5 Origin Stories of “Keeping up with the Joneses”
“Keeping up with the Joneses.” The epitome of lifestyle inflation. The tourist in the story of the tourist and the fisherman.
We’ve all heard it. But, does anyone know why we say it, or where it came from?
This little research project turned out to be much more fascinating than I expected going into it. No matter which origin story you want to believe, we’ve been using the phrase for over a century.
5 Origin Stories of “Keeping up with the Joneses”
No one seems to agree on which one of these stories is true, but they are all entertaining and interesting:
1) It’s just an old English saying: Enough said.
2) Jones Street in Savannah, GA: Not the most common origin story, but it’s worth mentioning. Apparently it’s the prettiest street in Savannah.
3) The Mansion owned by Elizabeth Jones: One source says the phrase was inspired by a mansion that was built in the 1850s in New York as a “summer getaway for New York City socialite Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones.”
The 7,690-square-foot home, called Wyndclyffe Castle, was so elegant and over the top it prompted neighbors to build even bigger houses in an effort to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’
The mansion was abandoned by the 1950s. What was once a top-of-the-line mansion on 80 acres is now falling apart on 2.5 acres (this post has a bunch of pictures). If this isn’t a beautiful example of impermanence, I don’t know what is. One day you will be gone. And so will your house, your car, and all your stuff.
4) Comic strip by Arthur “Pop” Momand: This story says the popular phrase was coined by American cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in his comic strip called (you guessed it) “Keeping up with the Joneses.” In a coincidental connection to the mansion story above, apparently Momand got the idea when he moved from New York City to a suburb of New York. His comic strip and the expression were used sometime between 1913-1916 (source). The comic features the McGinnis family who references the Jones family. Even Wikipedia claims this story as the origin.
5) The Wilmington family of Pembroke and Sarah Jones: This article says all of the other stories above are based on this family. They were among “the richest of the rich” — more than 1,000 wedding guests when they married in 1884, owners of “the second grandest house in North Carolina” and multiple other properties, and throwers of extravagant parties with an entertainment line in their annual budget equivalent to $7M in today’s money.
The house was so big…that there’s not a picture that we’ve found that has the entire house in the same frame.
It’s possible that Arthur “Pop” Momand was aware of the Wilmington Jones family because they were firmly established by the time he started his comic strip.
Arthur “Pop” Momand got the last laugh with his satirical comics. While he may not have been rich in money, he was rich in time. He lived to be 101 years old — 17-45 years longer than all the Joneses mentioned above. Quite a feat for someone born in 1886. Even the 100+ year old Ikarians in the Blue Zones would applaud that long life.
Money may not be equal, but we all get 24 hours per day. Save your money for financial independence and “buy” more of your time at a younger age.
If we are lucky enough to live two decades shorter than Arthur (the average U.S. lifespan today is 79 years old), we will get the equivalent of 1% of recorded history.
What are you doing with your 1%?
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Who’s Keeping Up? Marketing Secrets from the Joneses
You might have missed the movie, The Joneses, starring Demi Moore and David Duchovny. It wasn’t a box office smash and I wouldn’t have watched it myself except that it was filmed in my town. My teenage daughters wanted to see their schoolmates’ neighborhood on film, so we curled up tp watch it on a recent family movie night.
In the film a new family comes to town loaded up with the latest and greatest consumer products and luxury goods. The big secret is that the family is fake: actors/salespeople hired to promote the dream of the “have it all” lifestyle.
The Joneses’ job is to act like a real family, showing off the goods and making the neighbors green with envy. With the Joneses’ subtle approach to word of mouth marketing, friends and neighbors don’t realize they’re being pitched.
Local sales spike for high end watches, golf accessories, fancy cars and anything else that might make your neighbors a little envious. Of course, sales are closely tracked, and the Joneses’ success is evaluated on how well they inspire their new neighbors to buy all this stuff.
While I was watching this movie, it occurred to me as a marketer that the concept is not really that far-fetched…
You’ve probably met people like the Joneses, all shiny and new, too good to be true. I know I have. It makes me wonder…maybe they’re not what they seem. Maybe the Joneses are really “the Joneses.“
Wild and Out of Control
I don’t want to spoil the movie for you if you’re planning to watch it, so let me just say that The Joneses is a story of consumerism and product placement gone wildly overboard. It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when we get too caught up in keeping up.
Looking a little deeper, I discovered that there are also some valuable lessons for marketers hidden between the lines…
Things aren’t always what they seem
Just as the neighbors are duped into believing the Joneses are a regular family, marketers can be mislead, too. We can mistake competitors posing as customers and give up marketing secrets, we can misinterpret data about our products and customers, and we can make assumptions that are dead wrong.
Marketing Secret #1: It pays to question everything, especially your motivations and objectives. Nothing is a given. Step back and get a fresh perspective.
Track your results
The Joneses’ employer scrupulously tracked their performance to see how well each member of the family was doing with their sales goals. Fail to perform, and you’re out. Succeed, and you can move up to a better family in a more exclusive neighborhood.
Marketers know intuitively that they need to define goals and track results. But in the heat of a product launch or flurry of excitement about a new campaign, it’s easy to say “Let’s just get it done,” and worry about metrics later.
Marketing Secret #2: Later is too late. The time to figure out metrics is when you are planning your promotions and marketing campaigns, not after.
Be careful how you position your product
There is a certain product in the movie that should only be marketed to adults over 21. Unfortunately, the packaging is all wrong. The product ends up in the wrong hands with disastrous results.
Product positioning goes beyond theory. Effective implementation of positioning strategy incorporates elements like package design, graphics and copy. These items should align with the interests of the customers you want to buy your product.
Would you sell a wine cooler in a juice box?
Marketing Secret #3: In your zeal for creativity and coolness, make sure that you don’t inadvertently create appeal with the wrong demographic.
There’s more to life than marketing.
Sometimes marketers forget that life is not all about selling more stuff. As consumers, many of us are all too willing to buy into the premise that the next purchase will be the one that changes everything.
If I could only get that new car, those cool shoes, that awesome new phone….then I’d be the one they look up to.
But wait (yes, “there’s more…”) stop for a second, and think about the implications of that purchase. What does it really mean for your buyer? Will they be better or worse off for purchasing your product?
Marketing Secret #4: Marketers have a responsibility to consider who they are targeting, and be ethical enough to concede that not all products are right for all people.
As marketers, we have a tough job. We walk a fine line between pushing a product and just being pushy.
To me, the marketing discipline is an enticing blend of art and science, but sometimes people get a little too creative. Breaking through the boundaries of ethics to snag a few more sales may seem like a good idea…until the consequences kick-in.