Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love consumer culture


You’d think I’d be more offended than I am by this anti-consumerist article in the Independent but I’m really not. I think it’s quite accurate and intelligent, although I wouldn’t go so far to give marketers all the credit for creating a consumer culture in developed countries. Certainly they deserve some credit but I also think that democracy, universal education, and a period of seemingly infinite resources had plenty of influence on rising incomes and a demand for the finer things in life. Marketers entered the mix by helping to show off products and make consumers aware of what they could buy with their new disposable income.

I’ve never really thought about the convergence between child and adult consumers, the central premise of Barber’s new book, ‘Consumed’. If his assertion is true – that marketers really have hoodwinked adults to believe that their satisfaction derives from meeting basic, child-like needs (which do not evolve or change beyond seasonal fads), then this might just be the smartest marketing tactic ever dreamed up.

Barber takes umbrage with consumer culture and its costs on the planet. Sure, consuming takes a tremendous environmental toll. The sheer excess of packaging, by-products, and non-biodegradable waste it produces is appalling, to say nothing of the carbon dioxide emissions produced during transportation and manufacture. But what If we could consume with a clean conscience?

Is shopping so wrong if it’s really not hurting anyone?

Is watching lowbrow television so wrong if I enjoy it?

This article rests of the unstable assumption that individuals have some higher moral code that would materialize if given the chance. If modern society wasn’t so blinded by villainous marketers to its gluttonous need for material wealth, we would somehow be better off.

I do not believe that we would be better people if we weren’t consuming so much. We would be exactly the same. Would we really get more done? Would we really invest more in our communities? Would we really spend more time with our children?

OK, so let’s say you start consuming less. You shop locally and you are sensitive to the impact that your actions as a consumer have on society and the environment. You’re satisfied by the good job you’re doing for the planet, whether or not it is making any positive difference. Have you really succeeded in beating the marketing machine? Are you not still being marketed to, just this time with a different message?

Society needs marketing.
Regardless of whether you are a conspicuous or conscious consumer, knowing that your actions have some value, knowing that your life has some purpose, and knowing that by making consumer decisions you make others happy is the greatest validation individuals could ask for.

So this villainous marketer decided to buy ‘Consumed’. And isn’t it ironic how the book itself is a consumer product…

1 comment:

Corenne said...

I've actually read Consumed and Barber's other book, Jihad vs McWorld. Both were fantastic and I would highly recommend them...the language is hard to get through but it's worth it!

Consumed is really not trying to say that traditional advertising (ie billboards and the like) are infantilizing adults. It's more the culture that ads have created have led to a society that values the "quick and easy" over "hard work and delayed rewards" which I agree with. He also makes some very strong points about society's shift away from community and how marketing has created a "me first" culture as opposed to a "we first" culture.