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Advertising and Materialism

A high-school student recently sent me an e-mail asking me some questions for a paper he was writing.  Herewith I post his questions and my answers, although I slightly revised my answer to question 4. 

1) Why has advertising and materialism basically become a culture and its scripture?

Because that's where the money is. You can't make money by (say) promoting simple living and mindfulness, except for some small amounts to be made writing books about it and maybe teaching meditation. Therefore, anyone who wants to make money has to sell commodities. This in turn becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more people sell commodities, the more money they make, and the more money they make, the more they are able to sell commodities. (In this regard, check out Jack Manno's book "Privileged Goods." It's a little hard to read in places -- he's an academic -- but it is a good analysis of the "commoditization" of society.)

At a lower level of consumption, when we are talking about getting enough to eat and improving access to basic needs, this isn't a bad thing; you want to encourage people to produce commodities because these meet basic needs. But at our level of consumption, it has gone beyond what we need or even what makes us happy; it's a vicious cycle. Studies on happiness, by the way, uniformly show that after basic needs are met, increasing financial success does not result in increasing happiness.

This cycle tends to create a "bubble" of materialistic consumption -- at some point this reaches the point of diminishing financial returns (as well as the point of diminishing satisfaction, which has already been met). It reaches this point because (a) people have taken on all the debt they can (see: mortgage crisis and banking crisis) and (b) we have exploited all the natural resources we are able to (see: peak oil, global warming). At this point, the whole consumption bubble pops and if people have a lot of debt (which they do, in spades!), then there will be massive defaults by individuals who can't pay their debt, and defaults by banks who made them the loans in the first place. Everyone assumed that consumption would just continue indefinitely, and surprise! It doesn't and can't.

This is where we are now. There may be attempts to re-inflate the bubble with massive government spending, which may be temporarily successful, so we don't know how much longer the system will continue before it collapses. We also don't know whether the collapse will be slow (decades, perhaps) or more rapid (six months to a year).

2) Since unhappiness and low self-esteem causes us to buy branded items and vice versa, why do people constantly do it?

I am not sure that buying branded items necessarily causes unhappiness per se. If you believe the advertising, you may feel a let-down when the new car does not bring the desired partner or other increase in status. But if you have no such expectation, buying a branded item would not necessarily, in and of itself, make you unhappy. More insidious is the indirect effect, namely that you have to work hard and go into debt to buy all this stuff. That, in my humble opinion, is what makes people unhappy.

People tend to form a network of accepted authorities that they accept as sources of information. Advertising is a key part of dominating this network of information. If you turn off your TV (and limit your internet browsing of commercial sites), you are on the right track. The problem is that so many people watch TV and even if they don't, they talk to a lot of their friends that do.

3) Is materialism an effect of advertising, or is advertising caused by us being materialistic?

It depends on what you mean by "materialism." There is a level at which concern about material things is a good thing. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930's many people were just concerned about having a job and being able to get enough to eat. But during the 1950's to the 1990's, except for a very small number of people in poverty, this wasn't an issue in the U. S. So you could speak of "materialism" as meaning "concern about material things," or you could speak of it as "concern about consumer goods, consumerism, excessive concern about material things above and beyond what is required to stay alive and in health." In the first sense, materialism is sometimes good, sometimes bad, but in the second sense it is always bad. (Well, from my point of view, anyway, since I'm a simple living advocate.)

Materialism in the first sense is not caused by advertising. It is biological. People can get carried away after they have met all their basic needs, which brings us to materialism in the second sense. This is an effect of "commoditization" (see the above-mentioned book by Jack Manno). In a commoditized society, the economic system rewards those who produce commodities, but does not reward those who produce non-commodities, or those who produce things which don't make as good commodities as other things. The ideal commodity can be assigned a price, can be bought and sold, is mobile and transferable, is capital-intensive, has lots of embedded energy and knowledge, and contributes to GNP.

Example: you have a need to provide your child with play experiences. You have two options: Barbie dolls versus actually going into the back yard to play with your kid. Going into the back yard to play with your kid fulfills the same function as a Barbie doll, but you cannot really market it nearly as effectively. If you do it with your own children, you don't make any money by doing it at all. The most you could do to make money off it, would be a sort of play-school type setting where someone might play with kids. But this is hard to buy and sell, it's not mobile or transferable, it's labor intensive, etc. So Barbie dolls make a good commodity, whereas marketing yourself as a child-play person is possible, but there's much less money in it.

Advertising is part of a larger process of commoditization. It is commoditization which is the real cause of both materialism and advertising.

4) Do you think that there is any type of working community today that is effective without advertising, or any that ever will be?

This is the wrong question to ask if I interpret the question literally. Complete elimination of advertising is probably not necessary, desirable, or possible, in most foreseeable futures, even fairly apocalyptic ones. You might want to differentiate between different kinds of advertising -- a sign in front of a shop is in a different category than a TV ad or a billboard.

Greatly reducing advertising, however, is possible. Such a world is not only possible but likely, assuming that humans survive the next century or two.

You would need to approach the problem of commoditization as a whole, rather than just this or that aspect of commoditization -- advertising is just one aspect of the bigger problem. A rational economic system would have a steep progressive income tax for people with high incomes. We would limit the physical scale of the economy by imposing taxes or other restrictions on exploiting, drilling, or mining natural resources.  That would eliminate a lot of the rampant consumerism you see right now. You would consider advertising as a nuisance and perhaps tax it, or at least not subsidize it, which is what we do now (it is part of the cost of doing business and decreases the amount the business owes in taxes). You could regulate its use on TV (as used to be done, actually). But the important thing is to deal with the problem of commoditization.

All the best!

Keith Akers
March 10, 2009