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Recession's legacy: Thrifty as the new bling

Oprah and the Oracle of Omaha are among those who represent the qualities more consumers will embrace in the future, one ad exec argues.
Image: Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey may be a wealthy celebrity, but one ad exec believes she reflects an authenticity that American consumers are embracing.Mary Altaffer / AP file

What do Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Ludacris have in common?

Yes, they are each wealthy celebrities who can likely afford whatever they want.

But one advertising agency executive believes they also are among the top influencers of a more careful form of consumerism Americans are adapting in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

“Hyperconsumerism is dead, but consumerism will always be alive in the U.S.,” said Andrew Benett, global chief executive of Arnold Worldwide and co-author of a new book “Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending.”

The idea of a new frugality has been brewing since housing bubble burst, but what do Oprah and the Oracle of Omaha have to do with it?

Benett, whose advertising agency clients includes McDonald’s, Sprint and Fidelity, argues that these celebrities and a few others epitomize the qualities more consumers are embracing.

“It was more about the ideals these people represent than their, you know, quantifiable influence on American culture,” Benett said.

Buffett, chief executive of the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, may be one of the world’s richest men, but he is renowned for living a relatively simple life in a modest Omaha, Neb., home. Buffett plans to donate almost all his billions to charity and already has given more than $8 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with much more promised.

These days, Benett said that type of thrift and charity has the same type of credibility as bling did before the recession.

Winfrey, on the other hand, is not one to shy away from life’s luxuries. Still, Benett said she is an influencer because rather than accepting paid endorsements she seems to genuinely believe in the products she recommends to her legion of loyal followers. That kind of authenticity has become more valued since the recession began, Benett said.

The rapper Ludacris works in an industry known for its extravagance but was included on the list because of his lesser-known philanthropy, The Ludacris Foundation, and a personal commitment to being environmentally friendly, Benett said.

The fact that Ludacris is not necessarily known for his philanthropy is the point, Benett said, because understatement is one of the tenets of the new consumerism.

“It’s not about doing good that everyone sees. It’s about doing good because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Other celebrities on his top influencers list include financial guru Suze Orman, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, First Lady Michelle Obama and Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Benett argues that Zuckerberg is influential not because he is a particularly mindful consumer but because he has created perhaps the biggest influencer of all: The Facebook community of “friends.”

In a study conducted for the book, Benett said 62 percent of consumers were more influenced by other consumers than by experts.

“Word of mouth now — in almost every single category — is the first criteria for consumers in terms of how they make a purchase decision,” Benett said.

Consumed by thriftiness? Follow me on Twitter @alinnmsnbc.