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American Dream: Consumer culture December 4, 2005

Posted by Matt Hurst in Uncategorized.

Advertisements are all over the place. So much so, that we often ignore their presence, but our subconcious is able to recognize it sometimes. Credit marketers and the end of the cold war.
Now more than ever we consume goods that we’ll never use in the way their intended. No one needs to drive a Humvee on a city street. That’s the point. We run ourselves into debt for things we think will be that missing piece in the puzzle, but why?
In this increasingly aliented and isolated body of consumers, we need to know a few things about how we relate to others. As a social being their is a need for acceptance, emphasized in difference through material goods. We sit in our rooms, under the influence of the only device possible to make millions of people share the same laugh and still feel alone. That’s a desire they appeal to – connection and community.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but no car ad today tells us much about the features. Cars are considered part of the american dream, so it’s only natural we apply our hopes onto them. A car is to understood as the embodyment of our wishes of self-determination through that product. Whether its the sexy red speed car, the family togeterness in a minivan, the power over nature of a large truck, or the flashiness of a new sedan that really shows everyone how unordinary your car is. “Pimp my ride” indeed america. Even if we only use it to get places, we buy into the possibility of experience their product offers. Even if we don’t need the cargo room to take our surfboards to the beach because we live in the midwest.
It’s just another example of appeal our desires, which we are subconciously lead to associate with the product. Today new brands from existing manufacturers are being created for that sole purpose. Boeing creates new jets with the psychologically studied associations with luxury for its new line of craft. Delta creates a new discount carier that doesn’t tout its features or prices but the culture around it. Health insurance companies create new tiers for young people based around how extreme they want to be. And the worst part is, that this usually works.
Some of the most effective techniques are pretty coersive. You might see somebody walking down the street reading a magazine, or hear somebody talking to a friend about this new band. These ordinary people in the street might actually be paid marketers sometimes. Advertising companies have figured out that we’re more likely to accept a suggestion about a product when we don’t think we’re being advertised to. Later on you’ll see that product while going about your business, and probably buy it instead of another product.

The underlying question is about our desires and fears. Human beings always want what they can’t have, because they believe that it’s what their missing. This applies materially, because we often have difficulty obtaining things with our salaries. We’ll always have a dream car, a dream house, a dream lifestyle, and it will be one that we can’t afford. Sometimes we run up incredible amounts of debt seeking the instant gratification of that lifestyle. When we get these things, like christmas presents, we seem happy for a few weeks until we throw it aside. There’s always something more that we don’t have, can’t afford, that will give us the life we deserve.

I ought to know that material things don’t really make me happy. I grew up spoiled to no end. There was always a new pair of shoes the other children were wearing, or that new fad sweeping the youth culture. Now I can see that these material things aren’t the source of happiness. If I can do things with them that allow me to share their purpose, I’m a little happier. Really though, it’s sharing the experience with another human being that makes it worthwhile. Life that is. Because the material good sometimes facilitates that experience in the envioronment of the consumer culture. Otherwise, I prefer to ignore the fact that I am influenced by marketing overtly.

The inverse, that we reject what we can have easily, is also slighty true. Though you know that all products are of the same quality, you’re more likely to buy a product over another based off of marketing. Even product reviews are advertisements (thank consumer reports). The generic usually costs less, but the name brand that is advertised has associations tied into it that can override the cost. A carton of orange juice may be cheaper as a store-brand, but you know tropicanna is part of a complete breakfast. Advertising works.
Wal-mart understands this concept to perfection. They lure you into their store with outrageously low prices, just short of mark-up, the best examples put in the middle of the walkways through the store and its departments. However, once they’ve got you in the perception that their prices are lower, you’ll almost always walk into the department to get the product that you “really wanted”. You’ll buy the Sony televison instead of the off-brand in the aisle. That product is hardly ever the lowest price in town, and has a considerable mark-up. But you’re perception of low prices leads you to buy it, in their words “always”.

A culture ceases to exist when influence persists over acceptance. Our consumer culture offers us to live dreams, and puts considerable burden on our real lives. Like a drug, material posessions’ effects are mostly temporary. Also, they allow us to live our dream lives without really solving the problems they have come to be offered as solutions through advertising. And as those problems fester and boil in our unthinking ignorance, we revel in the dream for a little while. It requires a dramatic lack of thought to buy things we don’t need, but it doesn’t take a lot to understand why we act so impossibly. The grass is always greener on the other side, but RoundOut from Monsanto should fix that. By playing on our desires and fears, advertisers create a dissatisfaction in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And to solve that, we’ll willingly jepordize some of our more basic needs in favor of the things we now think we need in our lives.



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