Rise of Consumerism

In this post,  I discussed some of the key things that Americans spend their money on. A couple of readers brought up the concept of consumerism and how it’s made some people with a good income still live on the edge.

This resonated with me as I actually know some of these people. They have solid middle class earnings, yet, they still live paycheck to paycheck. The three categories I talked about before definitely come into play here. Buying more house than you can afford. Having new cars all the time. Eating out a lot.

This was definitely true for one person I knew who’d bought a massive four bedroom home, then his wife quit working when their first child was born. Suddenly, making the mortgage was really hard.

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I decided to do some investigating. Things usually happen for a reason, and I discovered that while the the drive to overspend is huge, it wasn’t always. Consumerism came into play at the same time the cosmetics industry has. I believe for the same reasons.

The rise in consumerism, whether buying a bigger house, new car, or just having stuff is a manufactured need. And it was manufactured on purpose. Consumerism has risen along with advertising and the ability for advertisers to reach large sections of the population. Advertising makes us want things. That’s what it’s designed to do, and it’s no coincidence that consumerism has grown along with increasingly sophisticated ads that target humans’ deepest needs.

 

A little history.

After WWI, corporations were making more stuff than people needed. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers (yes, that Lehman Brothers) wrote, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Rather than rejecting this premise, the US government openly supported it.

Advertising was key, and Mazur knew this, so he recruited Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays began to figure out how to make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass-produced goods to unconscious desires.

  •  He was the first to work with car companies on selling cars as a symbol of masculine sexuality than as a means of getting from point A to point B.
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Seems to work to this day.
  • He helped break the taboo of women smoking so cigarettes companies could sell cigarettes to women. He persuaded a group of debutantes to smoke in public at a parade. He then told the media ahead of time that this was happening, and called the cigarettes “Torches Of Freedom” and linked women smoking with challenging male authority.
  • He pioneered product placement and celebrity endorsements

 

Bernays would continue his work, with future generations further refining their understanding of human desire and preying on/satisfying it. Presidents starting with Herbert Hoover embraced consumerism, and after WWII, the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups launched PR campaigns that linked consumerism with capitalism and glorified both.

Advertising got increasingly sophisticated, and with the advent of social media, people were no longer comparing themselves to the Joneses. They were now comparing themselves to the Kardashians.

It’s been a win all around for businesses, and in some ways, for the consumer as we’ve never had such choice.

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And, companies have had to cater to consumer demand and preferences, pushing froward innovation on computers, social media, and even cars. Remember when there weren’t SUVs or crossovers? Or the focus American car companies have had to put on quality or lose their consumers to Japanese companies.

 

Where Does It Leave Us

Does this mean consumerism is the new normal? That there is no escape from it?

I’m going to argue “no”.

For all the bad rap Millennials regularly get, they are driving some industries to worry. They are more focused on experiences than stuff, and this has the diamond industry very concerned. A Millennial is more likely to skimp on the ring and splash out on a huge honeymoon. They want memories, or as some cynics might say, lots of stuff to post on social media.

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Still, millennials are harder for advertisers to reach, and advertisers are fighting to find ways to get to them.

This inability to reach people is part of the reason why advertisers are terrified of “cord cutting” and consumers moving to Netflix or Amazon Prime for their viewing needs. Why? Because they can’t easily reach large numbers people. They can’t influence us to want their product by making us think it makes us sexier, more worthy of love, of whatever other needs they’re now trying to appeal to.

Advertisers are scrambling to find other ways to reach us. Many of us don’t want to be reached. Amazing how many people pay for an ad-blocking service.

In the advent of the internet, it also makes it more difficult for advertisers as there is no longer a mass market. The internet makes it much easier for niche markets to take hold, and for very personalized preferences to be met.

 

My Experience

I can say I’ve seen a significant change in my home when we “cut the cord” (got rid of all cable and even regular TV) in 2009. It was the Great Recession, and we had to trim expenses. Cable was an easy one for us. (So was our gym membership, but that’s another story!).

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We’ve never looked back. After seven years of being close to commercial free, you find yourself a little outside the “cutting edge” of pop culture, but we’ve learned to accept that, too. And if there’s a show you really want to watch, you can usually purchase the individual episodes or find them for free a few days later.

When we’ve gone to a friend’s house and they happened to have a football game on, we were astounded at how many commercials there were.

Afterward, we looked at the average kids’ show our daughters watch. They range between 20 and 22 minutes for a 30 minute time slot. That means a full 1/3 of a child’s show is advertising!

There’s a reason our kids’ Christmas lists are small (other than them being a little spoiled), and why we can walk down the cereal aisle and walk out with only Cheerios and no tears.

 

 

What do you think? Do you see the side-effects of consumerism? Maybe you’ve experienced them? Know someone who has? Do you think advertisers create desire? Do you think they’re part of consumerism?