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At Wal-Mart’s 2005 annual meeting, Lee Scott, the company’s CEO, announced that since the they wanted to attract customers with lots of discretionary income they would be including more items like organic foods.

If you have a difficult time with the concept of Wal-Mart customers having “lots of discretionary income,” you probably will find the idea of such shoppers spending their excess cash on organic food even more bizarre. “Eating organic has been fixed in the collective imagination as an upper-middle-class luxury, a blue-state affectation as easy to mock as Volvos or lattes,” Michael Pollan once said in the New York Times . “On the cultural spectrum, organic stands at the far opposite extreme from Nascar or Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart could start sacking groceries in Coach bags and the Volvo-driving, latte-sipping, upper-middle-class wouldn’t shop there. So what could Scott have been thinking? Did the business geniuses in Bentonville, Arkansas lost touch with reality?

Perhaps. There is no available information (that I could find) on the success or failure of Wal-Mart’s organic experiment. But I like to think that Scott was ahead of the curve in identifying a previously overlooked demographic similar to the group that is the natural target of organic marketers—a class of Americans New York Times columnist David Brooks once identified as “Bobos.”

In 2001, Brooks produced Bobos In Paradise , a work of “comic sociology” that explored the lives of people who tend to prefer Volvos, lattes, and organic food:

These are highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success. The members of the new information age elite are bourgeois bohemians. Or, to take the first two letters of each word, they are Bobos.

Bobos are similar to yuppies in that they tend to come from the upper-middle and upper class and believe American society to be meritocratic. But while America in the twenty-first century is more egalitarian than almost any society in history, our country is not, strictly speaking, a meritocracy.

Gaining admission to an Ivy League school is not contingent on being from an “old money” family (though it certainly helped George W. Bush and John Kerry). Yet your odds of being admitted are considerably higher—all things being equal—if your parents have enough money to pay for private school and SAT tutors. Social mobility may be fluid in America but is still favors those who are already privileged in some way. Children born to wealthy, highly educated parents have a head start on becoming wealthy and highly educated themselves. This is the way it has always been and if (like me) you are of a conservative temperament, you’ll find nothing wrong with this natural order.

Of course while we are not a pure meritocracy, our society’s preference for egalitarianism has made the social climb considerably less steep. But it is the  technological advances that have all but leveled an even more important road to advancement—the path of cultural mobility. For decades, changes in technology have allowed elite culture to seep down to the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Two decades ago if you wanted to see Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire you had to live near an arthouse theater; today all you need is a Netflix account to watch it on your computer. The same is true from almost all great art, literature, and music. Almost anyone can now afford a ticket to the Jackson Pollock exhibition, the paperback edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or an audio CD of Bach chorales. Being allowed to taste the fruits of highbrow—or at least bohemian—culture can shape the cultural palates of even the poorest American.

So what happens when someone has one foot in the bohemian world of creativity while their other foot is still firmly stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder? What do we call those who acquire the taste of the bohemian but do not have the educational credentials or income levels of the bourgeois elite? We can classify the members of this new hybrid class as boorish (peasant) bohemians—or to combine them into a new neologism ala Brooks, “Boorbos.”

Brooks contends that the Bobos have become the new establishment and that “Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe.” Similarly the Boorbos are strivers, wishing to break out of their economic purgatory in order to breathe the rarified air of pure Boboism. Bobos are, as Brooks notes, expected to practice “one-downmanship.” But Boorbos wish their credentials and circumstances would allow them to move up to the Bobo paradise so that they too could practice one-downmanship.

So how can you tell the difference between a Boorbo and a Bobo? Since their aesthetic tastes are often similar, the obvious way to distinguish between them is to look at their paycheck or resume. If they earn $100,000 a year working a company in the knowledge industry, they’re probably a Bobo. If they graduated from the University of Oklahoma and work for a company that manufactures actual physical stuff , they’re likely a Boorbo.

Here are a few other differences based on the choices they make:


Bobos: Starbucks
Boorbos: Dunkin Donuts

Organic foods

Bobos: Whole Foods market
Boorbos: Wal-Mart Supercenter


Bobos: Environmental lawyer; Corporate image consultant; Art gallery director
Boorbos: Paralegal working for an environmental lawyer; Restaurant manager; Community college professor

Syndicated Columnists

Bobos: David Brooks
Boorbos: Jonah Goldberg


Bobos: iPhone
Boorbos: Motorola Razor

Hip teen clothing store

Bobos: Abercrombie and Fitch
Boorbos: American Eagle

Men’s Pants

Bobos: Ralph Lauren
Boorbos: Dockers

Political affiliation (left)

Bobos: Barack Obama
Boorbos: Hillary Clinton

Political affiliation (right)

Bobos: Mitt Romney
Boorbos: Mike Huckabee

Gaming System

Bobos: new Wii
Boorbos: used Playstation 2


Bobos: Stella Artois
Boorbos: Heineken

Men’s shirts

Bobos: Ralph Lauren shirts bought at Nordstroms
Boorbos: Ralph Lauren shirts bought at T.J. Maxx

Women’s Glossy Magazines

Bobos: Vogue
Boorbos: O: The Oprah Magazine

Men’s Glossy Magazines

Bobos: Men’s Vogue
Boorbos: GQ


Bobos: Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc bought at Whole Foods Market
Boorbos: Charles Shaw (“Two-buck Chuck”) bought at Trader Joe’s

Sports Teams

Bobos: New York Yankees; L.A. Lakers; New England Patriots
Boorbos: Arizona Diamondback; San Antonio Spurs; Pittsburg Steelers


Bobos: Ethos
Boorbos: Dasani


Bobos: Lexus Hybrid SUV
Boorbos: Nissan Rogue

Home furnishings

Bobos: Restoration Hardware
Boorbos: IKEA


Bobos: The local Galleria
Boorbos: The local outlet stores

Where to Send Kid to College

Bobos: Stanford, University of Pennsylvania; Rice University
Boorbos: University of California, Irvine; Florida State; Arizona State


Bobos: Portland, OR; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chapel Hill, NC; Stamford, CT
Boorbos: Spokane, WA; Charlotte, NC; Tustin, CA; Queens, NY; Atlanta, GA

Business Guru

Bobos: Malcolm Gladwell
Boorbos: John Maxwell

Grad School degree

Bobos: MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern
Boorbos: MBA in accounting from The University of Phoenix

Late Night Talk show host

Bobos: Conan O’Brian
Boorbos: David Letterman

Reading Material

Bobos: Any book recently praised in the New York Times Book Review
Boorbos: Any book praised in the New York Times Book Review that has made it to the discounted books table at Borders.

What consumer choices would you say distinguishes Bobos from Boorbos?

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