American “Gangnam Style” aka Conspicuous Consumption

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. Consuming Technology as it Consumes Us

Smartphones, 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 smartphone 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 any time 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 of connectivity and convenience.

The monthly price of data plans for smartphones really can make it difficult to justify the purchase. I do not own a smartphone 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 smartphone, 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. Conspicuous 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.”

Gangnam Style Ride the Horse Consumerism

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. Conspicuous 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 on Conspicuous Consumption

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:

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About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher and respected personal finance blogger. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two high-energy little boys. She has written four books: The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.


  1. MoneyAfterGrad says:

    Great post, I love how you incorporated this huge viral movement into a PF post ! I’m really happy that I do not try to appear like I am made of money; it’s so silly, and I’m glad he is satirizing it. I saw Psy teach Britney Spears the dance on Ellen too!!

  2. Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    Emily, I just watched the video last night and thought it was ridiculous, yet weirdly funny. I have to admit I didn’t understand what the video was about or how it would possibly relate to money but you connected those points very well for me. As a resident of Orange County, Gangnam style is all too evident here. People are driving fancy cars to show off their “apparent” fortunes although something tells me they’re not all that well off.

  3. I first heard the Gangnam Style from my kids. I like the rhythm and the melody and I laughed a lot when one of my sons danced to the tune! We all danced the “Gangnam Style” but admittedly, we do not live its lifestyle. We have a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, and smartphones for me and my husband but these gadgets are used mainly at work. Likewise, I do not buy branded items for my children. In case, they branded wear clothes or shoes, they are definitely gifts from friends and relatives or hand-me-down from older cousins. 

  4. @jeffreytrull I wish the DJ would have played that one.

  5. retirebyforty says:

    @jeffreytrull @ptmoney I gotta see this.

  6. Money Life and More says:

    I saw the video the other day. I don’t mind the smart phone data fees because I get a ton of value out of it. I get a lot of blog commenting done on my smartphone and it saves me a ton of time!

  7. Jeffrey Trull says:

    Yes, yes, I’m an iPhone and Macbook Air owner, but that’s about it! I don’t even own a car, and I usually shop at thrift stores. But most of all, I’m just enjoying dancing around like Psy!

  8. OneSmartDollar says:

    I saw this video for the first time yesterday and talk about funny.  I can’t believe the numbers in terms of how much south koreans spend compared to make.  Thank god my wife didn’t pick up those spending habits the 3 years she lived there.