Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Consumer culture in America

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Americans have an obsession with consumerism. Whether the consumption is in buying, advertising, manufacturing or distribution, the majority of the American public is fascinated with the art. The technically crafted trade of consumerism has been forced upon us throughout time. Like a runaway train, consumption is inescapable. Through measures of simplicity, consumerism has been pushed away from attacking the very core of existence. However, many Americans cannot rid themselves of simple necessities to avoid the massive upheaval consumerism places amongst a public. As a consumer society, has consumption been forced upon us? Since the late 1th Century, consumerism has broadened its horizons immensely with tactics of advertising, labeling, branding, and public relations manipulation. I believe these bold maneuvers by manufacturers and advertisers have been thrusted upon the American public, but the society has welcomed the tactics with open arms. Specific instances in history have offered simplistic solutions to the crisis of consumerism, but as a population, Americans are not ready to give up their cell phones, compact disc players, DVD players and computers with high-speed Internet access. The following paper will discuss through factual information and opinions how an American public has willingly trenched their way to an ever-expanding market of consumption.

With beginnings in the late 1th Century and early 0th Century, branding and labeling formed a manufacturers dream of profit and a consumers need for specifics. Americans could choose what product or service fit a particular need with the invention of branding and labeling. With the introduction of advertising, people were propelled more into a consumer frenzy of buying. Advertisements were a direct avenue to the consumer from the manufacturer to make a profit. Consumerism, during the later half of the 0th Century, hit all time highs. The creative destruction of consumerism was even deemed affluenza to give the actions of many some type of sickness to explain a habit or a lifestyle. Throughout this time period, ideas of simplicity have been introduced and reintroduced to a mildly willing public to heal wounds of consumerism, which include credit card debt, bankruptcy court and failing family values. The cradle of consumerism has rocked an American public, but as a society, should we not blame only ourselves?

During the late 1th Century and early 0th Century, consumers main outlet for consumption was the local general store. Whether a farmer came to the nearest rural town once a month or whether a mother went around the corner, the general store was sufficient in a persons basic needs. According to Susan Strasser, author of Satisfaction Guaranteed The Making of the American Mass Market, mainly a wholesaler supplied general stores. The idea of the wholesaler dominated retailers and customers alike. Retailers depended on the wholesaler to deliver goods so in turn, the retailers could profit from customers patronage. Wholesalers, in other words, controlled marketing in both of its senses they did the physical work of distribution, and they took responsibility for product promotion (Strasser, 1). The goods wholesalers marketed were unbranded and generic. Manufacturers decided to market their own products for customers. One example Strasser gives with this concept was Proctor and Gambles marketing of Crisco. With advertising, such as store displays, Crisco became a household name (). The invention of Crisco was significant in several ways. First, Proctor and Gamble made it possible for a brand to take hold over a wholesaler. The tide turned from wholesaler to manufacturer. On the one hand, the power that brands gave manufacturers was constrained by consumers close relationships with local merchants and retailers connections with wholesalers. On the other, to promote strong brand identification, manufacturing corporations established reputations and relationships with consumers as surely as the corner grocer did through personal contact and personality (8). Secondly, customers, along with storeowners, transformed into consumers (0). A new social class was created, which was not based on income, gender or race. People, through brands, were part of the same class of consumers. Branding promoted indifference meaning different brands of one product competed for a consumers dollar. Nevertheless, branding issued togetherness amongst people through retailers and customers. Consumers imaginations were stretched with the new introduction of products that could suit convenience into their daily lives (8). Routines and lifestyle habits changed forever with manufacturers introducing new products lines that would revolutionize a consumer culture. For instance, the selling of convenience, such as Campbells instant soup, hit consumers with new buying habits because it was easier for a busier lifestyle (5). The national brand was usually sold with a unique label or trademark, to avoid substitutions, so the customer would be able to identify a company name such as Proctor and Gamble or Kodak (87). The main influence of national brands was to avoid and bypass the wholesaler and to win trust in the consumer to buy more (88). According to James B. Twitchell, author of Adcult USA The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture, the process of differentiation, called branding, is the key in all advertising (Twitchell, 54). A customer had to determine which product was the best, and brands were the way consumers made this decision. The consumer developed a dependency on certain national brands. This dependence carried on to other products during the 0th Century.

Advertising is one medium to get the message of the manufacturer to the consumer. Ads for goods and services reach a wide variety of audiences, which are segmented into different categories. Adcult author Twitchell believes advertising is not part of the dominant culture, it is the dominant culture (0). This statement is very bold and very correct. Advertising has overwhelmed the United States like no other outlet, except for television. At any point, television is the entertainment medium advertising uses most frequently. However, in the late 1th Century, advertisements found its avenue for exposure in newspapers and magazines. Newspapers, at first, tried to control aspects of advertising, but newspapers began to rely on advertising for profit. Today, eighty percent of all newspaper revenues come from advertising fifty-two percent from retailers, thirty-five percent from classified, and thirteen percent from national clients like airlines (71). Magazines would soon follow the same pattern of profiting from advertisements. Although the newspaper advertisement was very effective, consumers were drawn in more to advertising by the radio. The development of the radio came from technology developed during the World War I (81). Radio stations began to emerge from the postwar shadows, and advertisements slowly crept up on radio programs. However, radio would eventually dominate as an entertainment medium well into the 140s. According to Gary Cross, author of An All-Consuming Century Why Commercialism Won In Modern America, consumerism became a democracy, and in a sense, everyone was encouraged to be a participant. With the book divided into time periods, Cross organizes consumerism as a ladder in which people climb the steps each time goods are accumulated. With the heydays of the 10s, Americans were finding carefree ways to consume products. For instance, with technological advances in the automobile, people were obtaining new senses of freedom especially in consumerism. People were also trying to attain an idea of individuality while marketers and advertisers in the time period were trying to exhibit family togetherness. During the 10s, the Great Depression loomed in the minds of everyone. Despite the shock of the Depression and its tenacity, few Americans saw the economic slump as anything but temporary (Cross, 75). Advertisements took on a new form with the propaganda ads during World War II. With the war movement came advertisements of propaganda promoting the effort at home and on the front. Although the propaganda ads focused on sustaining economic extravagance to help the boys at war, advertising during World War II foreshadowed a future of unlimited consumption after the Allied victory (84). The 150s saw an economic explosion with the wide introduction of television. But according to Twitchell, the greatest advertising medium ever concocted, bar none…Television is the primary force in Adcult (Twitchell, ). Advertising on television is like a great sucking sound a person hears when watching any program. Television advertising reaches into to grab the viewers from the couch or the Lazy-Boy and sucks them into a primal existence of buying frenzies. Television provides a viewer with entertainment and information programming, but these shows have to be sponsored by advertisers with dollars to spend. With audience shares from major television networks, advertisers buy the audience with their marketing techniques (). According to Cross, the television has become a family member and a way for youth to escape the confines of parental guidance. During the 160s, a counterculture of youth rejecting authority quickly developed out of protest to the Vietnam War. Twitchell believes percent of all advertising has no effect on the consumer (). I highly disagree with this statement because consumers are barraged with advertisements daily whether the medium is in billboards, television or radio. In my opinion, an advertisement will reach someone in a specific audience at some point in a lifetime. An advertisement can produce a desire to obtain a good a person wants.

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Manufacturers differentiate specific groups between each other to promote advertisements. Children have been a long target group for advertisers and manufacturers. In William Leachs Land of Desire Merchants, Power and the New Rise of the American Culture, families were targeted as consumption communities. Youth specialization led to the creation of specific departments in stores for toys and childrens clothing. Santa Claus became an icon, when in the past, Santa was a mythical character to be looked upon as a jolly old man. Today, Santa Claus is at every shopping mall, every strip mall and at the local Shoneys restaurant ready to take pictures with crying children lugging their angst-ridden mothers in tow. Advertisers and marketers use children to train them in underground trenches of places such as Toys R Us and Chucky Cheese so future consumers can start the cycle all over again with their own children. In the book Affluenza The All Consuming Epidemic authored by John DeGraaf, Thomas Naylor and David Wann, this consumerism programmed towards children is seen as infecting these kids with a disease. Children have become spectacles for marketing with parents seen by the majority as total idiots. Women are a highly marketable group for advertisers. The promotion of such womens products, such as Slim-Fast, has produced problems like anorexia and bulimia. Magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Elle, portray women as wanton sex goddesses. Adcults Twitchell believes these ads geared towards females are not to blame for the cultural problems young women face (15). In my opinion, these images mortify a womans confidence. Advertisers, probably in the back of their minds, think they are portraying an image of self-quality. However, in reality, advertisers are slowly profiting for the manufacturer an image of falsity and tragedy.

Advertising sees no boundaries when holidays and sporting events arise. Christmas is suppose to be a time to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ, however with After-Thanksgiving sales, Kmart Bluelight specials and no parking spaces at the local shopping mall, Christmas has turned into a consumer freefall of chaos. In the past, After-Thanksgiving sales start at the break of dawn with lines of customers waiting at stores, such as Wal-Mart, to get that special deal no other store will ever offer. Customers, as they reach the special deal, sigh in relief that they have just enough on their Visa credit card to charge the present of their dreams. Why do the holidays bring a sense of desire for shopping? Holidays are created to extend the pleasure of advertising. Valentines Day and Mothers Day are created to profit upon by card companies such as Hallmark. Advertisers are fanatics when sporting events happen. Every college football bowl game has a sponsor. I think it is nice to sit on my Lazy-Boy recliner drinking a Budweiser beer while watching the Tostidos Fiesta Bowl. However, advertisers and critics alike go through a freefall of advertisements during the Super Bowl (1). New ads and sensationalism run rampant in the cold January month when football is suppose to be the main event, but advertising draws viewers in like a pregame sideshow. Advertising can catch a consumer off guard at any moment whether at the sidelines of a football game or at a viewing of a Christmas cantata.

As Americans, the majority feel caught up in the consumption of it all. Whether a person is trying to accumulate what the next-door neighbor has accomplished or whether television is portraying an outrageously skewed standard of living, consumers, according to Affluenzas authors, are congested with stuff and clutter. Most people fear we will not succeed in the eyes of our peers whether it is financially or culturally (De Graaf, ). Many people suffer through the trials of credit card debt and bankruptcy to gain the consumer needs and wants of life. Instant gratification can drive a person to obtain the goods needed to sustain a culturally developed lifestyle, but the debt could follow the individual to the grave (1).

Ideas of simplicity have been introduced to a seemingly willing public to solve the hardships of consumption. However, most of these problem solving efforts have gone unnoticed or been placed on the backburner. According to An All-Consuming Century author Gary Cross, the late 160s and 170s found a growing resentment toward the authority of consumption. Counterculturalists, such as Jerry Rubin, denounced consumerism and its evils, but according to Cross, these passive hippies adapted their new lifestyle habits into a different kind of consumerism (167). By the 180s, the former hippies turned into consumer hungry people trapped in the consumption maze. During the 170s, President Jimmy Carter, to no avail, attempted to cure a consumption-stricken nation with conservation efforts. His sounds of simplicity fell on the deaf ears of almost everyone. Support groups for the debt-ridden have popped up over the past twenty years. Voluntary simplicity has emerged in counseling sessions, but through all of these efforts at solving this problem of angst consumption, one detail to salvation still remains the same. Simplicity can change the individual only if the individual lets simplicity into their lifestyle.

I agree people have been berated with advertisements and manufacturer promises. A population has suffered through economic hardships, whether it was nationally or personally. Advertising mediums have inundated our entire beings with commercials, billboards and print ads. Credit cards fill our wallets until the bulge of credit lines pop to the limit. Can we blame the advertisements or the mediums in which they use? In my opinion, I saw no. Consumption is an individual choice. People choose to fill out the MasterCard application. People choose to pay with credit instead of paying with cash. People choose to go to Wal-Mart at 00 am in the morning to pick up a television. Do advertisements have an effect on individuals and their consumption? In a sense, advertisements can affect a person to buy a particular item, but it is the persons choice in whether to spend the money to purchase it. I do believe some advertisements may have a negative effect on females, as discussed previously, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, when beauty is spread among the pages of Vanity Fair, many young women are targeted to an image of unreality. I know it is a womans individual choice whether to use Fen-Fen, but being in the female class, I guess I am a little biased in this particular issue. Simplicity is a decision a person has to make on his or her own. Consumption can overrun people until lives are torn apart, but to blame a manufacturer or an advertisement, is not the answer. The blame game is among us, but we, in the end, can only make the choice that fits our lives.


Cross, Gary. An All Consuming Century Why Commercialism Won in Modern

America. Columbia University Press. New York, 000.

De Graaf, John, Naylor, Thomas, Wann, David. Affluenza The All Consuming

Epidemic. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, 00.

Leach, William. Land of Desire Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American

Culture. Vintage Books, Random House. New York, 14.

Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed The Making of An American Mass Market.

Smithsonian Institution Press Washington and London, 15.

Twitchell, James. Adcult USA The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture.

New York Columbia University Press, 16.

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