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Just Say No

The Manufactured Need

by JOHN K. WHITE

In a self-interested society, competition is king and individualism reigns supreme, nowhere more evident than in the world of advertising, which peddles lifestyles instead of products, ignorance over intelligence, and wants rather than needs. But such thinking is a “race to the bottom,” resulting in greater inequality and widening economic disparity. What’s worse, when we fall for scrubbing bubbles, bouncy hair, and “plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” how much easier is it to stomach the bigger lies like war in the name of peace, trickle-down economics, or a 6,000-year-old world where glaciers don’t melt?

According to advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, “Our job is to make advertising that sells, and the advertising that sells best is advertising that builds brands.” Responsible for the likes of Huggies Happy Babies and the Barbie Fan Club, such ad masters know that name recognition is best served up in oft-repeated slogans such as “Don’t leave home without it” and “Schweppervesence,” which in fact serve only to increase the costs of everyday purchases. Increasing from $500 million in 1950, advertising expenditures today are more than $500 billion worldwide. The sizzle not the steak. Style over substance. Mad men insane.

The most damning indictment of our permanently switched-on consumerism is the dumbing down of critical analysis, which encourages a minimal understanding of products and ideas. In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole,Benjamin Barber noted that “for consumer capitalism to prevail you must make kids consumers or consumers kids. That is to say, smarten up the kids—‘empower’ them as spenders; and dumb down the grown-ups, disempower them as citizens.” Disempowered citizens willing to believe what they’re told and to buy without thinking. Peter Pans with pockets full.

But the purpose of a market is choice, which comes not from a predetermined menu but from a wide spectrum of possibilities. The citizen-consumer decides, freely choosing between Product A and Product B, Politician 1 versus Politician 2, based on need and purpose. Instead, we choose the easy over the hard, the simple over the complex, watchwords for a disconnected society. A Roger Federer Rolex versus a Brad Pitt Tag Heuer is not choice. Nor are the smells of Nicole Kidman versus Charlize Theron.

The inherent flaw in capitalism – which its first great proponent Adam Smith fully understood – is that prices are reduced with increasedcompetition, where companies adapt to create viable alternatives. Continuously. But the more successful a venture becomes, the more market share it realizes, which creates an advantage or monopoly position and, thus, less competition. In the process, we become losers in the race to pay more as our world is swamped with profit-only-minded junk, which “result in inefficient patterns of consumption and investment” as Frank and Cook noted in The Winner-Take-All Society. The ultimate result is a reduction of choice, fuelled by the feedback loop of commerce. Just what the advertisers want. To crush the opponents.

Take Christmas, fast approaching (only X shopping days left). Christmas has become an annual consumerist joke. But Christmas wasn’t always the mad selling frenzy it’s become. In The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin noted that the previously little observed holiday became the “spectacular nationwide Festival of Consumption” we know today only after the American Civil War, when department stores such as Macy’s and Woolworth’s began encouraging greater giving to spur on Christmas sales. Christmas is an entirely made-up celebration, begun in a burgeoning American consumerist society by eager “go-getters” looking to make money on the backs of unwitting consumers.

As if anointing the transformation from religious to consumerist celebration, F. W. Woolworth even instructed his store managers on the importance of the Christmas season, saying, “This is our harvest time. Make it pay.” And, to ensure full participation by his workforce, the Christmas bonus was created not to reward past service or to share the company profits as one might think, but to keep employers from striking during the buying bonanza. In fact, Christmas consumerism was so important that President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving forward by a week to increase the buying.

An ever-greater plague of advertising upon our houses, but why is selling the purpose of markets? Buying is the purpose, based on need and not manufactured wants, particularly important as we face limits to energy and resources.

Excessive buying is also related to a culture based on growth, where waste is encouraged and false values promoted. Barber cited a Stanford University study that reported “up to 8 percent of Americans, 23.6 million people, suffer from compulsive shopping disorder” and a Mintel study that reported “almost one in four Britons admits being addicted to shopping.” According to Heidemarie Schwermer – a German teacher, psychotherapist, and author who set up her own skills-and-possession exchange shop and lived without money for 15 years – consumerism is about “an attempt to fill an empty space inside. And that emptiness, and the fear of loss, is manipulated by the media or big companies.”

This thinking hasn’t gone without some consternation among economists. In The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith even went so far as to question the whole value system of for-profit production.

Few economists in recent years have escaped some uneasiness over the kinds of goods which their value system is insisting they must maximize. They have wondered about the urgency of numerous products of great frivolity. They have been uneasy about the lengths to which it has been necessary to go with advertising and salesmanship to synthesize the desire for such goods.

Modern advertising is like a glass repairman breaking windows, a virus software company infecting files, a hotelier posting bad reviews about competitors, or, as Galbraith noted, a doctor knocking over pedestrians to get patients: “As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied.” The desire to be economically enhanced in an increasingly unequal society acts as a catalyst to buy.

And so we’re stuck with the junk, and the long list of Hollywood stars willing to peddle their souls for another dollar, even the ones it seems have a social conscience. George Clooney and Matt Damon coffee. Leonardo DiCaprio bourbon. Gwyneth Paltrow perfume. …

It might seem innocuous when peddled by the stars, but commercialism keeps creeping into our everyday lives from the naming of sports arenas to the sponsoring of highways to placing logos on outdoor public basketball courts, as was revealed last week in New York by a large soda company (any guesses which one?) “Theft of cultural space,” as Naomi Klein called it. Half a trillion worth of manufactured Hollywood American Dreams.

What is the true cost of all this unbridled selling? Foreseeing globalization and the movement of production to cheaper labor markets, E. F. Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful, that “the role of the poor is to be gap-fillers in the requirements of the rich.” Slaves, essentially. With less choice and limited access, we become limited in lifestyle – poor education, cheap consumables, lowest-common denominator entertainment – constantly ripped off by pay-as-you-go charges, high-interest-rate repayments, and hucksters endlessly hawking their junk.

Don’t believe the lies. If we are not beholden, we become free. All we have to do is say no.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.