The rate at which China’s luxury market has grown is tremendous, and China is now home to both the world’s second-largest diamond market and the number-one automobile market. However, it is important to note that not all luxury consumers in China actually have the salary to support such purchases. China’s online message boards are filled with accounts of young Chinese white-collar workers who skip meals and only eat instant noodles in the evening in order to save up for a luxury purse made by Richemont or Louis Vuitton. Post-80’s-generation Chinese refer to these individuals as “modern Madame Bovarys.” This type of Chinese luxury consumer lives beyond their means to attain a luxurious lifestyle like that of the main character in Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel.
Besides self-enhancement perspective and motivation theory, the moral self-licensing effect provides an alternative interpretation of the paradoxical behaviors of Chinese young luxury consumers. The moral self-licensing effect suggests that past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral, such as political incorrectness, prosocial behavior, and consumer choice (Merritt, Effron &Monin, 2010). Consumer choice represents one major domain in which moral self-licensing is evident. Everyday purchasing decisions are tinged with morality. At the extreme, some utilitarian philosophers argue that it is immoral to spend disposable income on unnecessary things because that money could go to people in need elsewhere (Singer, 1972). Though probably few consumers subscribe to such drastic views, buying luxury items or frivolous goods is nonetheless associated with feelings of guilt and self-indulgence (Dahl, Honea, & Manchanda, 2003). According to the logic of self-licensing, individuals whose prior choices establish them as ethical and reasonable spenders (or ethical and reasonable people in a more general sense) should be more likely to indulge in frivolous purchases later on. In other words, one can self-license frivolous consumption by behaving in ways that establish one’s morality. For those Chinese luxury consumers who do not have enough salary to support luxury purchases, skipping meals or other ridiculous saving behaviors might license their feelings of guilt and self-indulgence because they feel that they have paid for their consumption in advanced. In addition, the announcement that luxury consumption made important contribution to economic growth persuades luxury consumers that what they are doing is actually prosocial. In sum, imagining engaging in prosocial activities seems to license self-indulgent purchases and reduce of guilty feelings about the frivolous choices of Chinese luxury consumers and further courage them to engage in such irrational purchases.