On social media, if you're posting about the new car you just bought -- or maybe the yacht -- flexing wealth can be a fraught move. Though it may seem the only thought behind a photo of an expensive bottle of champagne or an exotic vacation might be the desire to flaunt good fortune, that's not always the case.
It turns out there's a lot to unravel about why people like to signal wealth online, how it comes across to others, and what the repercussions could be of posting from a private jet, especially if it's not yours.
"Before social media, we used to have a general understanding that the wealthy had more," said Jasmine Teer, vice president of strategy for Small Girls PR. "With social media, we can access a 24-hour rotating display of materialism and disparity depending on what we decide to consume and who we choose to follow."
A buildup of this type of imagery, often juxtaposed with a world where many barely have enough to get by -- particularly during the pandemic -- can incur a wave of backlash and negativity. It's not hard to see why there's resentment. According to data from the Urban Institute, between 1963 and 2016 families in the bottom 10th percentile of wealth went, on average, from having nothing to going $1,000 in debt. By contrast, families in the top 1% saw their fortunes grow sevenfold.
On a regular basis, celebrities find themselves in trouble for being tone deaf to the differences between their lives and those of average people. In April 2020, Ellen Degeneres complained that being in quarantine in her mansion was like being in jail. In February, Chrissy Teigen got a little too casual telling a story about accidentally ordering a $13,000 bottle of wine.
Whether these were intentional flexes or not ceases to be the point. So why does anyone take to social media to do some flaunting?
Sometimes it's a matter of having some self-awareness and knowing who you're talking to. Teer gave the example of a boss. It's probably fair to assume someone in a leadership position is making more money. That's not bad per se, but that person showing off a lavish lifestyle while layoffs roll through their company is another story.
"Perceptions of opportunity and fairness are likely to play a bigger role in how people react," Teer said.
Meanwhile, it turns out that gauging how people will react to what you post is hard. A 2018 study published in Sage Journals found that even though nearly 66% of participants thought that signaling wealth or status (check out my new BMW!) would make them more attractive to potential friends, the reverse was actually true. Those potential friends showed less social interest in having a friend with a luxury car, versus a more neutral car, like a Honda.
Reading the signals
The idea that people are posting in hopes of making themselves look better isn't surprising. On social media, people often present an idealized version of themselves according to what they think society wants, said Erica Bailey, social scientist and fourth-year doctoral candidate at Columbia Business School. That doesn't always have to mean wealth, but sometimes it does.
People can get themselves into trouble even just in their own heads, though, when the idealized version of themselves they're plastering all over Instagram doesn't match up with their authentic selves.
"Those two pressures really can pull against each other," Bailey said.
For a study co-authored by Bailey and Sandra Matz, associate professor of business at Columbia Business School, researchers collected data from more than 10,000 Facebook users and found that those who rated their profiles as being more authentic representations of themselves also reported higher levels of self-satisfaction.
"If we know that there's potential backlash of showing off in your social network ... and it doesn't do much for your own identity, and it doesn't make you feel like, 'this is how I want to be seen,' then there's essentially no good reason to do it," Matz said.
That also means, perhaps, that if you're wealthy, and you derive satisfaction from letting people know, and you don't care how snarky anyone out there is when you post about your designer lifestyle, everything might be just fine for you.
Matz also talked about how the signals you give could actually indicate your status unintentionally. Wealthier people tend to like things that are incidentally expensive. Those who are lower-income might intentionally prefer things that serve as a badge that they have status.
And while posting a photo of an expensive item might seem relatively surface level, Bailey and Matz talked about how some of this behavior is tied to the wild extremes of wealth inequality, particularly in the US. The average S&P 500 company CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 264-to-1 in 2019, according to the AFL-CIO.
"It becomes really important for people to signal where they are. They want to signal that 'actually, I'm up here,' even if they're not," Bailey said.
All a charade
Not everyone who flexes actually has wealth, and not everyone with wealth flexes.
Luke Thompson is a partner at UK-based Transmission Private, a reputation management firm that works with people who have an ultra-high net worth. These aren't people with some extra cushion in the bank, they're worth north of 100 million pounds.
"They want their privacy to be respected, and they don't want to be publicized or to self-promote themselves," Thompson said. "They're usually very private individuals that want to stay out of the media spotlight, rather than a celebrity that will usually want to court the media."
The firm has recommendations on how to function on social media without raising eyebrows, and this mostly has to do with being as discreet as possible. Lock your account, make sure you know who's following you, make sure everyone in your family agrees on what can and can't be shared on social media, consider what you're liking or retweeting, take advantage of every privacy setting you can.
One of the reasons for these measures, Thompson said, has to do with survey data the firm collected at the start of 2019, which found that 25% of respondents felt that the flaunting of wealth would be a drag on what they thought of a "successful, wealthy individual."
For some high-profile individuals of this ilk, the old adage "any publicity is good publicity" isn't necessarily true. The firm warns that a negative story could have detrimental ripple effects into the future, maybe even tainting future relationships or partnerships with investors, politicians or whomever else.
The one exception to the no-flaunting rule, Thompson said, seems to be when wealth is being put toward a charitable cause.
This idea that wealth and good works can get along in the public eye might be worth paying attention to, Teer thinks. The past year has jostled people's priorities, whether it's because of the pandemic or the outcry over social injustice.
"A couple years ago, the most aspirational content you may have come across on a given day could have been a friend's adventure trip through Japan," Teer said. "Today, that content might be how a celebrity, a perfect stranger, or a brand responded to a community facing systematic injustice. In pandemic perception, displays of caring have become a new display of wealth."