Part 3

The Culture of Consumption

Consumerism is an important American value. We learn consumerism at an early age. Children watch commercials with McDonald’s and Disney products flashed on the screen. Marketing agencies learn what groups to target at certain times of the day. Billions of dollars are spent on advertising each year. Most of us think advertising has no affect on what we buy or wear but if this were true, why would corporations spend so much money promoting their products through the mass media?

The excerpt below from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2002) describes how the fast food industry targets children as consumers:

Although the fast food chains annually spend about $3 billion on television advertising, their marketing efforts directed at children extend far beyond such conventional ads. The McDonald’s Corporation now operates more than eight thousand playgrounds at its restaurants in the United States. Burger King has more than two thousand. A manufacturer of “playlands” explains why fast food operators build these largely plastic structures: “Playlands bring in children, who bring in parents, who bring in money.” As American cities and towns spend less money on children’s recreation, fast food restaurants have become gathering spaces for families with young children…The seesaws, slides and pits full of plastic balls have proven to be effective lure. “But when it gets down to brass tacks,” a Brandweek article on fast food notes, “the key to attracting kids is toys, toys, toys.”

The fast food industry has forged promotional links with the nation’s leading toy manufacturers, giving away simple toys with children’s meals and selling more elaborate ones at a discount. The major toy crazes of recent years—including Poke’mon cards, Cabbage Patch Kids and Tamogotchis—have been abetted by fast food promotions. A successful promotion easily doubles or triples the weekly sales volume of children’s meals. The chains often distribute numerous versions of a toy, encouraging repeat visits by small children and adult collectors who hope to obtain complete sets.

While most of us would like to think that the advertising industry does not affect our consumption patterns, the truth is that it does. Even parents are coerced into buying products that are advertised to their children. In reality, the advertising industry and the mass media affect us in more ways than we may know. We often get our cultural ideal of beauty from the media and from advertising. Women are constantly being forced to compare their bodies to those of supermodels whose body types represent a small percentage of women and whose images are often altered through air brushing and other techniques. In fact, eating disorders are only common in modern societies were the mass media and marketing campaigns have a profound impact on the everyday lives of individuals.

Female beauty then and now. Lillian Russell, c. 1895, the leading beauty of her day, and Kate Moss, current supermodel.

According to the Functionalist Perspective, culture is something that bonds members of society together. Everything that makes up a society’s culture is there to meet human needs. In the case of advertising and consumerism, they function to make our economy healthy. Without mass consumption, our economy would become stagnant, prices would increase, and wages would decline. Also, consumerism allows individuals to creatively express who they are through their choice of what they consume. If someone drives a BMW or a Volvo, they are making a statement about who they are. If someone wants to wear Levis or Gap jeans, they are also making a statement. In other words, consumerism allows us to be individualistic and express ourselves through our possessions.

The Conflict Perspective takes a more critical approach to understanding culture. It points out that culture serves the needs of the capitalist class. In the case of consumerism, who benefits the most? Wealthy corporations benefit much more than the consumers themselves, who are constantly being told they need to buy more products in order to make friends and be accepted in society. Children in schools often know how humiliating it is to not be able to afford nice clothes and drive nice cars. Usually, children from wealthier families are treated better in schools not only by peers, but also by their teachers. In fact, teachers often expect children from a higher socioeconomic status to perform better in school, and these expectations often create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One term that conflict theorists use to refer to this phenomenon is commodity fetishism. This occurs when a material object is treated with an almost religious devotion. In other words, we worship the products we buy. A fetish is actually an item used by tribal cultures that is believed to possess special power or knowledge. We believe that certain products will give us a special privilege in society and will win us favor with our peers. Commercials and magazine ads show pictures of men getting their clothes torn off by beautiful women when they wear a certain brand of jeans or cologne. Other ads tell women that if they just use this product they will look better and be able to get more attention from men as well. We are seduced by the false promises these ads seem to imply. If you wear Abercrombie, will girls attack you on the beach?

So who really benefits from consumerism and from culture in general? According to the conflict perspective, a small percentage of people in society benefit the most. As an economic system, capitalism is reflected in our culture through values of consumerism and individualism. We are
taught to be good, obedient workers as well as consumers of the products we make. These values divide us into consumer groups who constantly compare our products to others and ridicule those who cannot afford to buy them in the first place. We feel a constant need to buy more things to make us feel better about ourselves and to increase our self esteem. Our needs and wants are never satisfied. We must buy, buy, buy!!

The Symbolic Interaction Perspective is more interested in how culture is created in the first place. How are trends in the fashion world established? What is the symbolic meaning behind our behaviors? Are we mindless consumers or do we have a say in what we buy and whether or not we want to be consumers in the first place? The Social Construction of Reality occurs as we interact with one another and define the meaning behind social actions. In other words, we create our understanding of the world around us. With consumerism and fashion trends, what is in this week may be out the next.