So you are walking through a grocery store, a mall, basically anywhere, and there are thousands of things all vying for your attention at once. All colorful, all eye-catching, all trying to succeed at their one purpose: for you to notice them and want to buy them. Every day, we are constantly bombarded with stuff, and our role as consumers demands we buy it. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of consumerism for years, wondering why people continue to shop when it won’t necessarily lead to happiness and life satisfaction. Tiny houses first caught my eye as an alternative to a typical consumer lifestyle. As I delved deeper into consumerism, I wanted to know why people ultimately choose to live in a smaller space with smaller stuff. I realized that America’s capitalist and consumer society often breeds waste and unhappiness. But have we always been so attached material goods? How did we transition from agrarian societies to booming metropolises dedicated to accumulating wealth?
Where it all Started
For the majority of human history, people have been poor — only owning material goods necessary for survival. According to The School of Life’s short film on the history of consumerism, in the early 18th century, the economies of northwest Europe expanded and wages rose. For the first time in history, families were able to shop for small luxuries and comforts that had previously only been available to the wealthy. Thus, the mid 18th century saw the first consumer revolution (The School of Life). As those luxuries became more readily available, the wealthy continually sought out new forms of class distinction—status symbols—to separate themselves from the middle and lower classes (“The Consumer Revolution”). The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation wrote in their “Consumer Revolution” article that “each group sought to stay ahead of the folks below, so the wheel of changing fashion turned faster and faster….The increasingly frantic pace of change and the widening range of peoples caught up in it propelled the consumer revolution” (“The Consumer Revolution”). Material items started becoming symbols for people’s rank, identifying their economic and social class wherever they traveled in America (“The Consumer Revolution”).
Above are some popular brands and products that are today’s status symbols.
Consumerism in America
As for the beginnings of consumerism in America, mercantilism in the colonies contributed to the rise of consumerism by encouraging exports — for example, the production of tobacco (“The Consumer Revolution”). Virginians profited quickly from exporting tobacco to England, allowing them to buy more manufactured goods from Britain (“The Consumer Revolution”). The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 required all planters to bring their tobacco to established public warehouses for inspection. Planters would then receive transfer notes, that would eventually become a sort of currency, and many people who were not full-time planters grew tobacco on the side to bring in a little extra cash (“Middlemen and Foreign Bottoms”). People could use the notes to obtain credit and buy goods at any time of the year, resulting in a complex credit system with many stores opening near warehouses (“The Consumer Revolution”). The credit system and easy way to gain extra cash by growing tobacco allowed for more people to consume goods and buy status symbols.
New technologies in farming and manufacturing created during the United States’ Industrial Revolution allowed for one person to produce more in less time. According to the historian Sharon Beder, from 1860 to 1920, production in the United States went up 12 to 14 times while the population increased by only three times (Beder). David Blanke argues in Sowing the American Dream that, “As farm mechanization proceeded, as the transportation infrastructure expanded, and as manufacturers and suppliers increasingly reached for farmers’ pocketbooks, consumers who did participate developed a broader appreciation for their place within this new marketplace” (“Breaking the Prairie and Taming the Market”). Large department stores, such as Sears, began distributing mail order catalogues all across the country in 1894, and for the first time, consumers could order every item they needed. From farming equipment to toiletries, all items could be ordered at ease right from one’s own home (“History of the Sears Catalog”). Increased availability of goods due to technological innovation now allowed for a consumer class all over America.
This is a digital copy of one of the first Sears catalogues.
Production in the early twentieth century saw the end to the Malthusian problem. The theory by Thomas Malthus is that population will grow exponentially, but food and resources will grow linearly. Since we now had the ability to mass produce goods, we could match the population growth with the food and resources needed. The question became what to do with the excess of items produced (Renouard). At the time, there were two schools of thought on this issue (Beder). Intellectuals and leaders of reform movements favored lowering working hours and producing only what is needed (Beder). The opposite view was held mostly by economists and business people: keep working hours the same length and cultivate consumer desires to make people want to buy up the excess (Beder).
The Role of Advertising
Now, you might be able to guess which solution to overproduction was chosen due to your real life experience. You have probably seen advertisements in your day to day life subtly influencing your consumer desires. The goal of advertisers is to influence buyers to buy their products by using emotion and basic human needs. In the 1920’s, corporations began advertising in order to cultivate consumer desires and dissolve the old mindset of thrifting and economizing that stopped people from participating in a consumption-based culture (Beder). According to Sharon Beder, advertising was used not only to increase mass consumerism, but to also shift focus from people’s discontent in the workplace to advertisers’ assurances that happiness and satisfaction would come from consumption: “[people’s] frustrations and unhappiness could then be directed towards buying rather than political protest against working conditions or other elements of industrial society” (Beder). Advertising was, and still is, greatly utilized to influence consumers to buy up excess goods from overproduction.
What’s the big deal?
What really is the problem with consumerism? It seems to be good for the economy; it encourages the cycle of buying and selling products. However, people are attempting to satisfy their basic needs like food, shelter, education, safety, and healthcare through the acquisition of goods. Granted, some of those things do require consuming goods like buying a house, but consumerism also promotes buying even if you do not have the means (like that house). It supports a culture where making money in order to consume is so important, the means of acquiring wealth, be it equitably, fairly or legally, lose significance. Additionally, contrary to what the idea consumerism would have you believe, material goods do not actually make you happier after your basic needs are met. According to Tori De Angelis, “when people organize their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems” (De Angelis). Additionally, Dr. Ryan Howell states in Psychology Today that materialistic values and purchasing behaviors can have the undesirable outcomes of “compulsive and impulsive spending, increased debt, decreased savings, depression, social anxiety, decreased subjective well-being, and less psychological need satisfaction” (Howell). So, the problem with consumerism is that it cultivates a culture focused on obtaining happiness through material goods as opposed to happiness gained from time with friends and family, relationships, and experiences (De Angelis).
Telling Americans to buy less stuff will probably not go over well. Instead, focusing consumer spending to have a different goal might help people increase their levels of happiness. In the YouTube video linked below, Michael Norton explains how buying goods for other people leads to a higher reported satisfaction and happiness in people no matter where they are in the world. His idea does not require giving up material possessions in pursuit of a freer lifestyle.
Advertising plays a key role in influencing consumer spending. Currently, it focuses on promoting products, and thus the idea that products will create happiness. If advertising can influence what we buy so profoundly, then think of the impact it could have if used to promote common morals. The advertising industry does not need to stop influencing what we buy, rather it needs to do so in a more sincere and genuine manner. A beginning look at what advertisements in the future could be like is the web browser Intently. It replaces the ads you see on your computer with pictures and quotations designed to motivate you and remind you of your goals. Intently uses the advertising industry’s tools to reprogram your subconscious. The advertising industry has the power to utterly transform people’s thoughts and values if they recycle their own tool into a power for good and happiness.
Combining Michael Norton’s idea of buying for others and Intently’s ad replacement idea has the possibility to create a vastly different society. One where people are less focused on the acquisition of goods to increase their happiness and more focused on community and actually achieving goals. This way, the United States can still preserve its capital markets. The United States can still have a consumer class. It’s the focus and intent that will hopefully be different.
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