Social Issues / Consumerism: Cause And Effect
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Autor: anton 06 December 2010
Words: 1985 | Pages: 8
Today, Americans consider themselves the most prosperous, most free people in the world. But not all is what it seems. Festering beneath the genial, freedom-loving surface is the problem of American consumerism. Consumerism is a cultural cycle that whittles away at America's intellectual prosperity. What is consumerism? Where did it come from? How does it work? Why does it remain unchallenged? The answers to these questions are vital to overcoming one of the United States' greatest problems.
Consumerism is defined by the spending habits of America's middle and upper classes. They do not spend frugally, but continue to buy luxury items, well after they reach a state of comfort for themselves and their surroundings. They do this because they must compete for products to maintain the status quo of their lives. For example, if one member of a neighborhood buys a new product that makes their lives noticeably easier or raises their status, the rest of the neighborhood must also buy that product, or else be at a disadvantage socially or economically. Social pressures and public sentiment drives this competition. Heath and Potter point out that human sentiment is highly contagious â€“ that being in a crowd full of laughing people makes things seem more funny, and that being in a crowd full of angry people may make even mild-mannered people irrational and dangerous (24) â€“ such is human nature. Competitive consumption has allowed unfettered capitalism to thrive in the U.S. for several decades. Our culture today is pervaded by countless advertisements. Advertisements have become integrated into our culture so that it is impossible to avoid them while living a normal life. They are on TV, radio, billboards, and all over the Internet. Constant exposure to advertising forces the American people to pay attention to buying. Once the importance of buying is established in the majority of people in a society, the rest are forced to join that majority, either for the sake of conformity or to maintain the society's standard of living. Thus, once established, competitive consumption reinforces itself, cementing its place in the collective mind of [American] society.
Pervasive advertising and consumer culture have caused a decline in the intellectual standards of U.S. popular culture. Popular culture today involves little thought; most facts and ideas are fed to a person by the media. They do not discuss or dissect the facts in ways that promote critical analysis. Often, misleading or untrue statements are passed for true, and few if any, are noticed or complained about (Shane 65). The potential for abuse of this system is obvious. It threatens the integrity of American democracy and ideology. This new, media-oriented society threatens to bring about an age of ignorance as we have never seen it before. The importance of the problem of consumerism cannot be understated.
How did this crisis come about? Where does consumerism come from? The answers lie in the economic boom of the 1950's and the nature of capitalism. Capitalism as we know it today was born in 18th century Europe with the decline of feudalism and the rise of the free market. Capitalism was one with the spirit of the fledgling United States, and soon came to be a source of pride for Americans, who could claim that they lived in a socially mobile society. Capitalism stayed strong in the United States, gaining momentum with the industrial revolution and the expansion of the United States over the American continent. However, a new, unprecedented chapter for capitalism began after World War II with the baby boomer generation. The postwar economic momentum, combined with explosive population growth, created a capitalistic feeding frenzy. By this point, most Americans had begun to shift their focus from necessity buying to luxury buying. They began to buy things for comfort and happiness, rather than because they needed things to live. Capitalism exploded. The baby boomer population created an enormous new market (Cross 88) akin to the present market in China. Opportunities were bountiful, and how better to take advantage of the situation than to advertise? Advertisements went up everywhere, covered every aspect of American life. Advertisements were already on radio, but the introduction of Television cemented the position of advertising as one of the most prevalent forces in America. The new medium could show viewers what to buy, tell them why they should buy it, and offer some quick entertainment. One does not have to look much further to see why capitalism won in America. With markets established and ads to support them, consumerism has remained a staple of American culture for more than half a century, and continues to do so in the new millennium.
Perhaps the most important question in the quest to defeat consumerism is this: How does consumerism work? Consumerism thrives because it has taken root in American society, reinforced by advertising. Understanding advertising is key to understanding consumerism. More than 200,000,000,000 U.S. Dollars are spent on advertising in the United States each year (Heath, Potter 206); the average cost of a lowly 30-second television commercial is over $362,000 (Asa Berger 2). Interestingly enough, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that advertising actually makes people want to buy things (Asa Berger 3). The true reason for advertising is the competition for market share. It turns out that most mainstream products are bought regardless of whether they're advertised or not. The real difference advertisements make is in the choices of consumers. An effective commercial on television or radio will make the listener or viewer more inclined to buy a certain brand, although not necessarily inclined to buy the product offered under that brand. At the same time, advertisements keep consumerism alive. The sheer number of ads in today's society makes consumerism seem "normal". Ads glorify buying, making it seem essential for the physical, mental, and even spiritual well being of the consumer. They are written and produced to target specific groups of consumers, and they do so effectively. They affect the collective mind of society, leading it to accept buying luxury items as a way of life â€“ as essential for success. Thus, ads serve a dual purpose â€“ they give a company an edge in the market and at the same time reinforce consumer culture.
Why has nobody been able to challenge consumerism effectively in the past decades? The answer lies in the countercultural movement that has been in place since the 1960's. The counterculture began with the hippie movement of the 60's. The hippies were antiwar protesters and "activists". They tried to wage a cultural war against everything mundane and mainstream, subscribing to anarchistic and Marxist ideologies during the height of the Cold War. They rebelled against the strict 1950's conformity of their parents and listened to their own type of music. Hippie music eventually became a dominant genre of music, losing its status as "alternative" and "underground" music. Other music, most notably punk and hard rock, moved in to fill the "alternative" niche. However, these musical genres also became mainstream. Still other forms of music such as grunge and hip-hop moved in to replace the music of the older generation. This is a countercultural cycle that has been in place since the hippies first pioneered the ideas of a "counterculture". The aims of each successive countercultural movement all failed. Why? What were consumerist forces doing during theses upheavals? Profiting! The countercultural music and the culture that went along with it were not hurting the mainstream music and clothing industries; on the contrary, the counterculture became popular among consumers. It was the image, not the ideals that ended up winning the countercultural battle. The counterculture backfired. Rather than changing American ideals, it just created lucrative markets for the ultimate countercultural enemy: capitalism. This is why countercultures fail. Besides being based upon fallacious radical theories such as Marxism and anarchism, countercultural thinkers fail to realize that you cannot defeat consumerism by changing the culture. Consumerism and capitalism both depend on changing culture and lifestyle schemes. If one is to take a stand against consumerism, he/she must take care to avoid the taint of association with the counterculturists.
If counterculture is not the answer, then how can we stop the negative effects of consumerism? Is consumerism here to stay? These are questions whose answers are not yet definite in any way. Some advocate political organization, claiming that Simple legal solutions, such as limitations on advertisers and mandatory education courses in schools, may be all America needs in order to mitigate consumerism's harmful effects upon society. Others propose that education and information is the best weapon against consumerism. They want to educate the masses about their enemy and in the same stroke revive appreciation for America's great thinkers. They believe that an intellectual renaissance is the best solution. Still a third force in this debate is a non-countercultural political force rising to oppose consumerism. It is not composed of hipsters and radicals, but of parents, teachers, and small-town politicians, who want a better future for their children. This grassroots "party of saints" may someday provide a common banner under which all enemies of consumerism (perhaps barring the counterculturists) may unite to strike a deathblow to consumerism once and for all. Only time will tell.
Will consumerism ever be defeated? Because modern consumerism is a fairly new development in history, it is difficult to predict the course it will take in the future. It may only be a fluke, just another trend that will eventually die away. On the other hand, consumerism may grow immensely, taking advantage of the Internet and other technology to become the most dominant force in the world. Perhaps a more answerable question: Is consumerism inevitable in a modern capitalist society? It seems so. Consumerism and advertising are built around human instincts to consume competitively. Areas of the world previously cut off from consumerism begin to display consumerist tendencies soon after the introduction of large-scale capitalism and the media (Kilbourne 135). However, these findings may also be disproved by later studies. It would seem that the fate of America and consumerism rests in the hands of American citizens. It is up to them to build their own future.
Consumerism is a cultural system that has been in place in America for several decades. It is propagated by the mass media and advertising, which promote competitive consumption. It has damaged the integrity of American capitalism and media by promoting a luxury-consumption lifestyle at the expense of honesty and ethics. Pundits have replaced philosophers as America's "experts"; fashion designers and celebrities have replaced politicians and pastors as America's role models. America may be heading down a slippery slope to absolute ignorance. Perhaps if the American people are educated, they may be able to move together to resist consumerism's negative effects. It is up to the people to decide the course of their country.
Asa Berger, Arthur. Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield. 2000.
Cross, Gary. An All-Consuming Century. New York: Colombia University Press. 2000.
Heath, Joseph, and Andrew Potter. Nation of Rebels. New York: HarperCollins. 2004.
Shane, Ed. Disconnected America. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe. 2001
Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion. New York: The Free Press. 1999
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