It’s hard to imagine what our society would look like without consumerism. Indeed, it has defined much of modern Western culture. But where did this economic order originate? Consumerism as we know it can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century as the product of a calculated strategy informed by developments in the field of psychology. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often considered the father of consumerism. He applied his knowledge of the field for sophisticated marketing purposes. Huge advances in machinery allowed for mass production and far greater exploitation of resources. Capacity for global trade and access to cheap foreign labour paved the way for the Western world to become increasingly focused on non-essential services within the economy. The abundance that resulted from the “green revolution” in Western countries resulted in far cheaper prices for food. Access to disposable income meant that many now had money they could either save or spend. For true consumerism to emerge, these masses needed to be convinced that it was worth buying non-essential products. Marketing then successfully changed people’s perception of non-essential products from things they wanted to things they needed, ultimately embedding consumerism into our culture.
“Usually it is the image which has been created around the product or service which…gratifies an underlying psychological need.”
As things stand, we are encouraged to buy things we don’t really need under the illusion that by buying them we can acquire happiness. To some extent, the products we buy may give a sense of happiness, but not because the product or service itself provides happiness. Usually it is the image which has been created around the product which gives a sense of being part of something greater, and therefore gratifies an underlying psychological need. As social animals, our search for belonging often pushes us to conform to what we perceive to be normal or popular. The fashion industry is a good example of this. We no longer wear our shoes or clothes until they wear out, instead we constantly replace them in an attempt to keep up with the latest trends, which are often constructed and driven by the manufacturers themselves to keep us buying their products.
This is where the ingenious capabilities of marketing come in. In fact, marketing can make the difference between a product’s success or failure. A useful product with poor marketing could end up being a market failure, while a useless product with good marketing can go on to sell millions. Successful marketing imprints an initial desire in the product and then has the consumers themselves propagate the desirability of the product itself by sheer popularity. Children wanting a certain toy because their friends have it, or adults wanting a car because it is popular are two examples. The general trend is that we want what we don’t have, but only when we are made aware of the fact that we don’t have it. This marketing of apparent ideals can seriously harm society since it can leave people feeling as though they are not good enough because of what they own.
“Basic urges such as hunger and thirst…are at the highest risk of being exploited.”
Through our constant exposure to ads, we have become extremely vulnerable to manipulation. Ads surround us wherever we go; on billboards, on shop fronts, and on media platforms. Numerous methods are used to engage us with new products. A product may be sold at a discount for a limited time, creating a sense of urgency. The goal is to push consumers into buying the product before it is too late, even if they wouldn’t have otherwise considered buying it. Other ads may emphasise the limited availability or exclusivity of a product for similar effect. Research on such marketing techniques has shown that it can induce aggression between consumers since they perceive each other as competition for the product in question. The chaos that Black Friday sales have triggered are just one such example. Research like this highlights the extent to which marketing exploits our most basic instincts so that we serve the market rather than vice versa. Basic urges such as hunger and thirst, which are obvious evolutionary adaptations, are of the highest vulnerability to being exploited. The sheer number of food and drink products which exist are testament to just how open we are to being manipulated into buying and consuming more food than we really need and, in many cases, more than is even healthy for us.
Public health campaigns pointing out the dangers of unhealthy eating and overconsumption fight an uphill battle, when we consider that their reach is far surpassed by ads for fast food and snacks – the very products which they are trying to dissuade us from consuming. This phenomenon also highlights the duplicity of the marketing sector, capable on the one hand of manipulating the consumer to generate a profit while on the other hand working to the opposite effect when employed by public health agencies. It is difficult to reconcile consumerist economic policies with the notion of healthy levels of consumption, given that an over-consuming society is an inevitable consequence of consumerism.
“Our hopes and desires are targeted and we begin to associate the product with those positive feelings and the lifestyle depicted.”
Ads on TV and YouTube have the advantage of having sound as well as being visual, and so can connect with us effectively at an emotional level. They often portray happy, attractive people who are having a good time or living a certain lifestyle. By doing this, our hopes and desires are targeted and we begin to associate the product with those positive feelings and the lifestyle depicted. Of course, ads portraying the dangers of smoking or drink-driving also target our emotions by associating negative feelings with these actions. Although the intention in such cases is often benign since they dissuade us from doing a particular thing, we must nevertheless be wary of the tendency to allow the “packaging” to take precedence in our minds over the intrinsic value of a product or a behaviour. Increasingly our minds are influenced by processes which are largely virtual.
The emergence of the internet and its usage of cookies has given advertisers the opportunity to increase the reach of their ads and more importantly the ability to tailor ads to us based on our interests. This results in recommendations for products which are similar to those we may have recently bought, but also reminders for products we may have already searched online but have not yet purchased.
Reducing our exposure to ads and products is impossible, but it is possible to reduce the extent to which we buy into the attractive façade they present. This can only be done by constantly reminding ourselves of the manipulative nature of advertisers who can convince us to buy products we certainly don’t need and maybe don’t even want.
On a wider scale, the definition of consumerism as “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable” gives us some food for thought on the underlying problem. It raises the question whether what is economically desirable should automatically be considered desirable as a whole. From an environmental perspective, the answer is inevitably no, given that the consumerism of Western economies has led to enormous per-capita emissions and unprecedented consumption of finite resources. The long overdue and now urgent need for a move away from a consumerist economy requires a fresh approach to how the necessary exchanges and transactions of a complex world can function in the service of local and global communities and their long-term stability.
In general, enriching our lives involves focusing on direct experiences of our personal interactions and surroundings which serve as concrete realities in a world of constructed ideals. At a global level, we need to reconsider the idea of a thriving economy in terms of the underlying meaning of the Greek root “eco”, which is “house” or “household”. We must acknowledge that in a globalised economy, humanity cannot afford to ignore that we share one single and irreplaceable home.