A culture of consumerism, or how we saved ourselves with advertising

A good friend of mine posted a great article on the effects of consumerism on our culture. I found it on FB, but thought it might be better brought over to my blog. You might read the post for yourself before digging into my response below.

I think this is a wonderful article, although I had a few quibbles. The author has the history a bit mixed up, but the end result is the same.

Consumer spending as a force in our economy (over 70% of the GDP, last time I looked) was not designed as much as it was an accident. Call it a feature instead of a bug, if you will. Like many things in our semi-capitalistic economy, it came about both by consumer forces, and a need to see a greater return on investment. Its the superhero of this story that is surprising.

Today the concept of advertising is deeply rooted in our culture, but it wasn’t always so. If you look at media (like newspapers or magazines) prior to WWII and indeed prior to WWI, you see very little of what we call advertising. Oh there are ads back then, but they are amazingly transparent to our modern eyes, and they are not nearly as frequent. Its also important to note that during the war years consumer spending was deeply curtailed. Many of the basic needs were rationed, like petrol and food stuffs.

The big shift came as  a result of the post WWII depression. We had all these factories used to making all this stuff, only it wasn’t being consumed by the war department any more (war being the best consumer ever made). If you were invested in lots of factories (which a large percentage of the wealthy had done back then, after all it was patriotic and profit making) what were you to do? You wanted to get a good return on your investment, but how was that going to happen?

At the same time you had many people who had worked hard and saved during the war (or had worked hard in the war), and were looking for a way to reward themselves for their efforts.

Enter the savior to our economy. Of all things it ended up being Madison Ave. in NY, and by extension all of its ad men. Advertising became the hook to pull consumers into the market. First by radio, and then by glorious TV, we extend the idea of buying our way into a better economy one ad at a time. And as advertising became increasingly profitable more investment was put into the process of designing and creating ads. It was this investment, it was this interest in spurring our economy, that allowed advertising to finally grow, and become more sophisticated. Trying new tricks, new techniques, new mediums (like TV), and new relationships (like advertising and sports), averting grew until it started to become one of the most dominate cultural forces in our country.

As advertising grew in influence it also became more sophisticated.  Ads used to be garish, and overly broad, using pitifully simple themes to get us to buy. But now ads have evolved to become more and more sophisticated as we’ve learned to tune out the simple ones. Today ads on the internet are often deeply targeted. If last week you did a search for a new rototiller, don’t be surprised if this week your favorite blog features ads for new rototillers. Advertisers have mixed the power of search engine queries with the power of flexible web-pages, a process that is intrinsically complex.

But here’s the tricky part. Just like you don’t have to buy anything sold in an ad, you don’t have to buy our ever present advertising culture either (or any other culture for that matter). Alas, the price for this is not fitting in, which is a difficult feeling to overcome. We’re wired to go along with the herd (which is one of the ways advertising works), so standing out goes against our biology. And don’t try pretending that advertising doesn’t work on you. Studies show that the people most likely to be effected by advertising are the ones who claim they are the lest likely.

If you’re looking for ways to shed the effect of adverting culture from your life, I’d recommend you look to the people who have been shunning popular culture for millennia: Artists. Check out your local painters, song-writers, poets, authors, actors, etc. All of these creative types have been thumbing their noses at the world for years. Practicing their own versions of anti-culture. Check them out. Get involved. Create. And learn to ditch the cultural norms which are holding you back.

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