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What Does "Keeping up with the Joneses" Mean?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2016
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“Keeping up with the Joneses” was a common phrase in 20th century America that is still in use today. It refers to the practice of buying items to impress neighbors or increase social standing, rather than from a desire for the items themselves. This practice is also known as "conspicuous consumption." “Keeping up with the Joneses” originated as the title of a popular comic strip in the early 20th century. It quickly passed into popular usage as a way of describing American consumer culture.

In 1913, cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand launched his comic strip Keeping up with the Joneses in the New York Globe. The strip chronicled the misadventures of Aloysius P. McGinnis, whose wife was obsessed with maintaining a social standing equal to that of their well-to-do neighbors, the Jones family. Ironically, the Joneses of the title were never actually seen by readers of the comic. The popular strip was syndicated nationally, inspiring an animated film, a stage musical, and several tie-in books. The title phrase had become part of the American lexicon by the time the comic ended in 1938.

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The 20th century saw the rise of American consumer culture. Advertisers and manufacturers played on the love of novelty and affluence to sell everything from cars to kitchen appliances. By the 1950s, a key part of this marketing strategy was selling new items to consumers who already owned similar items. One method to achieve this was “planned obsolescence,” designing items to be useless or outdated within a short time. Another method was promoting conspicuous consumption, often referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The strategy was simple: advertisements suggested that people who did not purchase the latest car or popular item risked being seen as impoverished or socially backward by their peers. This “keeping up with the Joneses” approach was quite effective, even if those peers, like the Joneses of the comic strip, were never actually seen. The practice of purchasing the latest items to display social standing has persisted into the 21st century, with items like smartphones and media players. New generations of these high-tech devices are sometimes introduced to the market within months of the previous versions. The phrase and its variations still enjoy wide currency in everyday use and popular culture.

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