Tying purchases of larger fast food items to McMansions and status seeking

A forthcoming study from researchers from Paris and Northwestern University shows that powerless people make larger fast food purchases in order to show their status:

Consumers who feel powerless reach for extra-large portions of food in an effort to increase their social standing in the eyes of others, a new study suggests.

“An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers’ tendency to eat more and more,” the researchers wrote in the study to be published in the April 2012 print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. “The increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations, such as lower socioeconomic status consumers.”…

The study authors noted that cultural norms associate some larger items, such as houses, vehicles or flatscreen TVs, with wealth, success and high social status. If consumers feel unhappy with their status, they may take this belief and apply it to food, the researchers suggested.

These consumers may attempt to compensate for their perceived lower status by showing others that they can afford to buy the larger sizes, but instead of a Mcmansion they buy larger portion sizes, according to the researchers. In one of the experiments, the participants perceived that consumers who bought a large coffee at a cafe had a higher status than those who chose medium or small — even when the price of all sizes was the same.

It seems that the key here is that these are the decisions made by powerless people, people who have limited, more legitimate ways to show off their status. So do the authors suggest that people with more power don’t buy items to simply show status? This is an argument typically made about McMansions and SUVs: certain people with money feel the need to show off their wealth with these more ostentatious, larger purchases. On the other hand, the implication is that people with more education or taste would consume other sorts of items, not seeking status. Really? A designer larger, green home isn’t also somewhat about status? Going smaller is necessarily less about status?

I would love to see results of similar experiments done with different groups regarding some of the other consumer items mentioned in this report. I suspect we might find that status seeking purchases look different across different socioeconomic statuses, echoing Bourdieu’s distinctions between those who little capital (in this fast food study) versus more capital and also between those with more education and more money.

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