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Keep Up With the Joneses by Faking It

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Research shows you can fool anyone with knock-offs and a big dose of confidence.

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New research suggests that it's premature to write the obituary on conspicuous consumption. It might just have a new attitude.

A new paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that social cues -- not the lower quality of knock-off luxury goods – are the undoing of those seeking to fake their place in high society.

So, if you're trying to create an image of wealth and social standing on a budget, it's okay to skimp on the designer duds, spiffy handbag, or expensive watch as long as you develop a supremely confident -- almost haughty -- upscale demeanor.

"Authenticity is not necessarily a property of the product itself, but rather a property of the consumers' connection to the product," Renee Richardson Gosline, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT's Sloan School of Management, told the school's news service.

A similar tactic worked for the couple that recently crashed a White House state dinner. They got past the Secret Service and met President Obama because they looked and acted like members of the social elite.

Gosline's research, presented in a working paper titled "Rethinking Brand Contamination: How Consumers Maintain Distinction When Symbolic Boundaries are Breached," underscores a key marketing problem for makers of luxury goods: High quality isn't enough. This means advertising for high-end goods must sell the aura -- the sizzle -- rather than merely plug workmanship and quality. The key for advertisers: Research subjects said they would pay twice as much for an item that conveys an image of taste and wealth.

The findings support sociologist Thorstein Veblen's idea of "conspicuous consumption" developed in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class published in 1899. Veblen theorized that people bought luxury goods to mark their social status and set them apart from the hoi-polloi. In a consumer society, that's known as "keeping up with the Joneses."
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