ArticlePDF Available

Abstract and Figures

Envy has long been held to be a harmful emotion involving the desire to deprive others of the qualities or possessions that they possess and we covet. When the various religious injunctions against such malicious envy were conceived, the consumption landscape was vastly different. There was no branding, advertising, mass media, consumer credit, or Internet; neighbors knew neighbors; social hierarchies were relatively fixed; and discretionary income was largely unknown. This conceptual synthesis suggests that contemporary consumption is driven far more by benign envy involving a desire to “level up” through consumption emulation rather than “level down” by harming others. The concept of benign envy is developed along with an analysis of the forces leading to its displacement of malicious envy and its key role as a motivator of consumption. The paper concludes with a theoretical development of forms of envy and being envied and derives implications for theory and research. KeywordsEnvy–Social comparison–Benign envy–Leveling–Aspirational goods–Desire–Emulation–Covetousness–Relative deprivation–Positional goods–Conspicuous consumption–Cultural capital
Content may be subject to copyright.
1 23
AMS Review
Official Publication of the Academy of
Marketing Science
ISSN 1869-814X
DOI 10.1007/s13162-011-0018-x
Benign envy
Russell Belk
1 23
Your article is protected by copyright and
all rights are held exclusively by Academy
of Marketing Science. This e-offprint is for
personal use only and shall not be self-
archived in electronic repositories. If you
wish to self-archive your work, please use the
accepted author’s version for posting to your
own website or your institution’s repository.
You may further deposit the accepted author’s
version on a funder’s repository at a funder’s
request, provided it is not made publicly
available until 12 months after publication.
Benign envy
Russell Belk
Received: 11 October 2011 / Accepted: 17 November 2011
#Academy of Marketing Science 2011
Abstract Envy has long been held to be a harmful emotion
involving the desire to deprive others of the qualities or
possessions that they possess and we covet. When the
various religious injunctions against such malicious envy
were conceived, the consumption landscape was vastly
different. There was no branding, advertising, mass media,
consumer credit, or Internet; neighbors knew neighbors;
social hierarchies were relatively fixed; and discretionary
income was largely unknown. This conceptual synthesis
suggests that contemporary consumption is driven far more
by benign envy involving a desire to level upthrough
consumption emulation rather than level downby
harming others. The concept of benign envy is developed
along with an analysis of the forces leading to its
displacement of malicious envy and its key role as a
motivator of consumption. The paper concludes with a
theoretical development of forms of envy and being envied
and derives implications for theory and research.
Keywords Envy .Social comparison .Benign envy .
Leveling .Aspirational goods .Desire .Emulation .
Covetousness .Relative deprivation .Positional goods .
Conspicuous consumption .Cultural capital
One instructive story of consumer envy is the fairy tale we
know as Cinderella. It is an enduring tale that some have
traced to early civilizations (e.g., Bettelheim 1977;Philip
1989). There are hundreds of versions of the tale, but the
Brothers Grimm (1997) version offers a more telling account
of envy than the more familiar Disney version of the story. In
the Grimm tale Cinderellas stepsisters take away her pretty
clothes, make her wear an old grey bed gown and wooden
shoes, confine her to dirty kitchen tasks, and dub her
Cinderella. When their father is going to a fair one day, he
asks the three girls what presents he can bring them. The
stepsisters ask for pearls, jewels, and beautiful dresses, while
Cinderella asks only for a twig. She takes the twig and plants
it on her mothers grave, where she waters it with her tears. It
grows into a tree inhabited by birds that grant her wishes.
When the king organizes a ball so that his son may choose a
bride, the sisters have Cinderella help them into their finery
and then tell her she cannot come because she is dirty and
has no gown or fine shoes. But Cinderella goes to the ball
with the help of the birds which deck her out in a ball gown
and slippers made of silver and silk. At the ball Cinderella
dances with the captivated prince, but her sisters do not
recognize her. Leaving hurriedly at midnight, she loses a
slipper which the prince uses to seek his bride. At Cinderellas
house, at the behest of their mother, one of the stepsisters cuts
off her toe in an effort to fit into the shoe and the other cuts off
her heel. Nevertheless, the prince ultimately claims Cinderella
as his bride. The sisters attend the wedding in order to claim
their share of the royal largesse, but the birds peck out their
eyes as punishment for their wickedness.
As others have suggested (e.g., Ulanov and Ulanov
2008), this is a morality tale about envy and being envied.
The sisters are cruel to Cinderella out of envy, while
Cinderella remains modest and humble, doing nothing to
provoke their envy. As the marriage to a prince and the
pivotal role of fine dresses and slippers make clear, this is a
story about upward status mobility and consumer behavior.
It illustrates a number of issues that are the focus of this
theoretical treatment. I will consider what envy is and how
R. Belk (*)
Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing,
Schulich School of Business, York University,
4700 Keele Street,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3
DOI 10.1007/s13162-011-0018-x
Author's personal copy
it differs from other emotions like jealousy and resentment.
I will show that there is a realm of consumption where a
more benign form of envy exists that contrasts with the
malicious envy of the Cinderella story. I will also consider
the relationship of envy to a number of interconnected
consumption phenomena including social comparison,
covetousness, pecuniary emulation, positional goods, con-
spicuous consumption, relative deprivation, and cultural
capital. I will argue that the old conception of envy seen in
the Cinderella story is outmoded and inappropriate for
understanding envy in contemporary consumer behavior. I
then offer an expanded view of different types of envy and
different ways of regarding othersenvy, with implications for
consumer theory and research.
Key neglected concepts in consumer research
The concept of envy has long been of interest in such diverse
fields as anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology,
psychoanalysis, philosophy, neuroscience, English literature,
history, organizational behavior, and religion. Yet envy has
received scant attention within consumer research where it
would seem to be among the most fundamental factors
influencing consumption processes and outcomes. We are
quite familiar with characterizations of consumption motiva-
tions based on social comparisons, including keeping up with
the Joneses(Matt 2003), invidious distinction seeking,
vicarious consumption, and snobbery (Veblen 1899), status
seeking (Packard 1959), status symbols (Levy 1959), and
status anxiety (de Botton 2004). Yet these terms are seldom
encountered in consumer research. Reference groups, fashion,
celebrity endorsements, word of mouth, and interpersonal
influence are among the areas of consumer research that
recognize the role of others in consumption processes. But
none of these areas of research deals explicitly with envy.
As Belk (1988) concludes, consumer-object relations are
seldom simply about a person and a thing. Rather they are
almost always person-thing-person relationships. Directly or
indirectly we consume the things that we do based upon the
desires and reactions of other people. What we drive, where
we live, how we furnish our homes, what we wear, and how
we amuse ourselves are all choices guided by our beliefs that
these things are seen by others as expressive signs of our
identity (Belk 1988). Mimetic consumption is the rule even
in imaginary online worlds where we are cloaked by a
pseudonym or avatar (Boellstorff 2008). De Botton (2004)
suggests that our concern for social status and the social
comparisons that we make to see how we stand are
underwritten by a desire to receive some evidence that we
are loved or respected by those who are important to us. As
Adam Smith (1759) argued, success is seldom absolute, but
depends upon the good opinion of our neighbors and equals.
If it were merely the case that we care what others think of us
and that this influences our consumption choices, this would be
interesting, but not particularly problematic. Where the prob-
lems lie are in the relative nature of social comparison and in the
malicious nature of envy, at least as it is classically conceived.
In that conception, if there are winners, there must also be
losers. The relative nature of most conceptions of status means
that our absolute gains mean little if those against whom we
compare ourselves gain an equal or greater amount (Easterlin
1995). Being on the losing end of a social comparison can
create strong negative emotions that, in most views of envy,
include animosity toward those on the winning end:
Envy is a feeling of pain a person experiences when
he or she perceives that another individual possesses
some object, quality, or status that he or she desires
but does not possess. When the envious person is
unable to obtain the desired object, quality, or status
that individual usually hopes that the envied person
will lose the desired thing and may even conspire to
make it happen (Schimmel 2008, p. 18).
It seems little wonder that one of the Bibles ten command-
ments condemns coveting your neighbors spouse, property,
or other belongings as well as the related sin of envy. At a
more aggregate level, envy between groups, religions, and
nations has been characterized as driving such antipathies as
Jihad vs. McWorld (Barber 1995) and the poor masses versus
wealthy ethnic minorities (Chua 2004). Yet envy has been
characterized as a driving wheel of our modern worldand
the passion that governs our economic life(Palaver 2005,
p. 139). In light of such arguments, envy is foremost among
the concepts deserving more attention in consumer research.
Objectives and outline
I will begin by reviewing traditional perspectives on envy
and social comparison as well as some of the key findings
and debates about these phenomena. I then present an
alternative view of envy. I argue that there has been a
largely unrecognized change in the nature of envy and
social comparison processes. This thesis is developed and is
followed by a consideration of how marketing utilizes and
influences benign envy. The concept of benign envy is then
refined and a model of envy and feeling envied is derived.
Envy and related concepts in traditional views
Envy, jealousy, covetousness, and desire
Joseph Epstein (2003)beginshisshortbookonenvyby
noting that envy and anger are the only vices among the
Author's personal copy
seven deadly sins that are not much fun. Pride, gluttony, lust,
greed, and sloth all have their pleasures and even the release
of anger may prove emotionally satisfying. But envy is a
gnawing bitterness that is only relieved if the person envied
is brought low. Ever since Plato there has been a tradition
connecting envy to Schadenfreude, the pleasure taken from
anothers misfortune (Powell et al. 2008;Sundieetal.2009).
Did the neighbor who just got an impressive new car get into
a fender-bender? Great; we secretly chuckle. Does the
woman with the great body and the Jimmy Choo heels have
spinach on her teeth? We smirk. Is our over-achieving
professional colleague headed for an acrimonious divorce?
We gloat and feel much better. Contrary to most
assumptions of self-interest, some studies have shown that
many people will even pay their own money in order to
reduce the earnings of envied others (e.g., Zizzo 2003;
Zizzo and Oswald 2001). Such money burningconfirms
that our sense of well-being is dependent on othersapparent
When a friend tells us of the fabulous vacation she is
taking, we might respond with either one of the English
expressions Im so jealousor Im so envious of you,
taking them as equivalent. They are not. We are jealous
about what we possess and envious of what others possess.
Thus, we may be jealous when someone shows too keen an
interest in our significant other, but envious of someone
else whose wedding celebration is clearly superior to our
own. Both jealousy and envy can evoke passionate, if not
violent, responses. But when jealousy is sexual, as it often
is, we are apt to empathize with the perpetrator of the act of
violence (Stearns 1999). However if we act out of envious
malice to ruin someones vacation or wedding, this is apt to
be seen as horrid. Envy is a more shameful emotion and
one we are likely to suppress or hide. There may however
sometimes be a relationship between jealousy and envy. As
Schoeck (1966) observes, a child may feel that although she
has the love of her parents, another sibling has more. She is
therefore jealous of her parentsattention to the other child
with whom she feels an intense sibling rivalry (e.g.,
Cinderella). Although Schoeck does not discuss it, it is
reasonable to assume that if the child sees a gift to her
sibling as a token of the parentslove, it is natural that she
would feel envious when the sibling receives a gift and she
does not. Starting in the 1920s, some child-rearing experts
began telling parents to minimize sibling envy and rivalry
by providing gifts to all of their children when one of them
has a birthday (Matt 2002,2003). This is a message
congruent with the rise of consumer culture, since it implies
that rather than suppress the urges of envy, children were to
be taught that there was no need for malicious envy since
they could have whatever they want (Matt 2002; Stearns
1999). They are effectively being taught to replace malicious
envy with benign envy, as we shall see. This was a lesson
lost upon Cinderellas stepsisters who received far more
beautiful gifts than Cinderella but nevertheless remained
intensely envious of her. They harbored a malicious zero-sum
A distinction also must be made between enviousness
and covetousness. We may envy another person when they
possess a good that we covet. Coveting is wishing to have
what the other has, while envy is the ill will we feel toward
its possessor. That is, coveting is directed at the object and
envy is directed toward the person. But coveting is not the
same as consumer desire (Belk et al. 2003). Coveting is
rather the wish for a particular good that is in the
possession of a particular other person. Although the Bible
condemns envy per se in stories like that of Cain killing
Abel (Schimmel 2008), the Biblical commandment instead
condemns coveting the things that others own. The
Mahabharata condemns covetousness not as a sin in itself,
but as leading to the sins of deception, pride, arrogance,
malice, vindictiveness, and malevolence (SantiParva, Section
CLVIII, quoted in Tickle [2004], p. 13). As Schoeck (1966)
and Alicke and Zell (2008) point out, the envious person can
covet something without actually desiring to own it. For
instance, we can covet a persons yacht without ever
intending to set foot on a ship. The mere ownership of this
object by an envied other increases its importance for us. We
can also envy the body, beauty, or mind of another person
(Lyman 1978). This may suggest that when we envy a
person because they possess a particular coveted good, what
we really wish is that we were that other personsomething
that Belk et al. (2003) found in their study of consumer
desire, especially in less affluent Turkey. Thus, in the classic
view covetousness differs from consumer desire because it
is focused on a particular persons possession and because
the coveted object may be a mere synecdoche for the
envied person.
Envy avoidance and limited good societies
The phenomenon of envy may or may not be culturally
universal (Lindholm 2008), but it is clearly widespread,
ancient, and feared. Gell (1986) describes the Muria Gond
in India who strive to avoid othersenvy by avoiding fine
clothes, fashionable hair styles, and wearing jewelry. Those
who have more wealth avoid displaying it and do not buy
conspicuous goods beyond basic bicycles, wristwatches, or
radios, even though they could well afford more. In Fosters
(1972) terms, the Muria, through their conformity and
unwillingness to stand out, are practicing concealment,
which is one of the chief means of avoiding othersenvy.
Other means include denial (Its really nothing; just an old
rag I had lying around), the sop (a token form of sharing to
deflect othersenvy), and true sharing (e.g. throwing lavish
community feasts).
Author's personal copy
In an earlier paper Foster (1969) characterized envy
avoidance as being especially common in limited good
societies in which it is assumed that one persons gain is
anothers loss. This is equivalent to the zero-sum game that
psychologists and behavioral economists are fond of setting
up experimentally. It is also a critical assumption for
philosophers like Rawls (1971) and sociologists like
Schoeck (1966). This is sometimes a reasonable assump-
tion, as in the case of fans of rival sports teams for example
(Theodoropoulou 2007). On the other hand, in unlimited
good societies, the pie is not perceived as finite and
everyone can get a piece.
Social comparison, social justice, and cultural capital
If we did not compare ourselves to others, there would be
no envy. According to Festinger (1954) we compare our
opinions and abilities to others with the result that there is
upward pressure in competitive arenas like athletics and
academic grades, and a tendency toward group uniformity
in opinions. While Festinger stipulated that social compar-
isons are made to similar people and those who are slightly
upwardin terms of the comparison of interest, subsequent
research has documented downward social comparisons as
well (Buunk and Gibbons 2007), although they are thought
to be less common. Apart from the Freudian concept of
penis envy and a few treatments of envy between men and
women (e.g., Lyman 1978; Petersson 2004), most con-
ceptions of envy assume that same sex comparisons are
dominant (Epstein 2003).
Stereotypes suggest that wealthy high status people
deserve what they have due to higher intelligence,
diligence, and competence, and that the poor deserve their
lowly status due to a lack of such traits. Fiske and Cuddy
(2006) have found that these stereotypes are prevalent
among both rich and poor from around the world, but with
some differences. North Americans, who are more inclined
to believe in a just-world, are also more likely to see such
traits as deriving from dispositions rather than structural
inequalities. Such stereotypes and just-world beliefs raise
issues of social justice and relative deprivation. Deprivation
may be felt relative to specific others, specific groups of
others, our past experience, expectations we hold for our
future, or some external standard like reaching a milestone
income level (Leach 2008). We may feel relatively deprived
with regard to possessions, income, rewards, or procedural
treatment. But the majority of relative deprivation research
does not invoke the concept of envy (Walker and Smith
2002). Still, Smith and others (Ortony et al. 1988; Smith
1991; Smith et al. 1994) maintain that a sense of injustice is
essential to envy. When we lack what those perceived as
less deserving have, we feel deprived and envy the less
deserving others. Since Aristotle, philosophers have labeled
this moral emotion resentmentand have regarded envy as
being more about competitive struggles for social status
rather than striving for social justice (e.g., DArms and Kerr
2008; Rawls 1971). Whether or not it is a motivating force
behind the ill will felt toward a rival, no doubt feelings of
injustice intensify this feeling of envy.
Most researchers do agree that envy involves feelings of
competition and rivalry, striving for relative prestige or
power within some hierarchal status group. This desire for
status is the reason we feel envy according to DArms and
Kerr (2008). But rather than a Hobbesian war of all against
all, we may have some choice of the particular groups
within which we seek status (Frank 1985). It could be
within our work organization, our profession, our favorite
online multi-player game, or our antique car collectors club.
We can also conceive of status in more dichotomous terms
as when someone either is or is not accepted as a member
of a high status group. Although consumer goods may well
be symbols asserting status claims or marker goods proclaim-
ing membership in a group (Douglas and Isherwood 1979),
according to traditional thought they are generally not
determinants of status, despite economistsconcern with
positional goods and the envy theory of needs which contend
otherwise (Hirsch 1976). Status is a purely social phenom-
enon; it must be awarded by others. Bourdieu (1984)also
regards status as social, but argues that it is articulated much
more through taste cultures deriving from habitus (upbring-
ing and education) rather than from the possession of status
symbols. That is, it is our preferences, knowledge, and
opinions much more than our wealth per se that determine
cultural capital (Holt 1998). Thus the futility of the
conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, and conspic-
uous leisure that were critiqued by Veblen (1899,p.95)as
marks of the nouveau riche trying in vain to demonstrate
taste through costliness masquerading under the name of
Like Bourdieu, Veblen recognized that in the modern
world taste was ultimately a more useful marker of high
status than the trophies of accumulated possessions, slaves,
servants, and partners that may have sufficed in earlier eras.
He called these taste markers immaterial goods:
In our time there is the knowledge of dead languages
and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax
and prosody; of various forms of domestic music and
household art; of the latest proprieties of dress,
furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy
bred animals, such as dogs and race horses (Veblen
1899, p. 47).
Manners too are a part of the status code in Veblens view.
Like Veblen (1899), Vance Packard (1959) emphasized
conspicuous consumption and status display, but he also
recognized that this alone was not enough to carry off a
Author's personal copy
status claim. He listed more subtle and taste-related
behaviors involving language, vocabulary, expertise in
restaurant ordering, and our games and entertainments as
being among the behaviors that give us away.
Luxury, like status itself, is an ever-changing social
judgment. Schoeck (1966, p. 218) stipulates that to
indulge in luxury is to provoke envy.Historically, at times
and in places when the luxurious status symbols of the elite
were in danger of being democratized and used by those of
less elite heritage, sumptuary laws were enacted to forbid
commoners from, for example, wearing silk, eating red
meat, or having more than a certain number of guests at
their weddings. Although there are multiple reasons for
sumptuary laws (Belk 1995b), chief among them has been
this attempt to keep the emulative masses from copying the
status symbols of the elite. And with virtually all of these
laws, consumers have found ways around them. For
example, when gold and silver clothing fabrics were
forbidden in Europe, consumers began to line their clothes
with such fabrics and slash the sleeves so that these
luxurious linings would show through (Hughes 1983).
There are few sumptuary constraints today so visible luxury
goods are a common focus of reference group influence
with comparison others (Bearden and Etzel 1982).
Leibenstein (1950) distinguished between three types of
conspicuous consumption, depending of the consumers
motivations and strategies. Veblen effects involve con-
sumers using expensive products to display wealth and
thereby gain social status. Those who employ snob effects
seek high quality scarce objects in order to gain distinction
by the rarity of their purchases. And bandwagon effects
involve buying objects in order to be identified with a
particular social group. Of these three, Veblen effects are
closest to what is normally meant by status symbols.
Bandwagon effects are most conformist, while snob
effects are most individuating.
While Mason (1981,1998) traces conspicuous consump-
tion to 18th century Europe, even in the contemporary
sense of buying status signalling goods, it goes back at least
a hundred years earlier to late Ming China and Golden Age
Netherlands (Belk 1995b) and sumptuary laws go back to
ancient civilizations. Economists and socio-biologists view
such consumption as costly signalling to demonstrate
fitness and attract mates or gain other social advantages
(e.g., Miller 2009). Evidence of the rivalrous and compet-
itive nature of such displays is suggested by the heightened
testosterone and serotonin levels in males seeking higher
status (Elias 1981; Madsen 1994; Mazur and Lamb 1980).
Such aggressive arousal is consistent with the malicious
anger involved in the traditional view of envy. Such
Schadenfreude has also been suggested by fMRI brain
scans of people who are imaging envied others (Joseph
et al. 2008).
Summary of the traditional view of consumer envy
In the traditional view shared by most of the social sciences
as well as philosophy, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis,
envy is malicious ill will directed toward a referent other
who possesses something of importance to us that we covet.
Whether conscious or unconscious, it is an intense emotion.
We long to have the envied other lose the thing we covet
more than we long to acquire this object ourselves. The
envied other is usually someone close to us who is equal or
slightly above us in social status. When this envied other
flaunts his or her superiority via status symbols and
conspicuous consumption, our feeling of envy is likely to
be even more intense. Status symbols are likely to be
expensive, rare, and visible. The scarcity and assumption of
limited good means that someone elses gain is our loss.
Within organizational behavior the social comparisons
and relative positions of greatest interest involve income
and promotions. Within consumer research the relevant
comparisons of interest are possessions, consumption-
related taste cultures, and, to the extent they are regarded
as malleable or capable of enhancement, othersbodies,
beauty, and brains. In each context the focal concept is
status, conceived of as standing or prestige within some
social hierarchy. Status is conferred by social consensus of
our reference groups and is likely to result in deference,
honor, acceptance, prestige, and other social advantages
such as more and bettermates.
An alternative view of envy
Key historical changes
During the times that the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sutras,
the Talmud, the Bible, and the Quran were written, there was
no advertising, no mass production, no mass consumption, no
mass media, no Internet, and no brands. Thus, the objects that
these foundational religious tracts enjoin us not to covet were
not the sort of possessions we are familiar with today. The
same was true when Aristotle, Plato, and other early
philosophers were writing about envy. Furthermore, most
people lived in rural villages or small cities and even those
within larger cities were usually familiar with others in their
communities and neighborhoods. Kinship and clans were
often quite important and for the most part rulers were
hereditary and those who were ruled understood their station
in life.Someone who stood out by having especially good
crops, attractive and strong children, or a fine piece of clothing
like Jacobscoat of many colors(Genesis 37) was likely to
attract envy and potentially suffer its malicious consequences.
Protective amulets, incantations, incense, and other forms of
apotropaic magic to ward off the evil eye (an envious
Author's personal copy
embodiment of the wish to do harm) were prevalent in many
parts of the world (Dundes 1981; Maloney 1976). As noted
earlier, such strong fear of othersenvy is seen in the
anthropological literature to lead to a variety of strategies to
minimize or avoid this envy (Foster 1972). Lyman (1978)
adds that when modesty, charity, and self-effacement are not
enough to deflect othersenvy the enviable rich may resort to
the use of military or police protection or, more subtly, wage a
campaign against the sinfulness or psychopathology of envy.
While evil eye practices and fear of othersenvy have not
entirely disappeared, their strength is much diminished in
most societies today. Much has changed since the initial
religious condemnations of envy and covetousness, although
most social science approaches to envy do not reflect these
changes. In the subsections below I highlight some of the
major changes in the environment of social comparison,
covetousness, and ostentation and how I believe these shifts
should change our conceptualization of consumer envy.
Democratization, differentiation, and the cultivation effect Envy
in todays consumer cultures is qualitatively quite different
than it was when the earliest and still very influential
critiques of envy were formulated. Miles (1998) offers a
summary of the role of consumption in contemporary
consumer cultures:
Our city centers are more remarkable as sites of
consumption than they are as cultural centres; our
homes might be described as temples to the religion of
consumerism; our lives apparently amount to little more
than a constant juxtaposition of diverse consumer styles
and tastes (p. 1).
It is this constant juxtaposition of consumer styles and
tastes that provokes envy. What makes this description of
contemporary life in consumer culture fundamentally
different from that of several thousand or even several
hundred years ago can be highlighted in structural terms.
1. We have far more possessions now and they have brand
and model names, often with personalities created by
marketing, even though they are mass produced.
2. We have greater discretionary income and more access
to consumer credit that we use to purchase goods and
services in the marketplace.
3. A more urbanized population allows better distribution of
goods and services with more diverse product assortments.
4. Our identity and the initial impressions we form of others
are often dominated by possessions as visible signs.
5. Advertising, store displays, and mass media provide us
with attractive views of consumer goods and services as
well as images of those who purportedly use them.
6. The Internet not only provides opportunities to buy
consumer goods and services, but also to see what
others have bought and what they have to say about
these goods.
The first three of these changes affect the ability to acquire
mass produced branded objects. Boorstin (1973)referstothe
impact of these changes as the democratization of luxury,
while Leach (1993) refers to the outcome as the democra-
tization of consumer desire. The last three changes highlight
our expanded ability to use these goods to make social
comparisons between ourselves and others. Schudson (1984)
suggests that these changes lead to more widespread envy:
Luxury was not democratized so much as made much
more visible, more public, and more often articulate
through advertisingthan it had been before. The
department stores did less to provide equality in
consumption than to encourage a democracy of
aspirations and desire. They contributed to the
democratization of envy (p. 151).
In considering the impact of these changes on the nature
of envy, it is also important to recognize several more
subtle changes. One such change is the rise of anonymity
that accompanied the growth of urban centers. Greater
anonymity can lead to greater loneliness, anomie, and
crime, but it also means that we come out into society
literally without a name and without a status. It is now
possible for most of us to appear in the center of our city
and be reasonably certain that we will not be recognized by
others who know us, our job, our family, and our place of
residence. With more geographic mobility and tourism, we
experience more far flung and complete anonymity. This
means that othersassumptions about our status derive
more from our possessions and appearance than was once
the case. The influx of rural people to the cities has meant a
continual supply of people relying, in part, on their
appearance and clothing to make a good impression and
get a good job (Matt 2003). We assume, often rightly, that
we will be treated better by others if they perceive us as having
higher status (e.g., Doob and Gross 1968; Rosenbaum 2005).
Goffman (1967) calls these behaviors status rituals. Only as
we begin to interact with people do we become less
anonymous and does cultural capital or the possession of
immaterial goods and habitus come into play (Bourdieu
1984;Holt1998). But for the majority of daily urban
encounters our anonymity means that our presumed status
and treatment are based almost entirely on our appearance
and visible possessions.
Veblen (1899) recognized the impact of anonymity on
the ways we demonstrate status:
Ones neighbors, mechanically speaking, often are
socially not ones neighbors, or even acquaintances;
and still their transient good opinion has a high degree
Author's personal copy
of utility. The only practicable means of impressing
ones pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic
observers of ones everyday life is an unremitting
demonstration of ability to pay. In the modern
community there is also a more frequent attendance
at large gatherings of people to whom ones everyday
life is unknown; in such places as churches, theaters,
ballrooms, hotels, parks, shops, and the like. In order
to impress these transient observers, and to retain
ones self-complacency under their observation, the
signature of ones pecuniary strength should be
written in characters which he who runs may read
(pp. 7172).
Today standard, visible, and identifiable brands with brand
personalities and known degrees of costliness make it easy for
he who runsto read signs of our status and personality. The
democratization of envy that Schudson (1984) discerns,
involves different types of goods as well as different types
of others than the envy of old. The goods and people are
both anonymous. While the people are anonymous because
they have no known name or background, the goods are
anonymous because they have a known but shared name and
features common to all other goods endowed with this brand
name. As we shall see, this leads to a different type of envy
and a different type of covetousness than those envisioned
by religious writers, philosophers, and most social scientists.
Moreover, although Veblen did not anticipate it, anonymity
combined with consumer credit and scrimping on less visible
portions of our expenditures can lead to false or misleading
presentations of self through presentations of luxuries that
are atypical of the rest of our consumer lifestyles, much like
the transformation of Cinderella for the ball.
The flowering of the overt display of the unique individual
self within the anonymity of the city echoes a similar
blossoming of display within commercial spaces. Thanks in
part to the development of plate glass windows, grand
department stores began to present lavish displays of mer-
chandise not only to shoppers, but to anyone passing by (see
Leach 1993). Mannequins presented images of fashion ideals
that, coupled with new lighting techniques, showed off new
consumer goods both day and night. This too contrib-
uted to the development of a new type of envy. The
development of big lavish hotels, restaurants, and
theaters in cities also contributed to this new spirit of
showing off as they simultaneously provided images of
grand and conspicuous consumption (May 1980). That
is, the conspicuous display of sumptuous luxury in retail
spaces very likely disinhibited and encouraged a similar
A further complimentary influence on conspicuous display
was the rise of mass media and mass media advertising. The
effects of advertising in cultivating exaggerated images of the
role of consumption in the good life are easy to appreciate
(Belk and Pollay 1985). But there are more subtle effects of
general media exposure suggested by cultivation theory
(Gerbner and Gross 1976; Gerbner et al. 1980). The theory
observes that television and film portray a more upscale
world than actually exists, even (or especially) in the affluent
United States. This prediction is borne out by the evidence
(e.g., Shrum 2001). Heavier viewers of television are
especially likely to overestimate American affluence, includ-
ing the incidences of swimming pools, maids, expensive
automobiles, and millionaires (Fox and Philliber 1978;
OGuinn and Shrum 1997; Shrum et al. 2005). These
inflated images of average lifestyles in turn stimulate
consumer aspirations, expectations, and desires (Englis and
Solomon 1997). To the extent that these mediated images of
others enjoying unrealistically affluent lifestyles are taken to
be representative of what most others have, they are likely to
inspire a particular type of envy that has no concrete or
personally known referent other. Like digital avatars and
plastic mannequins, the conspicuous objects of our envy are
arguably becoming increasingly virtual.
Besides increased anonymity, the rise in individualism,
and the growth of conspicuous display in advertising,
retailing, and mass media, one final factor in the recent
environment that has given rise to a new type of envy is the
emergence of the Internet. Schau and Gilly (2003) analyzed
the role of consumption on personal web sites before the
explosion of the popularity of social networking sites,
online forums, blogs, and virtual worlds. Nevertheless, they
find that web sites encourage social comparisons and envy.
But such acts of identity presentation through possessions
and other manifestations of the extended self are far more
prevalent in more recent social networking Internet spaces
(Westlake 2008). We can see participantsmany friends,
read about their latest travels, see photos and discussions of
their pets, cars, and clothes, link to their favorite films, get
instant statusupdates, and much more. There are both
individuating and affiliative motives revealed in such self-
expressions. Those inclined to show off can reproduce the
equivalent of the braggadocio found in the yearly family
Christmas letterbut with daily or even more frequent
updates. Such entries may be expressions of the bloggers
interests, but they may also be a form of bragging calculated to
build self image and incite the envy of others. The
Internet also contains a number of fan sites where those
with common interests can compete with one another
for expertise and ownership of enviable possessions, as
well as celebrate common tastes. The nearly instanta-
neous online reactions to the latest fashions, music, and
technological innovations are instrumental in shortening
fashion cycles and exacerbating attentiveness to fashion
trends. These media also exponentially expand the set of
others whose consumption we might envy, far beyond our
Author's personal copy
friends and neighbors. This too helps set the stage for a new
type of envy.
Benign envy Matt (2002) quotes an incident from early
20th century America that provides a concise illustration of
the shift in the nature of envy:
An Alabama minister reported that a little girl in one of
my church schools was asked the other day, What was
the Tenth Commandment? The reply was Thou shalt
not covet.When asked what covet meant, she replied,
not to want other folks [sic] things, but to get Sears,
Roebuck Catalogue and buy for yourself’” (p. 298).
Belk (2008) suggests that branded consumer goods have
now become the chief object of our covetousness. We may
still desire others traits and friendships, but people are
convinced that these things too would be theirs if only they
had others’“stuff.Recognizing that malevolent envy can
lead to hatred, violence, or vandalism, Belk suggests
instead that most contemporary consumer envy is better
characterized as benign.Benign envy is a characterization
suggested by several others (e.g., Smith and Kim 2007;
DArms and Kerr 2008) who distinguish it from envy
properbecause it lacks a sufficiently malicious nature.
Rather than being motivated by a desire to cause the other
to lose their coveted possessions, benign envy inspires the
envier to purchase the equivalent of this same possession.
And given the changes described in the preceding section,
this is hardly surprising. How seriously could we want to
hurt the anonymous others we see with these goods, much
less the non-human mannequins or avatars we see in store
windows or online? Stearns (1999) documents how during
the early 20th century, the moral condemnation of envy in
the West gave way to embracing envy as a healthy motivator
of consumption and a strong competitive work ethic. Matt
(2003) detects in popular culture of the 1920s the related
concept of aspirational envy, but this refers more to the work
domain than the consumption domain. Aspirational envy is
also the type of positive envy that Adam Smith refers to in
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Rawls (1971)
recognizes benign envy as well as the related constructs of
emulative envy and excusable envy. His emulative envy, in
which the envier is motivated to achieve what the other has
achieved, is closest to the current use of benign envy.
Lyman (1978) suggests that benign envy is sublimated
malicious envy. But if Lyman (1978) is right about this,
benign and malicious envy are very likely parts of a
continuum where the middle state is a combination of
benign and malicious envy. Thus rather than two types of
envy, it is more useful to consider three points on this
continuum as depicted in Table 1.
Thus far, I have argued that anonymity and the presence
of generalized others in the cases of advertising, display,
and encountering strangers facilitate benign envy. We do
not feel malicious envy toward these others,partly because
we do not know them. But there are other possibilities,
especially when the envied other is known. One alternative
reaction when such an other possesses a desirable object or
trait is admiration. Rather than resent or feel maliciously
envious toward this person, we might regard them as a role
model or consumption hero (Alicke and Zell 2008). In The
Rhetoric, Aristotle referred to this as emulationor good
envy(Epstein 2003; Palaver 2005). Here too, rather than
attempt to tear down the envied other, we desire to be more
like them. Or we might simply be in awe of them, as with
sports heroes before the days of performance enhancing
drugs and media publicity of moral indiscretions.
An even more positive reaction to a potentially envious
situation in which another person possesses or accomplishes
something that might otherwise provoke malicious envy is to
instead feel vicarious pride in their achievement, as we do
with our partnersorchildrens successes (Belk 1988). This
shared sense of enhanced self esteem is especially likely
when the other is part of our extended sense of self. And it is
evident in the feeling of basking in the reflected glory
(BIRGing) of successes by oursports team or members of
Table 1 Types of consumer envy
Characteristic Benign Mixed Malicious
Emotion toward the other Admire Mixed Hate
Behavioral inclination Emulate, BIRG Outdo Harm
Target others Known or mediated Known or mediated Known
Goal Level up Invert Level down
Relation to coveted good Actionable Partly actionable Impotent
Relevant moral discourse Upward Mobility Social justice Sin, crime, psychopathology
Relevant hierarchy Individuality/affiliative cool Individualistic cool Social status
Amount of good Unlimited Scarce Limited
Author's personal copy
our in-group (Alicke and Zell 2008; Cialdini et al. 1976).
Here too the difference seems to lie in whether the others are
part of our extended self, inasmuch as superior accomplish-
ments by members of an out-group may cause the resentment
and the schadenfreude of malicious envy. In a multicultural
society of diversity and difference, we may have multiple
group identifications within which we potentially share
multiple in-group BIRGing tendencies.
As van de Ven et al. (2009,2011) demonstrate experimen-
tally, benign envy aims at moving-up by improving the
enviers position relative to the envied persons, whereas
malicious envy aims at altering their relative positions by
pulling-down the envied person. In contrast, as suggested by
money burning studies (Zizzo 2003; Zizzo and Oswald
2001), acting on malicious envy may not even improve the
relative position of the envier.
The potential for benign rather than malicious envy toward
another person is facilitated by their possession of a branded
good that can be acquired by the envier. It is actionable envy
rather than impotent envy and thus leads to purchase rather
than rage (Lyman 1978). This differs from a pre-brand, pre-
mass-production era, when the coveted objects were far less
replicable. However, this emulation potential appears less
tempting in the case of malicious envy. Van de Ven (2009)
found that when an envied other was described as having an
iPhone, those who experienced benign envy were willing to
pay more to get an iPhone themselves, whereas those who
experienced malicious envy were not. On the other hand,
those who felt malicious envy were willing to pay more to
buy a BlackBerry, while those who experienced benign envy
were not. Van de Ven (2009) attributes this to what Lemaine
(1974) called social differentiation. It can be thought of as a
form of one-upsmanship in which the maliciously envious
person seeks to differentiate him or herself by imagining that
they would then be able to claim that they own a more serious
BlackBerry compared to the envied othersfrivolousiPhone.
Although van de Ven (2009) does not address the point, the
BlackBerry versus iPhone context also suggests another
difference in the new conceptions of envy and covetousness.
Unlike the focus of Veblen (1899) and many other dis-
cussions of luxury focusing solely on dimensions of social
class and social status (e.g., Berry 1994;Twitchell2002),
there is reason to desire goods owned by (benignly) envied
others apart from the singular motive of status competition.
In the case of the iPhone and BlackBerry at the time of van
de Vens(2009) study, we might instead see the underlying
motivation as the pursuit of cool (e.g., Frank 1997; Pountain
and Robins 2000). Although coolness may simply be another
status system (Belk et al. 2010), it is an alternative system
that opposes mainstream status hierarchies and social class
(see Fraiman 2002;MajorsandBillson1992).
In Asia, Chadha and Husband (2006) suggest that coolness
may be at least as important as status-seeking in the purchase
of luxury brands. Coolness may not be the only alternative to
status seeking as a motivational basis for emulating benignly
envied others. McCracken (2008)seesupwardenvybased
on social status as being a pre-modern phenomenon from
Veb l ens era and earlier which gave way to a modern
concern with radical individualism. He suggests that we have
now moved on to a postmodern era in which there is no
singular coherent self to express. Rather, the self is freely
changeable and there are no more elites; popular culture is
culture. This suggests that we no longer envy the elites, only
those who have more currency within popular culture. The
production side counterpart of this consumption shift is
moving from an emphasis on designing products to appeal to
a certain social class of consumers (e.g., Alfred Sloans
approach to automobile segments at General Motors) to
designing products to appeal to certain lifestyles.
Partly as a result of such trends, others (see Matt 2003;
Stearns 1999) have observed that envy has become much less
of a feared deadly sin than it was once held to be. Another
important reason is likely the concomitant rise of benign
envy. Benign envy seems at worst a mild affliction, something
to be laughed at in a television sitcom. And so perhaps it is
understandable that we now have perfumes named Envy and
Covet, but we lack eponymous brands for most other deadly
sins, such as food products with gluttony in their names.
Between benign and malicious envy lies the mixed motive
envy described in Table 1. While the more socially desirable
admiring emotions of benign envy may be displayed, the
consumer with mixed envy harbors a secret hatred of the
envied other. This mix of benign and malicious feelings may,
for instance, explain our seeming love/hate relationship with
celebrities and our delight in seeing them fall (e.g.,
Johansson 2006). When the target of mixed motive envy is
known and possesses an enviable possession, we may
express our admiration, but feel that we are more deserving.
As a result we may seek to both undermine the targetswell-
being (levelling down) and simultaneously seek to acquire
the coveted good. In this case we not only seek to match the
target persons consumption, but to outdo them and thereby
invert the our relative positions. If the target responds
similarly, an escalating consumption race could ensue.
Summary of the alternate view of envy Unlike early con-
ceptions of malicious envy and its associated covetousness,
benign envy and its desire are directed toward consumption
models and replicable branded goods. This is possible
because both the goods and most other people with whom
we have contact are anonymous. These others do not know
the rest of our life beyond what they see in our visible
consumption. The branded goods are fungible with other
goods bearing the same logo. Because we can aspire to own
the desired consumer goods that inspire benign envy, we
wish to level upby acquiring them rather than level
Author's personal copy
downby depriving other owners of the goods we long for.
These othersare comprised not only of the those we encounter
in person, but also the mannequins, Internet participants, and
mediated images we see in advertising as well as in the
editorial and entertainment content of mass media.
The objects of our desire in the case of benign envy are not
as much symbols of status as they are lifestyle goods that we
see as contributing to our individualistic or affiliative identity.
To the extent that cool, stylish, or novel goods operate within a
status system, it is apt to be a bounded status system of those
sharing similar lifestyle interests. At the other end of the
familiarity continuum from anonymous strangers are those
who form a part of our extended selfnot just family and
close friends, but those within our consumption communities,
fan groups, and interest groups. With these others we are not
only more likely to feel benign envy rather than malicious
envy, we may also vicariously bask in their reflected glory
such that their consumption-related happiness becomes our
own. Mixed envy lies between these two extremes and
displays characteristics that could lead to a coolness race in
which each person envies the other and strives to have the
coolest car, clothes, sneakers, MP3 player, travel destinations,
and so forth. Such competition strives to outdo the other and
invert our relative statuses in such a way that the envier
considers the desired outcome to be more just.
Given these distinctions between benign and malicious
envy, it is useful to consider how marketing attempts to take
advantage of these differences. The literature on malicious
envy has little to say about these strategies and tactics, but
benign envy presents a number of possibilities.
Marketing and benign envy
Be the envy of your friends John Berger (1972) describes
how publicity (promotion) takes advantage of our benign
envy at the same time that it contributes to it:
It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves,
or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it
proposes, will make us in some way richer ....
Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by
showing us people who have apparently been trans-
formed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of
being envied is what constitutes glamour. And
publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour....
The image then makes him envious of himself as he
might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be
enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social
relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure,
but of happiness: happiness as judged from the
outside by others. The happiness of being envied is
glamour (pp. 131132; see also Thrift 2008).
Berger (1972) goes on the suggest that to be envied, besides
possessing enviable goods, we must feign indifference to
the gaze of envious others. In other analyses, this is
highlighted as the essence of being cool (e.g., Majors and
Billson 1992). But accomplishing this is a three-step
process in Bergers view. First we become envious of our
self-as-we-might-be, as represented by promotional images.
We then acquire the good that has been suggested to make
our future self the object of envy. And thirdly, by displaying
this good and wearing a mask of cool indifference, we
become the object of othersenvy.
Use of celebrity spokespersons In McCrackens(2008)
view, status demarcated by social class is either dead or
chaotically confused. Others, like Bauman (2000)and
Touraine (1998) agree. McCracken (2008) offers three
evidences of the decline of status: 1) Many in the upper
classes refuse to participate in making claims of status; 2)
The newly wealthy no longer strive to become upper class,
and 3) We are no longer envious toward those of high
social standing and expect them to be dishonest and
unfulfilled. Although I would instead argue that mixed
envy underwrites our regard for the famous, fostering a
love-hate relationship toward them, I agree with McCrackens
(2008, pp. 381382) contentions that old conceptions of
status are in decline and that celebrities have become our
new elite.
Even though celebrities supplanting the upper classes as
targets of admiration may be new, the elite status of
celebrities is not. Some have pointed to the collapse of
distance between celebrities and their fans (e.g., Hills 2006;
Jenkins 2006). The old thinking centered on malicious envy
was that superstars are like kings and so far abovethe
masses that they would not provoke envy in the way that a
friend or neighbor might. As Alicke and Zell (2008) put it,
There is not shamein comparing unfavorably to a
superstar. Thus, envy can be forestalled via the belief that
the superior performers status renders him or her beyond
reach(p. 87). But with the rise of benign envy and the
collapse of boundaries between celebrities and fans, this all
changes. Rather than being so distant as to forestall
malicious envy, celebrities have become so close as to
prompt benign envy (Ditmar 2008; Richins 1991,1992).
This means that even fabulously rich or otherwise privileged
celebrities potentially become models for emulation. We now
think that wetoo can be like the celebrity, merelyby acquiring
the branded good that he or she endorses (e.g., GatoradesI
want to be like Mikecampaign using Michael Jordan
Goldman and Papson 1998).
Luxury, populuxe, and counterfeits Luxury has long been
part of various moral discourses and has been condemned
as being feminizing, debilitating, sinful, decadent, and
Author's personal copy
wasteful. Behind these charges there was often a more
profound concern with social injustice and malicious envy
provocation (Berry 1994;Sassatelli2005). From a discursive
perspective, the concept of benign envy can be seen as a key
part of a strategy by the rich and their apologists to justify
their lavish consumption. If malicious envy is castigated as
sinful, criminal, or psychopathic (Table 1), then un-begrudging
benignity is the cure. In addition to arguments that benign
envy is motivating and that it stimulates emulation which
spurs economic growth, Simmels(1904) trickle-down theory
is invoked to explain how the luxuries of todays elite will be
adopted by successively lower social classes as greater
demand drives down their price (e.g., de Tarde 1962). A
variation of this argument is seen in the Deng Xiaopeng
apology for the rise of the consumer class in China, stressing
that it is ideologically correct to make some people rich first,
so as to lead all the people to wealth(Schell 1984,p.14).
Rather than relying on the declining prices of consumer
luxuries pushing them toward being regarded as necessities,
Dengs argument is that everyone will become wealthy
enough to afford luxuries in the future, thanks to the
expenditures of the economic avant-garde. For certain luxuries
like fans, air conditioners, radios, televisions, and wrist-
watches, evidence of their increasingly broad global adoption
suggests that both processes (lowering prices and rising
incomes) are occurring. Moreover, as Schoeck (1966) notes,
U.S. President Woodrow Wilsons dire prediction in 1920
that class warfare would be incited by the envious gaze of the
masses seeing the elite in their motor cars has certainly not
come to pass in either the U.S. of the 1920s or China today.
No longer is mere ownership of a car a luxury in the more
affluent world and todays luxury model becomes tomorrows
base model (Frank 1997). According to Twitchell (2002),
such democratization of luxury is the most significant
marketing phenomenon of our times. Still, there are classes
of luxuries that seem to be immune from democratization,
such as mansions, exotic automobiles, rare vintage wines,
exclusive club memberships, and luxury brands of like Louis
Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada. However, at least in the latter
category, marketers have begun to cater to the mass desire for
luxuries previously available only to the elite. This probably
first showed up in ready-to-wear clothing imitating bespoke
tailored clothing, knockoff dresses replicating the latest haute
couture styles, and clothing patterns for home sewing of
otherwise unaffordable garments in the latest fashion styles
(Matt 1998).
A second way of emulating unaffordable luxuries is with
what Thomas Hine (1987) called populuxe goods. Popular
in postwar America, these goods were faux luxury goods
made of cheaper materials such as Naugahyde for leather
furniture, plastic laminate instead of marble kitchen
countertops, and wood-grained Con-Tact paper applied to
walls (Twitchell 2002). While admitting that such goods are
vulgar imitations, Hine (1987, p. 12) explained their appeal:
People wanted to be known for their good taste, but they
wanted to have great showy things that demonstrated that
they had arrived.Along with large suburban lots with the
equivalent of mass-produced houses, multicolored applian-
ces, and cars with jet-like tail-fins, this too was perceived as
levelling up and trading up, although ultimately it was a
mass market movement that did more to placate pent up
desire for luxuriesthan to ameliorate class inequalities
(McCracken 2005).
A third strategy for acquiring luxury on limited means is
through goods that Twitchell (2002) calls opuluxe. Examples
he cites are brands like Prada, Montblanc, Mercedes, Ralph
Lauren, Gucci, Lexus, and Armani. They have become more
affordable because their brands have brought out more mass
market versions (Danziger 2005; Nueno and Quelch 1998).
The clothing that many of these luxury brands are known for
actually comprises less than 25 percent of their sales (Nueno
and Quelch 1998). The majority of their sales revenues
comes from less expensive accessories, fragrances, and
ancillary goods like key-chains, wallets, and socks, that
provide a taste of luxury without costing thousands of
dollars. These goods are especially popular in the more
affluent and emerging Asian economies that now constitute
the biggest market for many of these brands (Chadha and
Husband 2006; Wong and Ahuvia 1998).
A fourth means of acquiring luxuries when they are
unaffordable by some sober reckoning is to sacrifice
necessitiesfor luxuries.In the less affluent world, Belk
(1999) has called such improbable appearances of luxury
goods leaping luxuries,implying that their possessors
have leapt over supposedly more fundamental hierarchical
need categories in order to service higher order needs. An
example would be sacrificing food to buy a refrigerator into
which the new owners cannot afford to put food. In cases
such as this, the trade-off may be pursuing desires for
status, prestige, and material achievement rather than
satisfying needs for adequate nutrition, comfort, and safety
(Ger 1992).
A final consumer strategy for acquiring unaffordable
luxury goods is buying counterfeit imitations, including
genuine fakesthat cannot be distinguished from the
original (Chadha and Husband 2006). It is a way around
sumptuary constraints, intended to provide a feeling of
status that, it is hoped, accompanies the purchase and
display of the fake brand (Belk et al. 2005). To the extent
that others perceive the fake as genuine, it may prompt
envy of the owner. However, as Chadha and Husband
(2006) point out, it is easier for the wealthy to successfully
pull off such a deception than for poorer people to do so,
for they are less suspect of having done so. Furthermore,
since the owner is generally aware of the counterfeit
status of their purchase, it is unclear whether it is truly
Author's personal copy
effective in reducing their own envy of others who own
the real thing.
Thus, there are a variety of ways in which marketers and
consumers conspire to facilitate the sort of consumer
emulation that is characteristic of benign and mixed envy.
The democratization of luxury (Boorstin 1973; Twitchell
2002), the democratization of envy (Schudson 1984), and the
democratization of desire (Leach 1993) have all combined to
facilitate mimetic imitation of those we admire. While this
may involve specific known referent others, it is now more
likely to be models and celebrity others as well as the
imagined others whom we encounter on the Internet and in
retail and advertising displays. Compared to the impotent
rage and hatred provoked by malicious envy, the emulative
urges prompted by the benign envy, into which malicious
envy has been partly sublimated, seem relatively innocent.
Just what it feels like to envy and be envied within this more
benign framework is the subject of the next section.
The experience of envy
From envy avoidance to envy provocation
Just as envy has been split into benign and malicious varieties,
the phenomenon of being envied may be split into benign and
malicious types. Here too there is likely a middle ground, but
to keep it simple I deal with only the benign and malicious
extremes in Table 2, which compares envying and being
envied. Under communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR
and during the Cultural Revolution in China (19661976),
there was a great levelling down. In China this went as far as
the standardized Sun Yat-sen suit for both men and women
(Finnane 2008). Consumers feared conspicuous consump-
tion, not only because it could provoke envy in what were
officially classless societies, but also out of concern that
others might turn the conspicuous consumer over to
authorities as a hated capitalist roader(e.g., Schell 1984).
In the early 1990s, after the demise of communism in the
former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Ger and Belk
(1996) measured materialism in 12 countries including the
U.S., Turkey, and India as well as countries in Eastern and
Western Europe. They found the highest levels of material-
ism and envy in two recently communist countries: Romania
and the Ukraine. In addition they found a significant increase
in materialism and envy in Germany between pre-unification
and post-unification. These findings as well as a separate
qualitative study by these authors (Ger and Belk 1999)
suggest a dramatic shift from avoiding othersenvy to
provoking othersenvy.
What is seen in these rapid shifts from communism to
capitalism is arguably seen more gradually in the rise of
consumer cultures generally. Despite some temporal and
regional variations, with the rise of consumer culture we
would expect to see a concomitant rise is benign envy over
malicious envy, as documented in the U.S. by Matt (2003).
The rapid growth of mass luxury and counterfeiting
discussed in the previous section is further evidence of this
trend. In Fosters(1969) conceptualization, we should expect
that there is also a shift from a limited good worldview to an
unlimited good worldview. If there is enough for everyone,
then some of the guilt that conspicuous consumption might
otherwise evoke is attenuated. Rhetorically, framing escala-
tions in consumption in terms of deservingness, social
justice, and decencya category mid-way between necessity
and luxuryis a potentially effective discursive strategy. As
Table 2 Envy and being enviedbenign and malicious
Type Characteristic Envying Being Envied
Deservingness Close to what I deserve More than I deserve
Motivation Striving Humility, gratitude
Behavior Desire/buy Give/share
Related Emotions Admiration Guilt, sympathy
Desired Effect Be loved, respected Be loved respected;
make other feel better
Deservingness Less than I deserve What I deserve
Motivation Harm envied other Conspicuousness
Behavior Destroy others possession
one-upsmanship; ignore
Flaunt it, guard it, demonize envy
Related Emotions Hatred Pride, pity
Desired Effect Make other feel worse Make other feel worse
In a world of branded replicable commodities and property insurance, this strategy is limited or temporary in its ability to achieve the desired effect.
Author's personal copy
Drakuliç (1991) observed just after the demise of commu-
nism in Eastern and Central Europe:
What is the minimum you must have so you dontfeel
humiliated as a woman? It makes me understand a
complaint I heard repeatedly from women in Warsaw,
Budapest, Prague, Sofia, East Berlin: Look at uswe
dont even look like women. There are no deodorants,
perfumes, sometimes even no soap or toothpaste. There
is no fine underwear, no pantyhose, no nice lingerie.
Worst of all there are no sanitary napkins. What can one
say except that it is humiliating?(p. 31).
With arguments like these the switch to conspicuous con-
sumption and intentional envy provocation was easy to justify.
Cultural differences
The benign versus malicious envy distinction is recognized in
many languages. In Russian the two types are called white and
black envy. In Spanish benign envy is called "good envy"
(envidia de la buena) or "healthy envy" (envidiasana),
whereas malicious envy is simply envidia.InDutch,benijden
is benign envy and afgunst is malicious envy. In Polish and
Thai there are also separate words for benign and malicious
envy (van de Ven 2009). In German we have encountered the
term schadenfreude for joy in the others misery, whereas in
Sanskrit there is a separate word, mudita, for sympathetic joy
in othershappiness, and this is an important virtue in
Buddhism. In Norwegian unne has a similar meaning to
mudita,whilemisunne means envy. More accurately unne
means to not begrudge and the sentence Jeg unnner deg
dettemeans I feel you deserve this.Perhaps this sentiment
is related to the principle of Janteloven (the law of Jante)
suggesting that we are all the same and no one is better than
anyone else, although this involves more of a levelling down
rather than a levelling up. This is a strong Scandinavian norm
that was codified and given the term Jantaloven in a 1933
novel by Aksel Sandemose, after which it became both a
sociological term and a part of the vernacular language in
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. There are likely
some further cultural differences suggested by these linguistic
shades of meaning involved in the emotions of benign, mixed,
and malicious envy, but they must await further research.
In Islamic cultures like that of the Pukhun in Pakistan,
envy is bound up with systems of honor and hospitality
(Lindholm 2008). Hospitality is a Muslim ideal that, like
Mexican peasant fiestas (Foster 1972), should serve to
dissipate envy by sharing. However, unlike the Mexican
case, Lindholm (2008) notes that the Pukhun seek to excite
the envy of their neighbors with their banquets. At the same
time both the Mexicans studied by Foster and the Pakistanis
studied by Lindholm seek to avoid the malicious envy of
their possessions by building walls around their property
with activity concentrated in an inner courtyard that is not
visible from the street; and both cultures share a strong
belief in the evil eye.
Modesty and avoiding the envious (female) or lustful (male)
gaze of others is also the rationale for the covering or veil
within Islam (Sandikci and Ger 2010; Sobh and Belk 2011).
Notably, however, both the envy-avoiding modesty and
concern with honor are not as much individual matters in
Arabian Gulf Islamic cultures as they are concerns for the
family or clan. Thus a woman may cover in public even if
she does not believe in the practice because to fail to do so
would bring dishonor to her family (Sobh and Belk 2011).
Still Sobh and Belk (2011) find that in Qatar and United Arab
Emirates an influx of Western media, foreign visitors out-
numbering locals, and great wealth created by petrodollars,
are causing an increasing display of wealth and individualism
both in coverings for women and in facades of homes. Far
from the envy-deflecting ostensive purpose of veils, new
trends in the design and wearing of these coverings by
including jewels, allowing some of the hair to show, using
heavy makeup and designer sunglasses, handbags, and
watches, and allowing abayas (robes) to be open enough to
reveal expensive Western clothing beneath, all suggest envy-
provoking, if not lust-provoking, attempts to attract attention.
Like Islamic Gulf cultures, in the Confucian cultures of
East Asia there is also a concern with family or clan more than
individual reputation, framed in terms of face (Bond 1992;
Wong and Ahuvia 1998). As Douglas and Isherwood (1979)
suggest, collectivist or interdependent societies tend to stress
modesty and humility as the proper means to suppress envy.
Saving face is thus a matter of avoiding provoking envy.
This may seem at odds with the previously noted boom in
the luxury goods market in these same countries. Chadha
and Husband (2006) summarize a study of Tokyo women in
their 20s in which 94 percent reported owning at least one
Louis Vuitton item, 92 percent reportedly owned Gucci, and
the figures for Prada (57 percent) and Chanel (51 percent)
were also amazingly high. In Seoul more than 50 percent of
all women reported owning a Louis Vuitton bageither
genuine or fake. But with figures this high, such consump-
tion is luxurious, but not ostentatious. That is, owning such
items becomes more a matter of fitting in than standing out.
Not to own such items is not only to fail to fit in, but also to
lose face. It is clear that there is a burgeoning luxury goods
demand in China as well. Even more dramatically than the
shift from communism to capitalism in Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union, the conformity of Sun Yat-sen
jackets in China has given way to the conformity of high
fashion. But as Wong and Ahuvia (1998) conclude, the
younger generations of Chinese consumers may be changing
and flaunting their wealth in a more nouveau riche manner
Author's personal copy
than prior generations. Still, hierarchical society is also a
foundation of Confucianism and the implications of individual
behavior for family face are never far out of mind.
In a demonstration of fitting in rather than standing out
in Asian versus Western societies, Ariely (2008) and Ariely
and Levav (2000) found that Westerners at a restaurant
table tended to all order different beverages and meals from
one another in order to assert their independence, whereas
Hong Kong Chinese tended to follow the choices of others
in the party in a demonstration of their interdependence and
The changing patterns of conspicuous consumption between
the Cultural Revolution and todays China also serve to remind
that while cultural differences in patterns of envy and
consumption may be enduring, social sanctions or incentives
for consumer luxuries can also change (e.g., see Chaudhuri and
Majumdar 2006 on change in India; Üstüner and Holt 2010
on change in Turkey). The generational shifts in luxury
consumption in China also suggest that we should pay
attention not only to generational cohorts, but also to changes
in envy and envious consumption over the life-span (e.g., Suls
benign envy concepts and the decline of the fear of malicious
envy are also trends that have accelerated over time but that
proceed at different paces in different cultures.
The role of benign envy in consumption
Malicious envy is not entirely dead in the contemporary
world. But the view that all envy is malicious is an outmoded
characterization that was developed in a pre-brand era when
the social, technological, and economic environments were all
decidedly different. If the stepsisters were at the ball today,
they would most likely ask Cinderella where she got the
slippers and how much they cost. Or if their envy was more
mixed and retained a tingeof maliciousness, they would try to
trump her with an even nicer pair of Manolo Blahniks. Rather
than ad hoc heel and toe surgery they would more likely try to
enhance their beauty with a face lift, Botox injections,
liposuction, laser treatments, and other surgical and non-
surgical enhancements. And they would buy Versace gowns
and hire a chauffeured Rolls Royce to carry them to the ball. In
other words, their envy would have become largely benign.
Although benign envy lacks the destructive nature of
malicious envy, it is equally rivalrous and competitive. But
rather than attempt to harm rivals or bring them down to the
enviers level, benign envy motivates striving for consump-
tion that will makeothers envious of us. We not only bear their
envy, but seek it, because what is ultimately sought is
admiration, respect, and love.
I have also argued that rather than the envious pursuit of
moving up in social class status as envisioned by Veblen
and others, we now strive for a combination of individu-
ating and affiliative distinctions that relate more to lifestyle
and personality. The envious images we draw from in this
pursuit are more anonymous and the brands that we choose
are also anonymous in the sense of being part of an
identical stock of goods bearing a common brand logo.
Limited editions and very high prices for luxury goods may
increase the scarcity of some brands, but in most cases they
are available to anyone with the money to buy them. Such
democratization of envy does not mean a democratization
of desire; we do not all want the same things. But it does
mean that we in the more affluent world have a far broader
set of potential remedies for the insecurities fostered by
encountering othersconsumption. The Greeks may have
feared that the hubris of overly lavish consumption would
evoke the envy and wrath of their gods, but if celebrities are
our contemporary gods, we show no fear of enraging them
by imitating their consumption. And if we cannot recreate
their entire lifestyle, then we can at buy a fragment of it,
perhaps some Prada sunglasses, to contribute to the fragmented
pastiche that is our own lifestyle.
The metaphorical referents of benign and malicious (or
malignant) envy are potentially cancerous tumors. The fact
that a tumor is found to be benign is a great relief, but it
does not mean that having the tumor is a good thing. The
same is true with envy. While benign envy may be a key
engine of economic growth, fashion, and the passionate
material pursuit of respect and love, it is not in itself a good
thing. As Ackerman et al. (2000) find, benign envy that
motivates consumption desire still feels bad. Others have
found that the social comparisons we make to models
bodies can lead not only to positive emulation, but also
negative self derogation (e.g., Belk 2001; Stevens and
Maclaren 2005). But like a benign tumor, benign envy is a
fact of life. As a powerful emotion that has been at work for
millennia, and perhaps as long as humankind, envy can be
counted on to continue indefinitely. As Schoeck (1966)
concludes, even with attempts to level societies, humans
will always find someone else to envy because they possess
something we covet or desire. But this careful scrutiny also
means that we can potentially envy othersgreener consump-
tion, healthier foods, or more active lifestyles. And these too
are subject to benign envy; there is enough for all.
The traditional assumptions have been that we are
inherently competitive and that we live in a limited good
world (e.g., Gouldner 1965). If we long to know how we are
doing, comparisons to others provide an easily accessible
benchmark, even if specific referents are replaced by an
image of most others.It is difficult to change our fitness,
physique, or personality, but it is relatively easy to change
much of our consumption, especially in an unlimited good
Author's personal copy
world (Belk 1995a). In a fashion-oriented consumer culture
this is mandatory if we do not wish to appear old-fashioned.
While other motives like novelty-seeking may help drive the
fashion system, it is likely, as Simmel (1904)suggested,that
envy is responsible for much of the impetus to renew our
wardrobes. And what applies to wardrobes applies to most of
our visible consumption. It is my contention that benign
envy now drives such consumption.
Future research
I have presented benign envy as qualitatively different from
malicious envy because it is actionable and aims to level up
rather than level down. I have argued that as participants in
an affluent society with ample consumer credit, we can
acquire the same fashions or other branded goods owned by
those whom we envy. Moreover, with leaping luxury
sacrifices, populuxe goods, the democratization of luxury,
and counterfeits, more and more of us can transform
otherwise malicious envy into benign consumer envy. Just
how this theorized transformation takes place and the
degree to which benign envy truly supplants any feelings
of animosity, are topics for future research.
Although van de Ven (2009) found that those who feel that
they are the object of benign envy do not seem to mind it
and do not feel motivated to engage in prosocial acts toward
enviers as do those who feel themselves to be the objects of
malicious envy, this is still a finding based on feeling guilt or
no guilt. It has been suggested here that instead of merely
feeling guiltless, in turning from avoiding othersenvy to
intentionally provoking it, we may quite enjoy the feeling of
being envied. This is the glamour to which Berger (1972)
refers. It is the malicious state of being envied in Table 2.
Woot e n s(2006) findings are suggestive of the desire to be
envied among adolescents with cool possessions, but perhaps
this braggadocio is either compensatory for youthful insecu-
rity or due to a lack of nuance similar to that displayed by
stereotypical nouveaux riches (Costa and Belk 1990;
LaBarbera 1988). We can see the same flaunting of friends,
possessions, and experiences on many blogs and social
networking sites, especially among relatively young partic-
ipants. This suggests that a life-course perspective on envy
and social comparison can be particularly useful. Perhaps we
outgrow our own feelings of envy (benign, mixed, or
malicious) and the malicious desire to provoke othersenvy,
but research is needed here too.
The most basic challenge posed by the rise of benign envy
is to the economic, psychological, and philosophical assump-
tion that life is a zero-sum game in a world of limited good.
Competition exists to be sure, and we set up most sports and
games, including political contexts, within this framework.
Butnolongerdootherspossessions of fine clothes, cool cars,
or fashionable gadgets preclude us from acquiring the same
desiderata. Quite the opposite; enviable otherspossession of
these things increases the likelihood we will acquire them.
And even though benign envy sustains and promotes
consumer culture, this may be preferable to a society of
festering malicious envy.
The cultural differences discussed here raise some intrigu-
ing and promising topics for future research as well. The
changing status of veiling within Islam, as well as the debates
that such practices have recently engendered about modesty,
vanity, and privacy (e.g., Sobh et al. 2009) suggest a possible
shift from avoiding othersmalicious envy to provoking
othersbenign envy in some Islamic cultures. Just as people
in maliciously envious societies may eat in private to avoid
envy provocation and avoid the necessity of sharing (Foster
1972), hiding beauty may ostensibly be intended to serve a
similar purpose. But as veiling in the Middle East Gulf States
becomes more ostentatious, it appears that a shift to envy
provocation is taking place. This bears further investigation.
So does the difference between avoiding othersenvyand
saving face in Confucian societies versus rampant luxury
consumption which may have opposite effects in these same
societies (Wong and Ahuvia 1998). Because cultures differ
in the particular consumption practices they deem excessive-
ly ostentatious, appropriate, or laudable, further work on the
factors leading to these shifting distinctions across cultures
and time periods is also needed. Recent world economic
events suggest that definitions of obscenelyostentatious
consumption can change rather quickly. Given the rapid
economic changes taking place in many world cultures, these
cultures are likely to prove instructive arenas for investigat-
ing changing consumption practices as presumably more
benign envy becomes dominant.
Given the democratization of luxury that has been discussed
here, it is doubtful that Schoecks(1966) claim that luxury
consumption necessarily provokes envy can be sustained.
The inflation of signsthat occurs when nearly everyone
seems to drive a Mercedes and carry an LV handbag likely
makes these status markers less envy provoking than was
once the case. Perhaps this is just an indication that trickle
down fashion has transformed another of yesterdays luxuries
into todays necessities. But longitudinal research is needed to
test for sign inflation.
Hopefully many more issues have been raised in this article
that can prompt meaningful research. I will end with one more
example that has not been emphasized: the development of
benign and malicious envy in children. Just when and how
these envious feelings arise, how they are dealt with, and
whether the case of children is special because they must
depend more on parents and relatives to make their envy
actionable (e.g., the gifts from Cinderellas father), are topics
that call for investigation. Zhao and Murdock (1996) refer to
the unevenly distributed rise of consumerism and conspicuous
consumption in China as fueling reservoirs of envy,probably
Author's personal copy
no more so than among children and the poor who cannot act
upon their feelings of envy and frustration. Near the dawn of the
20th Century, relatively poor Americanelementaryschool
children were found to exaggerate and lie about the possessions
that they or their families owned (Hall and Smith 1903; Kline
and France 1899). When you cannot actually level or invert
status hierarchies, deception may have to suffice. And while
the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella story may have
warned earlier generations of children about the shallowness
of envy and the retribution that awaits the maliciously
envious, the moral that children are more apt to glean from
the now dominant Disney version of the tale is that with the
magic of the right consumption, they too can marry the prince,
become the object of othersenvy, and live a totally
transformed and wonderful life.
Ackerman, D., MacInnis, D., & Folkes, F. (2000). Social comparisons
of possessions: when it feels good and when it feels bad.
Advances in Consumer Research, 27, 173178.
Alicke, M. D., & Zell, E. (2008). Social comparison and envy. In R.
H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 73116). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape
our decisions. New York: Harper Collins.
Ariely, D., & Levav, J. (2000). Sequential choice in group settings:
taking the road less traveled and less enjoyed, Journal of
Consumer Research, 27, 279290.
Barber, B. (1995). Jihad vs. McWorld: How globalism and tribalism
are reshaping the world. New York: Times Books.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Bearden, W. O., & Etzel, M. J. (1982). Reference group influence on
product and brand Reference group influence. Journal of
Consumer Research, 9, 183194.
Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of
Consumer Research, 15, 139168.
Belk, R. W. (1995a). ACR fellows address: awards, rewards, prizes,
and punishments. Advances in Consumer Research, 22,915.
Belk, R. W. (1995b). Collecting in a consumer society. London:
Belk, R. W. (1999). Leaping luxuries and transitional consumers. In R.
Batra (Ed.), Marketing issues in transitional economies (pp. 39
54). Boston: Kluwer.
Belk, R. W. (2001). Specialty magazines and flights of fancy: feeding
the desire to desire. European Advances in Consumer Research,
Belk, R. W. (2008). Envy and marketing. In R. Smith (Ed.), Envy:
Theory and research (pp. 211226). Oxford: Oxford University
Belk, R. W., & Pollay, R. W. (1985). The good life in twentieth century
advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 11,887897.
Belk, R. W., Ger, G., & Askegaard, S. (2003). The fire of desire: a
multisited inquiry into consumer passion. Journal of Consumer
Research, 30, 326351.
Belk, R. W., Devinney, T., & Eckhardt, G. (2005). Consumer ethics
across cultures. Consumption, Markets and Culture, 8, 275290.
Belk, R. W., Tian, K., & Paavola, H. (2010). Consuming cool: behind
the unemotional mask. In R. Belk (Ed.), Research in consumer
behavior, Vol 12 (pp. 183208). Bingly: Emerald.
Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting
Berry, C. J. (1994). The idea of luxury: A conceptual and historical
investigation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and
importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage.
Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of age in second life: An anthropologist