Creating the Consumer
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The want to consume is nothing new. It is has been around for millennia. People need to consume resources to survive. However, consumption has evolved as people have ingeniously found ways to help make their lives simpler and/or to use their resources more efficiently. Of course, with this has come the want to control such means. Hence, the consumption patterns have evolved over time based on the influence of those who can control it. As a result, there is tremendous waste within this system, to maintain such control and such disparities. (This will be discussed in more detail later as well.)
This web page has the following sub-sections:
Lavish consumption used to be for the highly privileged
The full-blown commercialized consumption that most in the wealthy nations (and the wealthier in poor nations) partake in today is not something that has always been around. It has been largely expanded in the twentieth century. Even in the United States, England and other European nations around the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century, consumption by most was based on necessities. Saving and being frugal was the norm for most, and spending on “luxuries” was typically frowned upon and seen as wasteful. Of course, the wealthy elite of the time would spend heavily and extravagantly, as they had done for centuries.
On the one hand, religions and other belief systems that promoted limited consumption were supported by the wealthy elite to help sustain disparities and maintain control over the majority of people. (In many cases, those aspects of certain religions that were useful for the wealthy were promoted over other aspects.) For example, J.W. Smith in his book, Economic Democracy; Political Struggle of the 21st Century, describes in detail how Christianity was used in Europe in the Middle Ages for such purposes.
Yet, at the same time, other religions and belief systems that also promoted more limited, but careful consumption for all, also sprung up in partial protest at disparities and so forth, such as Jainism and Buddhism in Asia (as did Christianity and most other major religions and belief systems). So restricting consumption was a political tool for dominance in the past, while the problems of excessive or conspicuous consumption were nonetheless recognized centuries back.
Another aspect of limited consumption in the past was due to the scarcity of resources. Not in the sense that there were necessarily less resources in the past than today, but more that the ability to extract and use them made them more limited. With new technological advancements and so on, additional resources became accessible that were not available before.
Accompanying this though, was the want to dominate and control both the access to these resources and the means to produce from these. As city-states evolved and further became nation states, such domination was used to protect the lifestyle and dominance of the wealthy. While all would like to be able to afford a more comfortable living standard, in the past, there was harsh control over oppressed and poor people, so the wealthy could lavishly consume in comparison. Benefit from expansion of new trade routes, military conquest, technological developments, etc. would lead to further suppression of the ruled subjects to keep and attain more wealth and power. Those patterns also continue today, as we shall see later.
J.W. Smith draws a parallel of the political ramifications of concentrated consumption in the past, plus some of its purpose, with some of todays:
As historians McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb point out in their book, The Birth of a Consumer Society (Hutchinson, 1983), while the want to consume was nothing new, “[i]t was the ability to do so, which was new” in eighteenth century England and other places. (See p.2, emphasis is original.) As they go on to point out further:
In the above quote, note is taken (by emphasis) on how the poor were denied the wealth of the rich of that time. We can draw parallels today that while those oppressed and subjugated classes within the rich nations managed to attain some additional (but not all) rights and privileges (which included the ability to consume more), the same denial to the poor has continued through to today in the form of the so-called Third World. The structural adjustment policies and other economic systems as described on this web site, show how the majority of the world have been kept impoverished so that the First World has been able to continue it’s lifestyle, which today is marked by high consumption.
Hence, we see that
- The want to consume is nothing new. It is has been around for millennia.
- People need to consume resources to survive.
- However, consumption has evolved as people have ingeniously found ways to help make their lives simpler and/or to use their resources more efficiently.
- With this though, as power structures have developed and played themselves out, the want to control such means has also developed.
- Hence, the consumption patterns have evolved over time based on the influence of those who can control it. In addition, as J.W. Smith has hinted in the quote above, there is tremendous waste within this system, to maintain such control and such disparities. These issues are still present today, but of course harder to see because we live within it (this issue of waste will be discussed in more detail later as well).
“Supply-side” economics helped create mass consumerism
The enormous wealth coming from the colonized countries contributed immensely to an industrial revolution in England and other parts of Europe. With this and the growing merchant class, traditional forms of labor looked to be almost irreversibly changing. As summarized by Richard Robbins, Professor of Anthropology at State University New York at Plattsburgh in talking about the era of the industrialist and some of the impacts, the changing meaning of wealth, production and the wealth-producing process affected much of society:
(Note that while the above describes the changes during the industrial revolution, one can also say that today with globalization, the same should occur around the world and that all should be able to afford and consume more of the world’s products. However, unequal pay combined with unequal trade between unequal regions leads to a massive imbalance, whereby the majority of the world’s poor cannot afford the types of products typically made, and end up servicing the consumption of the wealthier. This is a large topic in and of itself, but for more, you can see this web site’s section on structural adjustment, also mentioned above.)
While the above quote by McKendrick et al. pointed out that lavish consumption was concentrated in the domain of the wealthy elite, the “crisis” of over production in the nineteenth century created a platform from which consumption could grow and spread to an enormous number of people to help create mass consumerism. As Robbins describes:
Therefore, from a crisis of overproduction, many large challenges had to be overcome to encourage more people to consume. (Note just one parallel with today — as President George Bush has come into power in the United States, and as the problem of overproduction and decreasing demands hits home as well, his policies, especially seen in his energy policies, are about trying to increase consumption.) As McKendrick et al continued from the above:
McKendrick et al continue to also point out that these changes were more than just processes in the world of advertising and selling, fashion and credit; it importantly touched things like:
- Commercialization of leisure;
- of childhood;
- Invention and creation
- Economic, intellectual and social adjustments
A change of culture was needed to increase consumption
In his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), Richard Robins describes that for the rise of consumerism in the United States to occur, buying habits had to be transformed and luxuries had to be made into necessities. He describes numerous ways in which this was accomplished (pp. 14 - 24):
- A major transformation in the meaning of goods and how they were presented and displayed. This included:
- The evolution of the department store into a place to display goods as objects in themselves. Orchestras, piano players, flower arrangements, and so on would be used to “present goods in a way that inspired people to buy them. The department store became a cultural primer telling people how they should dress, furnish their homes, and spend their leisure time.” (p. 15, emphasis added)
- Advertising was another “revolutionary development” to influence the creation of the consumer. (See also this web site’s media section on advertising and the relationship with consumers.)
- The idea of fashion would help in the “stirring up of anxieties and restlessness over the possession of things that were not ‘new’ or ‘up-to-date’. Fashion pressured people to buy not out of need but for style — from a desire to conform to what others defined as ‘fashionable.’” (p. 16)
- Creation of, as well as improvement of service also helped. Customers were to be treated like guests. The adage of “the customer is always right” rings true here.
- A transformation of the major institutions of American society, each redefining its function to include the promotion of consumption.
- Robbins notes that, “Educational and cultural institutions, governmental agencies, financial institutions, and even the family itself changed their meaning and function to promote the consumption of commodities.” (p. 17)
- Education for example would be expanded from production/manufacturing knowledge to include things like accounting, marketing, sales, etc. Business schools popped up in many places.
- Robbins also describes the setting up of the U.S. Commerce Department in 1921, under Herbert Hoover, as a clear example of the increasing role of the federal government in the promotion of consumption. As he points out:
Robbins further shows how individual home ownership was also emphasized. This increases the amount of resources that are used, as well as increasing sales for related industries. Robbins is worth quoting again here:
- Workers had to be given buying power in order to be able to create a consumer economy. This was accomplished via things like
- higher wages
- expanding consumer credit. An effect of this credit was to increase consumer debt, while creating mass markets for consumer goods that stimulated economic growth.
But the issue of credit and consumer debt has been making headlines in recent years
Around 2001, the issue of rising consumer debt in America was fairly constant news on the mainstream media, yet the habit of saving in comparison was rarely promoted!
On May 3, 2003, the Britain’s BBC aired a documentary titled “Spend Spend Spend” (a second of a three-part series, the first of which is mentioned further below). They looked at the issue of consumerism and credit, mostly in Britain, and is summarized here:
- 45 years ago, there were no credit cards in Britain.
- The U.S. had introduced the world’s first credit card in the 1950s with dramatic success, allowing people to buy things that could not have been imagined before for some people.
- But it was harder initially, to convince the British public into accepting the credit card. Anothony Snow, Account Director of Barclaycard (a leading bank and credit card company in U.K.) from 1965-70, was one of many who went to the U.S. to see how they did it, to try and apply it in the U.K. A number of things were attempted to break through the resistance. He described some examples:
- In 1966, Barclays launched the Barclays Card, introduced as a “shopping card” rather than a credit card.
- Barclays then aimed it at women to show they could shop wherever and whenever they wanted. This also would have an effect of breaking the mold of the husband of the household owning the money flow.
- But the Bank’s agenda, the documentary said, was to make the shopping card a credit card, and so they extended the payback period.
- It would be more profitable for the bank if people did not pay back in full immediately, but instead pay in smaller parts, because of the interest that would be added.
- But in the 1960s the British government tried to stop it, though eventually relaxed their attempts because, as an internal memo revealed, there was a belief that such a significant amount of credit could never be involved as feared. (How wrong they would be!)
- By the 80s well after credit restrictions were lifted, credit cards were well accepted with millions of customers rather than being looked upon negatively as in previous years.
- Today most adults have a credit card in Britain.
- But they also have an average of 6,400 British pounds (about 10,000 U.S. dollars) in credit card debts and loans, the highest in Europe. “Its what the critics feared; its what the bankers hoped for, though I don’t think anyone realized how far it would go,” commented Leslie Hannah, Chief Executive of Ashridge Management College.
- By the 1970s shopping habits had been transformed by credit.
- Recession at that time meant new techniques were needed to get people to consume.
- One way was by major designer brand companies, formerly targetting exclusively to elites now started producing for the high street and for ordinary people.
- Michael Gross, a New York fashion journalist commented that, “Designer products are to a certain extent, a con. But the con is that you are paying for the marketing.”
- Calvin Klein jeans, for example, were really jeans contracted out and just given the CK label. Their Obsession fragrance was made by Unilever.
- But brand loyalty is a hot selling device. “The triumph of designer labels is that most of us have almost unwittingly fallen into line. Whether it is mass market brands ... or exlcusive brands ... branding is now all pervasive” as the documentary highlighted.
- “A huge reason why people buy designer clothes and crave designer labels is insecurity,” according to Alice Rawsthorn, Head of Design Museum, London. “Its very simple psychological way of somehow placating people or convincing them that they have bought the right thing so they don’t feel nervous about the symbols of consumption that they associate themselves with. it sort of gives them that guarantee that if Prada designed a certain type of clothing, Prada is the right look to have.”
- “Aided by easier credit and seduced by the designer revolution, consumers in the 80s just couldn’t stop borrowing and spending,” continued the documentary. “With the ‘buy now pay later’ culture gethering pace, the economy had started to become increasingly sensitive to consumer behaviour. Sudden changes to spending could bring disaster.”
- Alarmed by the boom, the government in the 80s was unable to put a tax on credit, that it wanted to do, due to political pressures, that it would be unpopular. With consumer spending soaring and risking the British economy over-heating the interest rates shot up to 15% at one point. The spending revolution bust for a while.
- Consumer spending rose in the 90s. This time, the area was technology such as mobile phones. In just less than a decade the UK market for mobile phones had saturated. For the phone industry to survive, the documentary said, consumers today need to buy into the phones more often than their grandparents did the car.
- “Speeded up obsolesence” is a phrase the documentary used where by the speed at which things get obsolete is so quick that this is to keep the cycle going.
- In Britain, 1 million people are thought to have a serious shopping addiction. In the U.S., it is 5 million. “You're urged to buy and you are urged to define yourself by what you have and what you can buy and what you own.... so I think it is a matter of some people being more vulnerable to this, than others,” said Dr. Lorrin Koran, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. “Its not just individuals who are addicted to shopping, our economy is too. Personal spending now plays a bigger and bigger role in keeping the modern economy going. And when things start going wrong, there is no magic pill. Governments rely on consumers to bail them out. There was a very real fear that September 11 would cause spenders to lose confidence and plunge the world into recession. ‘Keep spending’ was the plea. [The documentary showed the former New York mayor, Guliani urging people to spend, shortly after 9-11, in order to help the economy, as well as other ads of a similar nature]. So shopping is now the new patriotism. Keeping people spending has become the top economic priority.”
- “The economic dream. We refuse to let anyone take it away. So GM announces interest free financing ... ‘Keep America rolling’ says another documentary” as this documentary was concluding.
- The documentary also highlighted the price that consumers may have paid. “In Britain, consumers fell happily into line. Spending soared, the economy prospered. But this new consumer boom, as in the 80s has been paid for by record borrowing. Now consumers, worried by debt and the Iraq war, have started to tighten their belts — the economy is paying the price. Up to now, Britain’s shopping obsession has helped keep the economy afloat, but it has meant huge personal debt.”
Side NoteCurrently in many parts of the world, the level of consumption, in comparison is low. With “corporate-led” globalization, the fear is that these negative aspects of consumerism will be pushed throughout the world as well. What is not clear is the cultural resistance to this, and also how different cultures will also assimilate this with their own blend of consumerism, and whether or not the same problems would show up, or not, or if they would be different. Studies are slowly coming out on this aspect (some showing negative signs others showing signs of more choice and freedoms for people) and over time hopefully I will be able to highlight some of those here.
- There had to be a “change in spiritual and intellectual values from an emphasis on
such values as thrift, modesty, and moderation, toward a value system that encouraged spending and
ostentatious display.” (p.21)
- This was seen especially from 1880 to 1930.
- Robbins further details how religious movements, which became known as “mind cure religions”, became (quoting research from William Leach) “wish-oriented, optimistic, sunny, the epitome of cheer and self-confidence, and completely lacking in anything resembling a tragic view of life.”
- That is, a more materialistic view on things like life and relationships with others, etc. would tend to be encouraged or promoted.
While the above from Robbins is based on looking at the U.S., he points out that this also happened in Europe, such as in France, Britain and Germany, but “it happened with the most intensity and rapidity in America.” (p.22).
On March 31, 2002, Britain’s BBC aired a documentary called The Century of the Self. It explored how psychology contributed to increasing individualism in post World War II America. From its social and political activism beginnings it was ultimately turned on itself and used and understood by corporate America to create more diverse products for consumers. But, as well as meeting consumer desires, there was a more fundamental political and economic reason for promoting individualism. The documentary described the social, economic and political aspects behind this:
- In the 1960s especially, there was a growing student-based and civil right movement, and amongst many other things there was activism (some of it quite militant) and criticism about corporations and their exploitive drive for profits and the already increasing mass consumerism that was creating conformity. (The Vietnam protests are perhaps the most well-discussed aspects of this movement.)
- With increasing activism, this had a possibility of threatening political stability for powerholders, and economic stability for corporate America, as students and the young are the consumers of the future. For such large numbers to be rebeling was already impacting some industries.
- Corporate America as well as the political elite had to naturally try to regain some of the desired conformity which would help a stable and predictable political economy. Methods of psychological research were deployed by corporate America and various research institutions to understand and categorize people into predictable behaviors and be able to get people to express their individuality by purchasing products they would have produced for meeting those needs.
- Economically, this contributed to a rise in the American economy which up to that point was facing a lot of unemployment and slow down (though there would still be booms and busts to follow).
- Politically the impact could perhaps be seen as more significant:
- This support for individualism was seen as very valuable because it was a form of subtly imposed social control, whereby it would individualize people in a way that would remove or loosen the strong political and social activism, as people would turn inwards to themselves only.
- A group of people who were once concerned about social issues were largely transformed into exploring and fulfilling their individual desires through the purchase of material goods.
- At a time when left wing political parties would be seen as championing social causes, candidates like Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, would appeal to the expression of individualism, to gain appeal, support and power.
The same documentary continued April 7, 2002, to also detail how this affected political parties in USA and UK. Thatcher and Reagan had started off a new drive towards increased individualism and increasing consumerism and getting people to express their own personal needs, without requiring or demanding any needs for society. Subsequent parties and their leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair also found that they too had to change their party’s ways and ideals to meet the desires of consumers. Democratic participation had become more about expressing needs and wants.
The documentary pointed out that this shaping of people’s choices and opinions came from the pressures and skills of big business, to which now even governments had to succumb to gain power. In this way, the documentary had pointed out an irony in that the drive for individualism had made people feel unique and not driven by big government or big business in their lives and choices, and yet it was big business that had been able to influence deeply both individuals and governments; people’s desires were being listened to, but people’s democratic rights and broader powers were being undermined; a process that has been attempted for centuries by the elites of the time.
With these types of transformations, the consumer society has evolved in such a way, that consumption and consumerism (for good and bad) is identified as being at the core of a modern culture and society.
Consumerism drives most aspects of our lives today
The BBC also aired a documentary called “Shopology” (September 2nd and 9th, 2001) where psychologists looked into the psychology of shopping and consumerism in places like Britain, USA and Japan and asked if it was healthy for consumers. Of the many points they raised, they pointed out that:
- Consumption now helps to define and answer who we are
- Social definition revolves around consumption (which is heavily commercialized)
- That we essentially “buy” a lifestyle
- Brands help turn perceptions into reality, thus encouraging purchases based on fashion and peer/social pressures to fit in.
- Consumerism can increase stress for various reasons
- To deal with social and consumerism pressures and their effects, people may on occasion resort to what psychologist term as “compensatory consumption” — that is, consuming even more to feel better (similar to how one might feel tempted to take alcohol to relieve stress). This is ironic because this additional consumption often stems from the culture of consumerism itself.
- Rising consumer debt puts pressure on families
- Malls are carefully designed to create appropriate moods to indirectly encourage buying (this is a similar parallel to how department stores evolved, as described above, except that from a department store, it now includes entire malls.)
The BBC focused on the impact on consumers in wealthy countries, which is important to consider. Additionally however, consumerism by the wealthy is also at the expense of the poor around the world (the majority of people) which has enormous ramifications. This will be introduced in the rest of this web site’s section on consumption.
On April 27, 2003, the BBC aired another documentary, as part of a 3-part series called Spend Spend Spend. The first part looked at the issues of whether or not the increased wealth and consumerism had led to more content and satisfied individuals. The documentary made some interesting observations:
- Research evidence seemed to suggest that increased wealth did not necessarily lead to more content and satisfaction, in Britain.
- Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University said that the key reason for this was because as we get wealthier there is often a tendency to compare more with others, which contributes to more anxiety. The “keeping up with the Jones’” syndrome.
- As we get wealthier, so do our expectations and the people we caompare ourselves with change, from peers and neighbours, to the likes of celebreties. (The increase in media attention on celebreties contributes to this.)
- In various experiments conducted by Professor Oswald on relationships between wealth and happiness he found that some two thirds of people were willing to reduce what they had if it meant others would lose out and be worse off.
- The impllications of this is profound. As Oswald suggested, it is “hard to make society happier as they get richer and richer because human beings look constantly over their shoulders. Thats the curse of human beings; making comparisons.” Side NoteThe professor didn’t clarify if this was the case for all cultures, as most of his experiements appeared to be with British citizens and the documentary focused on Britain and also mentioned the United States.
- It used to be a question of what we will do with all the spare time that the increased affluence and increased consumption of consumer goods would have led to. This promise was often made in the 1950s and 1960s, but “it hasn’t quite turned out that way” as the documentary said.
- Britain works longer hours than other European countries and time is getting increasingly precious. Side NoteCompared to some other European countries, Britains also get paid relatively less in many fields.
- The documentary noted how increasingly, extremely wealthy people were employing services such as personal trainers, shopping services, and even services to organize their lives.
- As the documentary also added, “the average American now works a whole month more a year that in the 1970s — one of the main reasons why happiness there reached a peak in 1957 and has been going down since.”
- Professor Juliet Schor, of Harvard University and author of The Overworked American added that the “culture of long hours has spread like cancer” in the U.S. leading to more divorces, and other social problems. Spending has been one way to compensate for the loss of time.
- The increased affluence for some people has contributed to a decline in national services such as health and education.
- UK, one of the most affluent countries in the world spends less than 40% on national services, while Europe spends some 45%.
- As we have got richer we have spent a lower and lower share of wealth on public services and more on ourselves. Private wealth has prospered at the expense of public spending. Side NoteThere is a pervasive ideology of reducing spending on public services noted by the demonization of “big government.” True, in many cases, government excess can be over-bureaucratic and stifle individual’s innovative abilities. Yet, at the same time the wealthy sometimes seem to forget that they have benefitted themselves from public services which serve to slightly address inequality. In some cases arguments are often heard such as “why should my taxes go to those people who got themselves into this mess, or should work hard to get out of it, rather than wait for handouts and charity” sometimes ignoring that other social conditions may have contributed to some people’s problems. As mentioned on the poverty part of this site, inequality is a major cause of societal problems. It is therefore in the interest of the wealthy to also give back to society, rather than demand even more from it, while also important to address the causes of deep inequality as well.
- In the 1980s and 1990s after the 1960s policies of expanding public services, they started to decline. Side NoteThis was in line with the resurgence of the ideology of neoliberalism under the the Raegan and Thatcher eras.
- This saw the increasing affluence of a few while public services for the majority started to go into decline. The documentary pointed out how poorer members of society in U.K. suffered from disempowerment and a feeling of hopelessness to varying degrees.
- Yet as works by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and others have shown, and as also discussed elsewhere on this site, the public wealth (or lack of) helps everyone, rich and poor. To neglect them contributes to societal decay, such as increased crime, which affects both the wealthy and the poor alike.
- As Professor Schor summarized, people who care how much money they make, about their possessions, about their wealth, financial and economic status are often more depressed, and have a lower self-esteem.
- To make up for this and also to make up for getting 'bored' of the posessions already obtained, you spend more to buy more things.
- Research suggests social connections, marital status and health are what makes ultimate happy lives.
The documentary therefore began to hint at the complex relationships between poverty, inequality, wealth and consumerism. Beyond just simple economic theories, there are other factors such as politics and culture that are involved.
Hence, consumerism has come a long way, and involves a lot of money too:
A vivid example of this increasing consumption and its associated impacts is the use and promotion of consumption by children, which we look at next.
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