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Consumerism: Cause And Effect

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Autor:   •  December 6, 2010  •  1,985 Words (8 Pages)  •  3,106 Views

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Today, Americans consider themselves the most prosperous, most free people in the world. But not all is what it seems. Festering beneath the genial, freedom-loving surface is the problem of American consumerism. Consumerism is a cultural cycle that whittles away at America's intellectual prosperity. What is consumerism? Where did it come from? How does it work? Why does it remain unchallenged? The answers to these questions are vital to overcoming one of the United States' greatest problems.

Consumerism is defined by the spending habits of America's middle and upper classes. They do not spend frugally, but continue to buy luxury items, well after they reach a state of comfort for themselves and their surroundings. They do this because they must compete for products to maintain the status quo of their lives. For example, if one member of a neighborhood buys a new product that makes their lives noticeably easier or raises their status, the rest of the neighborhood must also buy that product, or else be at a disadvantage socially or economically. Social pressures and public sentiment drives this competition. Heath and Potter point out that human sentiment is highly contagious - that being in a crowd full of laughing people makes things seem more funny, and that being in a crowd full of angry people may make even mild-mannered people irrational and dangerous (24) - such is human nature. Competitive consumption has allowed unfettered capitalism to thrive in the U.S. for several decades. Our culture today is pervaded by countless advertisements. Advertisements have become integrated into our culture so that it is impossible to avoid them while living a normal life. They are on TV, radio, billboards, and all over the Internet. Constant exposure to advertising forces the American people to pay attention to buying. Once the importance of buying is established in the majority of people in a society, the rest are forced to join that majority, either for the sake of conformity or to maintain the society's standard of living. Thus, once established, competitive consumption reinforces itself, cementing its place in the collective mind of [American] society.

Pervasive advertising and consumer culture have caused a decline in the intellectual standards of U.S. popular culture. Popular culture today involves little thought; most facts and ideas are fed to a person by the media. They do not discuss or dissect the facts in ways that promote critical analysis. Often, misleading or untrue statements are passed for true, and few if any, are noticed or complained about (Shane 65). The potential for abuse of this system is obvious. It threatens the integrity of American democracy and ideology. This new, media-oriented society threatens to bring about an age of ignorance as we have never seen it before. The importance of the problem of consumerism cannot be understated.

How did this crisis come about? Where does consumerism come from? The answers lie in the economic boom of the 1950's and the nature of capitalism. Capitalism as we know it today was born in 18th century Europe with the decline of feudalism and the rise of the free market. Capitalism was one with the spirit of the fledgling United States, and soon came to be a source of pride for Americans, who could claim that they lived in a socially mobile society. Capitalism stayed strong in the United States, gaining momentum with the industrial revolution and the expansion of the United States over the American continent. However, a new, unprecedented chapter for capitalism began after World War II with the baby boomer generation. The postwar economic momentum, combined with explosive population growth, created a capitalistic feeding frenzy. By this point, most Americans had begun to shift their focus from necessity buying to luxury buying. They began to buy things for comfort and happiness, rather than because they needed things to live. Capitalism exploded. The baby boomer population created an enormous new market (Cross 88) akin to the present market in China. Opportunities were bountiful, and how better to take advantage of the situation than to advertise? Advertisements went up everywhere, covered every aspect of American life. Advertisements were already on radio, but the introduction of Television cemented the position of advertising as one of the most prevalent forces in America. The new medium could show viewers what to buy, tell them why they should buy it, and offer some quick entertainment. One does not have to look much further to see why capitalism won in America. With markets established and ads to support them, consumerism has remained a staple of American culture for more than half a century, and continues to do so in the new millennium.

Perhaps the most important question in the quest to defeat consumerism is this: How does consumerism work? Consumerism thrives because it has taken root in American society, reinforced by advertising. Understanding advertising is key to understanding consumerism. More than 200,000,000,000 U.S. Dollars are spent on advertising in the United States each year (Heath, Potter 206); the average cost of a lowly 30-second television commercial is over $362,000 (Asa Berger 2). Interestingly enough, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that advertising actually makes people want to buy things (Asa Berger 3). The true reason for advertising is the competition for market share. It turns out that most mainstream products are bought regardless of whether they're advertised or not. The real difference advertisements make is in the choices of consumers. An effective commercial on television or radio will make the listener or viewer more inclined to buy a certain brand, although not necessarily inclined to buy the product offered under that brand. At the same time, advertisements keep consumerism alive. The sheer number of ads in today's society makes consumerism seem "normal". Ads glorify buying, making it seem essential for the physical, mental, and even spiritual well being of the consumer. They are written and produced to target specific groups of consumers, and they do so effectively. They affect the collective mind of society, leading it to accept buying luxury items as a way of life - as essential for success. Thus, ads serve a dual purpose - they give a company an edge in the market and at the same time reinforce consumer culture.

Why has nobody been able to challenge consumerism effectively in the past decades? The answer lies in the countercultural movement that has been in place since the 1960's. The counterculture began with the hippie movement of the 60's. The hippies were antiwar protesters and "activists". They tried to wage a cultural war against everything mundane and mainstream,

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