SERIESInundated with marketing messages, Americans are tricked into believing products equal happiness.Editor’s Note: This four-part series from a leading industry insider is authored under the pseudonym “Louise Lagosi” for the individual’s protection. The series addresses our engagement with consumer culture and how marketing and advertising can manipulate us – and society as a whole.
Studies On The Development Of Consumerism
“All civilization in a sense exists only in the mind. Gunpowder, textile arts, machinery, laws, telephones are not themselves transmitted from man to man or from generation to generation, at least not permanently. It is the perception, the knowledge and understanding of them, their ideas in the Platonic sense, that are passed along. Everything social can have existence only through mentality.” -Alfred L. Kroeber, The Superorganic
If you took a time machine back to 200 years ago, you would see families living modest lives: busy working at home tending their vegetable patches or livestock, cooking and eating family dinners, making their own soaps, sewing and mending their own clothes, using what they had down to the last scrap, and buying as few products as they possibly could to maintain the comforts of their lives on their modest incomes.
Fast forward to today, where most American households buy everything they own from a store and consume far more than they actually need; nowadays, community refers to our Facebook friends, we home-make almost nothing for own consumption, we have no idea where our food or other products come from and we dispose of barely used products regularly, in order to replace them with something new for the sake of newness. We’ve become a consumer society which currently consumes approximately 1 1/2 times the amount of resources that the planet can produce annually.
What’s driving our culture toward consuming is a recipe based on keeping up with the Joneses, a rise in societal shopaholism and our basic survival skills at work within society. It’s also safe to say that in the name of industrial prosperity, the economies of Western civilization have pushed us to this point.
So perhaps it should be no surprise that in the eyes of capitalism, we’ve become trapped. Industry marketers and advertising experts have been able to turn our own survival skills against us in the name of turning a profit.
Ever catch your mind wandering while looking at a fashion magazine or a sexy billboard, thinking, “I wish I could have that…” These thoughts may not in fact be yours, rather a direct product of the marketing industry’s labors to grab your attention. Consumer grooming is the method of applying psychologically embedded imagery, strategically placed where they will be seen by the masses, to influence the purchasing choices of the global population. Our human desires to be loved, respected and admired are played upon through airbrushed images modeling sex, status, wealth, and beauty aspirations. This is not a new thing, it’s been in the works since before the Victorian Period.
A portrait of the Astor family stiffly posing, shows the idyllic life of the extremely rich during the Industrial Revolution. While age perhaps has made this image more elegant to our modern eyes, this would be the Victorian equivalent to today’s Kardashian family Christmas card.
Madeline Levine, modern day psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, describes in her book the negative effects affluence has on children growing up in wealthy families due to dramatic changes in American culture as “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.”
The Psychological Underpinnings Of Advertisements
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate“. -Victor Lebrow,Economist, 1955
Consumerism has long had intentional underpinnings. In the 1890s, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen gave sweeping attacks on production for profit, propelling the rise in conspicuous consumerism in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He noted a spreading consumer trend that appeared during the Industrial Revolution with the emergence of nouveau riche moguls who were displaying their wealth and social standing prominently through conspicuous consumption of material goods, ultimately evoking envy among their neighbors.
Apparently their neighbors were taking the bait, right along with the growing middle class. Back in 1899, Veblen, scathingly noted a general trend in society that people were willing to give up their quality of living, their health/family/spiritual life balance, in order to appear wealthy through their dress.
For all his studies and reports, whom did his theories aid the most? It was the industrial businessmen who had much to gain from reading his findings even if he carped at the wealth throughout his work. Many of the conclusions he came to showed that given the opportunity, society could easily be encouraged to consume aggressively through different forms of peer pressure. His theories outlined how wasteful habits of over-consumption was spreading, giving industries, like the fashion and beauty product industries, the key to pushing huge amounts of unnecessary products to unconscious consumers.
By the 1920s, economists such as Paul Nystrom theorized that lifestyle changes brought on by the industrial age were inducing a “philosophy of futility” in the masses, which would only increase fashionable consumption. By the 1930s, advertising executives in a budding industry realized that they could capitalize on the social phenomenon of consumerism by encouraging consumers to compete with their neighbors for social status. In 1932, Earnest Elmo Calkins, a leading ad executive noted to colleagues that “consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.”
Study after study has been written about our social tendency to conform to a collective wasteful behavior. While these studies do not seem to be reaching most of the population to educate, economists and businessmen have been eager to read them, continually thrilled to learn more about the harnessing potential behind the phenomenon of consumerism.
The Arsenal Of Advertisement Aimed At Consumers
The advertising, media, and marketing industries work to create and place ads in front of the people who are most likely to imitate and be influenced by it. Namely this would be people interested in anything related to societal activities: those who follow culture through magazines, TV, movies, or by surfing the net, live in an urban environment, or who at very least, listen to the radio.
In order to do accomplish their goal, the ad industry has come up with continually innovative methods that encourage the social drive to “keep up with the Joneses.” Celebrities since time immemorial have been brought in, images of excessive materialism carefully placed for target audiences to see and in turn, a consumer response to go shopping. This method of advertising has been highly effective at driving sales and has become one of the most effective forms of marketing excessively used today.
Vintage Elizabeth Taylor selling hair cream with a brand slogan attached, appealed to women that wanted to have hair like the iconic Taylor. They didn’t mention that the cream is made with toxic chemicals or that you might need a team of hair stylists along with the cream to achieve her coif.
And Michael Jordan probably sold more shoes for Nike than anyone in history, while making millions doing it. Like Louis Vuitton’s Tribute Patchwork Bag, Nike turned Jordan’s namesake shoes into a “limited edition” to drive consumers into fearing that they might not get a pair. This effectively allowed the company to raise the prices of the products incredibly to meet their high demand, adding consumer status and “value” to the shoes. Quite often the Air Jordan shoes would be back-ordered for months or until the next edition was released.
The fashion media even invented their own celebrities. In the 1980s and 90s supermodels were born when the industries realized that they could draw attention to images featuring favorite “iconic” models, unusual in their looks, who had loads of attitude and glamour. Glamazons like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Cambell, Claudia Schiffer, and Linda Evangelista became household names and were easy to recognize in fashion spreads.
Women fell in love with the images of their beautiful “lifestyles” portrayed in fashion magazines and they achieved celebrity status for their pretty faces and extraordinary physiques. Women poured over their favorite fashion magazines: playing name that model, studying their make-up, hair and styling in an effort to emulate their style, beauty, and allure. Completely distracted by the pretty faces adorned with cosmetics and designer products, the under laying message that was embedded in the images easily sunk in. Of course, one would have to buy the products these beauties were modeling in order to emulate them.
Reality TV shows, featuring made-up, pseudo-celebs, have been devised specifically for product placement.
Superficiality, rage, greed, jealousy, envy, and competitiveness are now gratuitously displayed, on shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, America’s Top Model, and Jersey Girls. All three shows invite viewers to embrace petty drama into their own lives and suggest that celebrity status might follow, even for people who completely lack talent.
The underlying message in all this media-based imagery is, “If you buy our products, you too will be beautiful and admired,” but the obvious question begging to be asked should be, “What are we hiding?”