value to my life. It would certainly not be worth the money for me.
2. Clothing labels. Once upon a time, clothing labels were only found on the tag in the collar. But it became chic to show off who you were wearing—provided they were expensive and popular—and labels started covering the fronts of clothing and being conspicuously displayed on handbags and other accessories.
Joseph Nunes, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, told Businessweek that “a good chunk of America loves using products to signal their status.”
This sounds very much like the kind of Gangnam Style that Psy is singing about. On the one hand, rich Americans who can afford to spend big bucks on brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci are clearly trying to show off their wealth. It provides a hollow sense of self worth if you need to prove that you are rich in order to feel good.
On the other hand, aspirational shoppers who don’t have that kind of wealth want to buy luxury brands and labels to fit in with wealthier individuals, even though they don’t really have the same level of income. As Sherif Mityas, partner at the retail practice at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney put it, “the brand is as important as the product for that group.”
3. Cars. What makes a car a status symbol can change from decade to decade. In the 90s and early new millennium, having an enormous SUV seemed to be a good indicator of middle class economic comfort, and having a luxe brand SUV showed off your wealth. Not only could you afford an expensive car, but you could afford to fill it with gas.
Then, of course, gas prices went through the roof. Now, status is more likely conferred on an individual who can afford to purchase a hybrid or electric car. While many of these individuals really are looking to improve their carbon footprint and reduce their fuel consumption, the math does not necessarily add up.
For a truly environmental and frugal approach, it would make more sense to purchase an older, fairly efficient traditional vehicle, and use it sparingly. But then you can’t drive around town showing off how green you are (in both senses of the word.)
The Bottom Line
Conspicuous consumption is the sort of thing that deserves to be skewered in popular culture and media. Whether you are a South Korean spending too much money on coffee or an American wearing, driving, or talking on high-status labels, you need to think about why you are spending your money that way.
Remember, from the outside, spending your money on status symbols may look as ridiculous as a grown-man riding an invisible horse.
Now for a little more Gangnam Style:
Image by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious