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Consuming nothing to consume everything



Since the turn of the 20th century, ‘consuming’ has gradually become more and more central to our way of life. Consuming is no longer just a matter of surviving. It has now become a ‘lifestyle’.

We define ourselves by our consumption patterns. What, where and when we buy says more about who we are than any CV. It tells others what tastes, values, interests and attitudes that we have. We readily display style and class through consuming ‘things’ and can even let others know about our fantasies and sexuality through the contents of our shopping trolley.

Traditional mechanisms that established social and status distinctions have been supplanted by acts of conspicuous consumption. It is the experiences of shopping and consuming ‘things’ have come to define our lives and our place in the social world. The costumes and props of our social roles are eagerly displayed by all kinds of actors who are identifying themselves and indicating social position and prestige through ‘product clusters’.

Consuming has become a moral doctrine; a way of life. The ‘good life’ is the pleasure and enjoyment obtained through purchasing and using things. And consumer choice has now come to represent the desirable economic and political system.

It is consumer demand that is freeing the old Soviet bloc and China. It is consumer choice that is championing democracy, self-determination and even freedom itself.

However, our consumer-led lifestyles are also leading us blindly along the path to self-destruction. We inhabit two worlds. ‘Our’ world is constructed through our complex relationships with symbols, symbols that speak god-like to our bicameral minds from the showroom, shop window and TV screen.

There is no reality except that we construct for ourselves. A Sartrian reality in which we can become what we seem to be. We live inside carefully constructed shells of identity that parade peacock-like in a temporary display of ‘me’ on the stage of infinity.

The other world is ‘under the greatest threat’. In this parallel world, global temperature increases will lead to the poorest countries facing a rising death toll from disease and malnutrition. Across this other planet, the paradox of rising sea levels and water shortages will force the migration of whole populations with the associated geo-political conflicts. Who will open their borders for half of the population from Bangladesh?

Changes in the climate will also affect the richer nations, too. There will be more frequent exceptional weather events such as those that tore through the US last year, and even more alarming than a pandemic of bird flu is the possibility of equatorial insects reaching Europe carrying diseases such as malaria, Lyme disease and encephalitis.

We have only just woken up to the events in the ‘other’ world. We now see wide coverage of environmental issues and indications that climate change and global warming have finally been accepted as scientific fact. Responses at the government level have ranged from re-supporting the Kyoto protocol and promising to cut greenhouse gas pollution, to reopening the discussion on the future use of nuclear power promising clean energy generation.

Even those advocating the development of alternative, non-carbon based sources of energy generation are missing the point. It is not a question of whether wind or wave. It is a question of how to reduce the need to produce unsustainable levels of energy.

We must cut back: and especially in the consumer-led economies such as the UK and US. A report from November 2005 by the European Environment Agency showed that on average, an individual in the UK was devouring the planet’s natural resources at a rate five times and a citizen of the US nine times that of an inhabitant of continental Africa (those rates have almost certainly increased since).

The problem of global warming, climate change and environmental destruction is not one of how we produce energy but one of how much. It is not a problem of energy production but of energy consumption. We produce to consume and over the last 50 years our consumption has increased until it is at an unsustainable level.

Ironically, our oil supplies may have reached ‘peak production’ just as the economies of China and India are beginning to exercise their newly found freedom of ‘consumer choice’. No amount of windmills or solar panels will be able to satiate this developing appetite for energy that is needed to produce all our ‘essential’ consumables.

Welcome to the candyfloss culture.

This linkage between production and consumption is as old as humanity itself. Tool-making, farming and other technological developments have allowed us to produce what we needed to survive and even some surplus, which eventually gave rise to trading and the development of economies. However, in the timespan of man’s existence, it is only very recently that, like the climate, this relationship between production and consumption has become overheated.

It was the harnessing of machine power and systems theory that enabled Henry Ford to astonish the business world at the turn of the 20th century with assembly lines. The first automated car plants were soon producing hundreds and then thousands of cars each week whereas before only a few handcrafted models left the factory gates.

It was the dawn of mass production. It spread from car manufacturing to household goods and eventually to all consumer goods. Ford had given the world a way of producing things cheaply – and lots of them.

Initially, cheapness sold. Products such as cars that had been luxury items for the very rich suddenly became affordable to the bricklayer, baker and factory worker. Business and production boomed along with consumption levels and general living standards, measured in consumer goods, rose year upon year. The link between mass production and mass consumption was formed.

However, what was to happen as the hunger of the new mass consumer market became satiated? How could the manufacturers maintain the demand for the products of their Golem-like factories? When a family owned one black model-T Ford, would they want another, at any price? Looking at the problem rationally, not until the original had worn-out! It seemed obvious that only a certain number of products could be sold into a given market before capacity naturally settled purely to a replacement level. It seemed that ‘Fordism’ had its limits.

However, at this juncture Ford is joined by that other influential giant of the 20th century: Sigmund Freud. It wasn’t Freud himself who made the compact with the production men; the relationship between Fordism and Freudism was initially forged by his second cousin Edward Bernays.

Spookily, Bernays had spent world war one in developing propaganda for the US War Department and with the cessation of hostilities, set about applying the same Freudian principles involved in mass psychology to the burgeoning consumer markets. His clients for ‘motivational marketing’ included General Electric, Dodge Motors, Proctor & Gamble and American Tobacco.

For the latter, in order to encourage women to take up smoking, cigarettes became ‘torches of freedom’. It was the first time in history that products were being subtly marketed as ‘something else’ to consumers and rising sales showed that they loved it! Despite early warnings the virus of this subconscious persuasion took hold and irrevocably warped consumption patterns wherever populations became convinced that the consumption of ‘something else’ would lead to the ‘good life’.

What is this warping mechanism? For the answer we have to look at our psychology and the interplay between our subconscious, motivations and values. As human beings we come into this world with a bundle of needs that have to be satisfied for us to survive and thrive. Some of these needs are physiological such as the need for food, drink, sleep and sex.

But of equal importance are our psychological needs, which are part a blessing and part a burden associated with the development of our intricate brains. Examples of our psychological needs are the need for friendship, the need to love and be loved, the need ‘to be somebody’, and, perhaps the most nagging, the need to find a meaning in life. It is this set of psychological needs that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. And all humans are born with this same collection of requirements that have to be satisfied for a healthy existence.

Yes. All humans have the same set of needs whether they live in the north, south, east or west. The reason that great differences occur is that we learn to value different things to satisfy those same needs.

Just consider the need for food to satisfy hunger. A visit to the local supermarket will demonstrate the variety of food items that are each valued differently by some customer over another. Will it be mince, spam, or sausage tonight; perhaps snails or frogs legs; horse flesh? Sorry, you might be vegetarian, and have a completely different set of values.

This range of eating behaviour is mirrored with the variety of behaviours that are valued to satisfy the needs for drinking, sleeping, safety and sex. This diversity in values becomes a mind-boggling assortment when we think about ‘other’ genders, age-groups and cultures.
But in the consumer-led economies, there is an additional complexity added to the mixture. It is not just a choice between the perceived values of product categories; we also have a choice between brands. So it is not just a decision concerning a tin of beans or peas, it becomes a pick from Heinz or Bachelors or Tesco’s own brand. If we were rational, the choice is trivial because any brand would satisfy the need for hunger. However, as ‘enlightened’ consumers, we will each have a particular favourite brand that we have learned to value above another. Here is our motivation to buy.

This investment of value means that the choice between brands is no longer trivial. It does matter which tin of beans we purchase, which pair of jeans we wear or which fizzy drink we consume. It matters to the extent that we ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ wearing brand X and in some cases, we would.

This ‘added value’ of a brand is the marketer’s mantra but does it reside in the product itself? When we see the logo or brand name for Coca-Cola or Mercedes (and you can see them now), we associate far more than a fizzy drink or car with the product.

It’s young, it’s freedom, it’s about friendship or luxury, success, and being admired. These features are not an embodiment of the product; they are in our heads. They are part of our mental schema for each particular brand, which gives the brand its meaning. This mental representation contains propositions, imagery, sounds, smells, tastes and emotional responses based upon previous experiences of the brand.

Such psychological responses to the brands are automatic. We cannot deny them and more worryingly, they are often occurring at a subconscious level. This ‘cloud of unknowing’ which surrounds brands is what they symbolise to us. They obtain their distinctive value because of purely psychological qualities that we attribute to them.

It is worth mentioning here that a large part of our previous encounters with brands happen vicariously. We watch others’ enjoy friendship, luxury or success as part of a marketing or advertising campaign. And we learn to associate satisfaction of these needs with the brand without being aware of the learning taking place. Very Freudian.

Now all this might not matter much if the brands delivered what they promised. It is clear that one brand of fizzy drink will quench our thirst as well as another or any brand of baked beans will serve to satiate our hunger.

There is no problem with the linkage between physical products and their ability to satisfy physiological needs. However, the connection between products and their capacity to gratify psychological needs is tenuous and deceitful. How can ‘things’ from the material world possibly have a real and lasting impact on our mental and spiritual lives?

Which brand are we going to buy to show friendship? How do we purchase love? How much are we going to acquire ‘to be somebody’? What gift are we going to present ourselves with to find a meaning in life?

It is depressing to realise that most of us at some time in our lives try to pay money for all these ‘things’, using the currency of brands and their associated symbolic sugary coating. This psychological sweetener is like the bloom of a pink candyfloss. It promises everlasting joy and satisfaction but with one bite it withers and melts away. Want another? Want something new; a bigger and better one; a different colour perhaps? Why not buy two?

This is the cycle of psychological dissatisfaction that is stimulating runaway consumption and in turn feeding energy-hungry factories. Depletion of fuel reserves, despoliation of the environment and pollution follow in harmony with this deadly tango between Freud and Ford.

We are chasing happiness and spiritual fulfilment using a twisted map. What we value has been rerouted by branding. Like children, we believe in their fairytales. Welcome to the kindergarten. Welcome to the candyfloss culture.

Nigel Marlow is director of InnovationBubble and a consultant in the higher education sector. He is a member of the British Psychological Society and licentiate of the Forum for Business and Consumer Psychology. He presents at academic and business conferences and publishes articles in marketing, consumer and research journals.

Further reading:

Behind The Story of Stuff – Part I

Behind The Story of Stuff – Part II

Thinking of my grandchildren spitting on my grave, before eating me out of necessity

People love brands – but wouldn’t care if 73% disappear tomorrow

Ethical consumerism’s long journey to the mainstream