If you ask someone today what they think influences American culture, you are likely to get a wide variety of answers. Family, friends, people of authority, media, and famous figures are all responses you are likely to hear. One answer you are not likely to hear as often, however, is advertising. You are also not very likely to hear people discussing the normalization of consumerism either. Most people you talk to about the subject probably aren’t even aware that consumerism drives many of the choices that we make today. Recently, I read The Overspent American and watched The Ad and the Ego, both of which uncover the ugly truth about America today: that we, as a society, have become driven by consumerism, so much so, that it has become destructive. These destructive consequences range from the American public losing self confidence to war becoming normalized so that our “material world” may continue. These two works center around this, and in this essay we’ll discuss more about how we got to this point, why consumerism has such a grasp on our society, and how we can get out of this consumerist rut.
If you are like me, you may wonder how we, as a society, even got to this point. How does an entire society get to the point where the very fabric of their culture is woven with materialism? How does a society put material possessions over the well being of others, especially to the point of objectification and violence? According to Juliet Schor in The Overspent American, the path towards this consumerism goes back hundreds of years. Much of this book focuses on the idea that our consumerism is fueled by the need to fit in, or to display our social status. Schor says that even back in eighteenth century England, certain material possessions were thought to demonstrate your class. She gives countless examples of how Americans are driven to keep up with their neighbors by owning the same or better material possessions. Essentially, we are competing with one another for who can be the most materialistic because our very place in the social hierarchy is dependent upon it.
Even if materialism is part of our social structure, it is mind boggling that we could get so far as to make a competition out of buying things. Part of this can be explained by the rise of advertising. In The Ad and the Ego, a large focus is put on the influence that advertising has over us and our culture. One of the speakers in the movie says that advertising has become one of the most important socializing factors in American culture. Advertising, with the rapid growth in communication technology, has become so far reaching that today it is inescapable. The movie brings a point about (sort of indirectly) that advertising has taken American values and driven them to the extreme. Whether it be independence, competition, freedom, etc, advertising has forced people to think that their lives should mirror these ideals in every way. This force may not have only driven people to become more competitive, but may have also caused the consumerism from an earlier period to become much more extreme.
Prior to the widespread access of televisions and internet, advertising was somewhat of an educational tool, rather than a socializing agent. In the words of the speakers in The Ad and the Ego, advertisements used to treat people as rational beings. With the rise of industrialization and mass production, the developed world began to have a surplus of items and a shortage of consumers. At the same time, people began to have more and more discretionary spending. Capitalists had to find a way to produce consumers and they figured out a way to do so through advertising. It was at this phase of history that advertising began to change into something that shaped its audience, rather than just informing them (Ad).
It was at this point in time that consumerism became about treating people as irrational beings rather than rational ones. Commercials started to become more about the type of lifestyle one could by owning/using a product, rather than teaching consumers anything about the product (Ad). Advertisements began to condition people to want the products they were selling. Something I heard often while pursuing my undergraduate degree was that marketing is meant to “create value”. In other words, advertising attempts to create value in things that don’t necessarily have any. It tries to bring people to make irrational decisions about products, because rational decisions would lead to those products not being sold.
The shift from information to images was also another important shift at this stage. These images, as The Ad and the Ego points out, can be used in ways that logic or words can’t used. In order to use logic or reason you have to convince someone who is consciously thinking through things. With images, all you have to do is show the things that the person wants to see with a product and BAM!, you have proven that your product can give people what they want. In this way, images are automatic; they require no processing by the individual. This can be a powerful tool for advertisers, and with advertising all around us in our everyday lives, it is impossible to escape these automatic messages.
Another aspect of advertising that is so powerful is that we often aren’t even aware of the advertising. Often times, we go through life trying to ignore the subtle messages that are all around us. We often think that we are immune to this influence. However, the socializing effect of advertising is not caused by a single advertiser, rather, it is the culmination of all the advertisement we are exposed to (Ad). Our insecurity caused from materialism is not a byproduct of some other goal that advertising is trying to achieve; insecurity about ourselves is the direct goal of advertisements. Without feeling like we’re missing something, we have no need to go out and buy things to fulfill ourselves. Businesses know this and they feed this emptiness. This emptiness will never go away through material means. Instead, we end up with a never ending cycle of emptiness and purchases. All the while, we are told that we just need a little bit more to be happy.
The danger from these advertisements comes from the fact that it leads us to objectify people, especially women. When sex, for example, is used to entice men to buy a certain type of deodorant, it leads to women being seen as objects of sex. Sure, someone could argue that one commercial might not be harmful, and they may be correct. However, with advertising’s presence in everything we do and the competitive nature of advertising, the effect gets multiplied and, in turn, becomes very harmful. This objectification has a serious negative impact on how we treat one another.
Ironically, many advertisements seek to sell their products through portraits of a meaningful life with lots of friends, a close-knit family and so on. The value that is built around these products is injected using a social backing. In turn, we believe that the happiness and good social life can be brought through buying these objects. The thing is that items are not needed for any of that. Because we seek fulfillment through the objects, rather than going straight through personal and real means, we never end up feeling fulfilled. Joy and fulfillment can only be found by doing the things we love to do, and spending time with the people that we love.
Even when we can find fulfillment through relationships, it can still be hard for some of us to let our social status go. Many Americans are driven to spend and compete to buy more because it is a way to maintain a social status and to make our neighbors think that we are living a good life and are putting our families first (Schor). Some people shop because they are lead to believe, one way or another, that their wants are needs. One of the ways to break these cycles is to get back to understanding what is a want, and what is a need.
Each of these works have a slightly different approach to solving America’s consumerist problem. One is to take back our forms of communication to provide a more positive means of socialization, and one is to “downshift” and to break the cycle of competitive spending. The “downshift” method seems to be the most immediately available approach to the readers of this blog. Only purchase the things you need (and I mean actually need) and avoid those things that would tempt you to do otherwise, such as going to your favorite store. If this is done in large numbers over a long period of time, it seems that the advertising problem could potentially fix itself. Without further revenue from ads, companies would be forced to stop putting out these negative images and, in turn, American society could finally make a turn around.