Conspicuous Comfort

“Money,” begins the text of a recent print advertisement for something called Phoenix Wealth Management. “It’s just not what it used to be.” The accompanying photographs show two couples: Both are mature in years, but while the pair on the left wear gaudy outfits and stand in front of a preposterous mansion in a tableau that screams conspicuous consumption, the pair on the right are knee-deep in some bucolic body of water, just fishin’ and smilin.’ “Is it possible,” the copy continues, “to be rich and not even know it?”

What that ad is really asking, of course, is whether it’s possible to be rich and not even admit it. Apparently this is all the rage: According to a survey by market research firm Applied Research & Consulting, reported in a recent issue of Advertising Age, wealthy people no longer consider themselves “rich” or even “affluent.” They consider themselves “comfortable.” The survey was conducted on behalf of House & Garden magazine and involved interviews with 1,000 homeowners with annual household incomes ranging from $100,000 to several million dollars. The percentage of those surveyed who would accept the r-word was zero. Five percent went along with affluent, but a commanding 43 percent preferred comfortable. (The rest, I gather, wouldn’t even accept that label).

Three-fourths of those surveyed, explained the research firm’s co-founder, “said they are much better off financially than five years ago, but they don’t talk about the amount of money or social status. They used a lot of euphemisms, and ‘comfortable’ by far came away as the favorite, dominant term.”

I don’t know if there’s anything truly new here since there have always been plenty of reasons–modesty, guilt, envy–for a given individual to characterize his or her financial situation in terms less glowing than a disinterested observer might. “Comfortable” is an excellent choice for such people because we all want to be comfortable, and it’s hard to begrudge anyone else a state of comfortableness, and so on. So you can see why so many affluent (or whatever) people would embrace the term.

But if “comfortable” is widely understood as a code word for “rich” and “affluent,” doesn’t it cease to be a euphemism? I think this is the key not just to the labeling of the marketing category du jour but to understanding how the “comfortable class” thinks about itself. The other day, George W. Bush was interviewed on CNBC and explained why he is a conservative investor. “Now is not the time for me to be taking a lot of risk,” Bush remarked  with one of his little grins. “My earning power is somewhat diminished in public life.”

Well, shucks. That’s just more evidence that W. is a regular fella from West Texas with no taste for the elites he went to prep school with, right? I don’t think so. First, this business about his diminished earning power is wildly disingenuous. The topic of his investing temperament was raised by the interviewer in the context of an article in Money magazine that put Bush’s net worth at more than $20 million. And in fact just a few days after the interview, the Bush campaign released tax returns showing that W. and his wife reported income of about $1.6 million in 1999; they reported more than $18 million in 1998.

George W. Bush is a rich man, and if you had $20 million, you, too, could afford to be smirky about your prudent financial management style. His winking comment about diminished earning power wasn’t an attempt to disguise his wealth any more than people who described themselves as “comfortable” in the House & Garden poll were trying to pass themselves off as proles. If anything, I expect that the truly comfortable would write off a good portion of those who embrace that term as mere pretenders, nouveau comfort strivers who don’t know what real comfort is all about. Consider again the tasteful retirees fishing at their vacation home, presumably courtesy of Phoenix Wealth Management. Like W., they have made their pile, and you know it, and they’re glad you know it. Just like everybody else who has achieved a certain, and rather conspicuous, state of comfort.