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Television viewing can hurt the poor

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Increased television viewing is pushing the poorest of the poor to make consumption choices that are detrimental to their welfare. Television programmes and advertisements often promote a way of life that is above the means of the poor. In their attempt to pursue this kind of lifestyle, the poor fall victim to conspicuous consumption, bringing them short-term happiness by enhancing their sense of status, but ultimately hurts them because of their limited means. These are the findings of a recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing (

Conspicuous consumption refers to the consumption of goods and services meant to display higher social status. Often, this display of status is not linked to actual, tangible benefits. For instance, one can use smartphones other than an iPhone, but plenty of people still prefer the more expensive Apple product.

Television viewing has a direct causal impact on propagating conspicuous consumption, particularly among lower-income households. For every hour of television viewing, their conspicuous consumption increases by 4%. Both programmes and advertisements can encourage them to aspire for status goods and services. For example, watching characters in popular television programmes riding motorcycles or frequent exposure to commercials that show celebrities riding motorcycles can make them want to buy these vehicles despite the cost.

Bottom of Pyramid (BoP) consumers are especially susceptible to this phenomenon. These are consumers whose per capita daily income is between ₹146 and ₹583. Since status goods appear to boost their low self-esteem and dignity deficits, they can end up choosing status goods over more essential commodities. For instance, they might be tempted to buy branded clothes instead of generic but good-quality, cheaper garments. Given their limited income, such choices can have adverse effects on their well-being, including an unsustainable lifestyle, increased indebtedness, and greater vulnerability to exploitation.

Therefore, BoP families’ television viewing driven conspicuous consumption has major implications for firms, policymakers, and consumer rights groups. Understanding the impact of television, socially responsible firms should avoid showcasing conspicuous consumption and should instead focus on popularising visible but socially beneficial solutions. For instance, a milk product company, instead of promoting exotic foods like pizzas, milkshakes, or burgers that use their products, can promote eating nutritious home-cooked meals that incorporate their products.

Similarly, policymakers need to regulate television content judiciously to avoid undue influence on BoP families. For example, many television series give a false portrayal of poverty, showing supposedly poor people dressed in fine clothes and made-up like models. Policymakers can intervene to avoid such misleading depictions. They can also provide educational and financial services for BoP families to counter the harmful effects of television viewing driven conspicuous consumption.

Finally, consumer rights groups may also have an essential role to play here. They could work on ways to reduce time spent in television watching by BoP families and spread awareness about the influence of television programmes and advertisements among BoP consumers. By working together, various stakeholders can help BoP families from sacrificing their long-term welfare for the sake of short-term happiness.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent those of people, institutions or organisations that the author may be associated with in professional or personal capacities.

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