Entry 4: Setting the Course

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Hi all:

Please read "Setting the Course," pages 15 to 30 in the Reader.

This is an historical piece taken from the best history of the development of consumer society that I have yet to find.

You will find a lot of historical facts.  Don't worry about that.  You don't have to memorize them.  Instead let your imagination work on the examples.  See if you can begin to feel what it was like to shop, say, in the 19th century, and how that differs from shopping today.  And pay attention to the ideas or assertions Cross throws out about the nature of the consumer society, how for example it functioned in a democracy of goods against class conflict.

When you are finished reading, pick a quotation you think important and write a few lines about why you picked it.  Or paraphrase one of Cross's ideas or examples and write about that and why you find it important.

Thank you.


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"Consumerist system created meaning for Americans far more effectively than politics and civil society"

I picked this quotation because this would be a very controversial statement to make, both in the past and the present. To some extent, I believe this can't be entirely valid because in the end, buying stuff doesn't give you a meaningful life. I think having relationships with family, friends, and even God gives more meaning to someone than say, a car. And if we can include these relationships in "civil society", than I would completely disagree with the author. In my opinion, the author may be praising the consumerist system too much.

"Shopping sometimes was a defensive reaction to insults from the class above or an offensive response to the intrusion of the classes below."

I chose this quote because I found it at first surprising to think of shopping as a defensive response to a threat. When I though about this more I found my self nodding. Personal possessions transcend the functions to which they are supposed to provide. Rather they are now status symbols that distinct the social classes. In order to be dubbed as "rich" a person should have the latest and greatest in an array of goods such as cars, clothes and even homes. Whenever the rest of society catches up it seems as if its the riches duty to upgrade. In a sense, it is the rich that set the trends for the lower classes to mimic.

“Typically, Robert Lynd believed that advertising encouraged an escape from responsibility. In this way, American consumer culture was likened to political totalitarianism.”

The article talks about how advertisements urged people to find certainty in a new car or razor, but this concept of escaping responsibility can also apply to our modern political advertisements. Modern American politics have been likened to any other consumer product in the way it is directed toward the masses. Political advertisements ruthlessly call upon the voter to recognize the blatant correctness of one candidate over the other. They make it seem as if the viewer has no choice but to vote this person, or this ballot measure, if they want to maintain their morality and patriotism. Personal responsibility is lost in advertisements like these because the viewer is given no choice. A candidate is made out to be a heavily desired commodity that will make the life of the viewer so much better. Despite the fact that there are two sides of every political vote, just as there is an option to buy or not buy a product, the advertisement creates a sense that there is only one clear and correct choice.

I found Cross's statement on page 20 to be particularly important. He says, "Unlike racial and even class characteristics, cars and foods as well as hats and clothes could be put on and taken off, depending on social and psychological circumstances."

This was interesting to me because no one can really hide who they are or for instance the color of their skin, so it seems to me they used these material items to blend in to their surroundings. They were able to alter, even if it was slightly, the way they looked in order to fit in more. This seems to be a good thing for the people who were less privileged because others who were more privileged would not criticize them as much. However, it would have been better if people did not have to use material items to feel comfortable and to feel better about themselves. In a perfect society everyone would be accepting of each others' differences and there would be no need for cover ups.

"Shopping sometimes was a defensive reaction to insults from the class above or an offensive response to the intrusion of the classes below...Consumption became a means of waging class war..."

I picked this quote because I think that Cross employs the idea that consumerism is used to stratify class. I find it both interesting and especially relevant today as consumers strive to appear wealthy with material objects (as we discussed 'knock offs' and fakes in class). While I agree with his statement, I beg to differ with his later comment about private luxury cars being "disguised by the claim that the individual was merely asserting personal freedom" because this claim is basically based on theory. I think that the motivation of the affluent to purchase expensive material objects cannot be explained away as a defensive act. A rich man might just have a luxury car because he wants a luxury car.

"Packages seduced shoppers with the subliminal appeal of their color and shape and made them loyal customers with the predictable flavor and feel of their contents."

I chose this quotation because I believe that this is so true, even today. Many people, including myself, will spend just that little bit of extra money to buy the product of the brand that they prefer. I do not care how many times people tell me that the generic counterpart tastes or feels the same; I want the name brand product. There is a comfort in knowing that I know exactly what I am getting, no matter when I buy it.

"Ads linked material goods to immaterial longing, blending social, psychological, and physical needs indivisibly."

Advertisements became tools for companies to psychology manipulate their consumers and based on sales records, they were effective. This brings me to the sales of women's sportswear. With the implementation of Title IX, which states that no one, on the basis of sex, should be excluded from education programs or activities that receives financial support from the government,women began to participate in the male-dominant realm of sports. Advertisements by Nike and Reebok sent out a message that through sports, young girls could lead better lives and that through working out, self-satisfaction and empowerment could be achieved. The problem with these advertisements is that a leap in logic appears and they psychologically manipulate women into believing that sports and working out is the only way to be empowered. These advertisements fail to acknowledge the fact that there are class divisions that prevent many young women from participating in sports and other activities.

"Mass consumption did not lead to an egalitarian community of affluent and secure citizens. Rather, competition for status goods divided and often frustrated spenders."

I find this section of the assigned reading one of the most important to me because it exemplifies how conspicuous consumption did not aid the people but separated them in more visible social strata. I think that today people more than ever try to appear "richer" in every way. I know people myself that drive themselves into debt when buying cars and clothing items to equalize them to the upper class. Also now there are a lot of stores that help people appear that they are wealthy by selling discounted designer clothes and shops such as Forever21 that have the latest fashions for lower class people with lower quality but in appearance look the same as the major designer collections of the season. I do believe that since the 1900s the visible gab between the social stratum has decreased but the want to be up there with the riches in still in the back of most people minds.

"A strategy of substituting consumer aspirations for producer dreams extended beyond the ranks of the native Caucasian blue-collar worker. It appealed also to the immigrant or uprooted American, for whom new consumer goods offered a relatively quick way of assimilating in a city or suburb."

This quote portrays how outsiders and settlers attempted to assimilate into American culture by "buying" into the consumer movement. It seems as if it was a way to make oneself "American" or become part of the "American" lifestyle. Moreover, I think it says more about what the "American dream" and what it actually was at that time. Not only did immigrants come to the US to "get a job" or "work hard", but I think there was also a strong consciousness and aspiration about enhancing your status and being able to consume more.

"They aided immigrants, the young, the newly urbanized, or the simply insecure to avoid the humiliation of being nobodies and the anxiety of facing a world of strangers"
I found this quotation important because despite all the negativities of consumerism, the author points out one positive effect it had on the masses. It was able to tear down the ancient barriers of nobility by letting everyone buy symbolic goods, products were no longer inclusive. The author makes a lot of correlations between America's democracy and competitive market, and I found it interesting how the market created a economic system for the masses, just as democracy creates a political system for the masses. The irony as the author alludes too is that the benefits of consumerism are simply an illusion. We can buy products like somebody's, but still won't be them. It gives no real answers on how to be a better person.

The quotes that stood out to me are: "the decline of a political vision of social equality made a culture of mass consumption seem a natural and inevitable alternative" and "competition for status goods divided spenders"

These quotes show how infatuated America became with consumer goods. Consumerism became Americas religion because it was so integrated and so real to Americas prosperity. Consumption was not equal across classes and even helped separate and create new socioeconomic classes. soon enough consumers wealth was classsified in terms of their goods and certain goods were produced and advertised for specific socioeconomic classes.

the interesting social aspect of the emergence of new socioeconomic classes was the autonomy created by it. the autonomy I am referring to is the replacement of character for material goods. material goods quickly became a means to express something. what makes this autonomous is the fact that these products became universal with tools like assembly lines and packaging. these universal products were then sold to everybody regardless of class, race, age, etc... now different races and age groups were autonomous and shared a common link; consumer goods.

"Ads, displaying fashion, cosmetics, and household goods, became the main purpose of women's magazines. As one advertising executive admitted in 1907, 'a magazine is simply a device to induce people to read advertising.'" (Pg. 30)

This quote got me thinking for a variety of reasons. Targeted advertising is obviously ideal for a company because there wouldn't be much value in running ads for household goods in Playboy, for the same reason that Spike TV doesn't run ads for fabric softener. It seems that the effectiveness of targeted ads had already been realized in the early 1900s and it hasn't changed much since then. The executive's comment on the point of a magazine, to advertise rather than to entertain, gives insight as to the mind of advertisers. Any entertainment accompanied by advertising is just entertainment to us viewers, but things like television, radio, magazines (other than subscription fees) gain most of their revenue from ads. Our consumerism is what keeps them alive and well.

"In the generation after 1900, consumption had became a substitute for conversation in a society where rituals of communication were already weak and growing weaker."

I think it is interesting to look at this quote from our own point of view as young adults in the 21st century. With the inception of modern technology, we are now so fascinated with the idea of consumption that we neglect to form 'real' and meaningful relationships with other. Forming friendship and establishing companions is becoming less important because we have an influx of new products to ease our boredom. For example, who needs friends when we have computer simulated players to play games with us? I realize that I spend probably more time each day 'interacting' with my computer (whether its online shopping, blog browsing, facebook stalking) than I do interacting with people face to face. Our generation is made up of those who constantly consume, and when we are not in the act of consuming, we are most likely dreaming about it.

"Listerine mouthwash become a necessity in the bathrooms of millions of Americans when, in the 1920s, ads warned the insecure that 'halitosis' (offensive breath) unbeknownst to them could ruin their careers, love lives and friendships unless prevented with daily use of Listerine".

I found this quote and the entire passage surrounding it interesting because it demonstrates how the attitude and thoughts of an entire population can be altered by advertising. Before Listerine, it can be assumed that no one was very concerned about bad breath. But by the 1920s, it seems almost everyone in the US was worried about it as a result of this ads that made them self-conscious. This is a legacy that continues today. However, it could be argued that without the invention of Listerine and its form of advertisement, the concern with bad-breath would not exist today. That one ad campaign could alter the course of an entire society is baffling and demonstrates the power that companies have over consumers.

"The growth of the consumer society coincided with the decline of self-sufficiency, neighborliness, and family interactions. It replaced traditional social roles and identities with those purchased in the market"

This quote really struck me because one thing I have always noticed about contemporary American society is, at least in the places where I have lived in the U.S., a complete lack of interaction between neighbors. Attributing this lack of interaction to the consumer society seems to have some truth to it, especially in larger cities, but this is the first time that I have ever heard this issue explained in this way. A lot of early American communities were centered around religious and political institutions (such as town meeting halls) and with the rise of the consumer society, interest in community participation seems to have declined and search of enjoyment through material goods appears to be taking its place.

"Much advertising was one-sided, selling goods with sophisticated and manipulative appeals. But ads also gave meaning to consumption, showing how products could be used to shape personal identity and social relationships."

I chose this quotation because I honestly thought that it was kind of silly. I think it's great that the emergence of consumerism may have helped to bring people together and democratize the country but as of late, it seems to do the opposite. I also think that it's sad that the consumption of products is what "shape[s] personal identity and social relationships." Shouldn't personal identity and social relationships be based on what people are and not what they own? It's interesting to see how consumerism has changed since this period since it is being praised for bringing together a nation whereas now, it makes class divisions much clearer. Especially with the consumption of name brands, the divisions between the classes in the U.S. are so prominent and if anything, name brands have only further divided the gap between social classes. All in all, I disagree with this statement and think that consumerism divides people.

"Unlike racial and even class characteristics, cars and foods as well as hats and clothes could be put on and taken off, depending on social and psychological circumstances."

I really like this idea of universal materialism and consumerism. Although yes, I agree that things that are advertised for the general public need to be race/ethnic neutral, I also believe that many goods represent symbolically a certain ethnic culture. Many of these objects are advertised with hopes that the general stereotypes that a advertiser will use in marketing to a specific group will snag the fish, so to speak. In many times they are right. Yet, I question if it is the actual good, or maybe what we as humans place as a meaning to what that good represents. While we wear neutral clothing/cars/goods to try and mask out ethnic/race identity, we are only substituting it for a new one. All material goods are significant to humans in that it is what they tell us about the person that is important. In looking at the fashion rather than function, we do not eliminate the ethnic stereotypes of material goods, but rather create new identities that will too also be stereotyped. For example, in-stead of a black man wearing Fubu he might wear Calvin Klein. A person might say that he is trying to fit in with the white-high-class working man.

"As important, consumer goods were liberating in ways that other expressions of self and society were not. Unlike racial or even class characteristics, cars and foods as well as hats and clothes could be put on and taken off, depending on social and psychoogical circumstances."

I chose this quote because I found the idea of consuming items as a mechanism for creating fluidity of identity fascinating. It's just not something that I've ever considered formally before. When I really think about it though, I define a lot about myself though the material possessions that I surround myself with. I try to buy particular clothes, I've decorated my room in a particular fashion, I frequent certain restaurants, etc. A lot of my identity is based on my likes and dislikes in relation to the goods I consume. Of course the other immutable aspects of my identity certainly define me as well, but I've never thought of consumption of goods as excercising an agency within my own identity.

"Unlike racial or even class characteristics, cars and foods as well as hats and clothes could be put on and taken off, depending on social and psychological circumstances"

It is interesting how this quotes says that it seems as if people believe they can conceal their race or class by hiding beneath their consumer products. Also this further highlights the fact that people feel the need to fit in which causes an increase in consumption. This is definitely one of the factors that trigers the selling of counterfeit products. When people can not afford to keep up with current trends, they are drawn towards the black market.

The world today is a place full of uncertainty and fear. We fear terrorism and global warming; we fear that our economy will fail. We fear we aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or rich enough. It seems with each coming day, there is something else on television that reconfirms and adds to our worry. In this sea of doubt, it is no surprise that people are increasingly turning to reliable consumer goods to ease their uncertainty. In the introduction to “What is Wrong With Happiness?”, Zygmunt Bauman argues that "labels, logos, shops are the few remaining safe havens amidst the ominous rapids that threaten your safety; the few shelters of certainty in a vexingly uncertain world"(11). I agree with this point. While the act of consumerism has been evolving for centuries, I believe the massive increase in American consumerism since 1950s is largely a result of the correlation that has developed between shopping and security.

Shopping is often used to quell feelings of inadequacy. When a teenager feels unpopular, she can buy a new, fashionable dress to feel better. If a housewife feels old, she can purchase some expensive anti-wrinkle cream. If a bachelor feels lonely, he can buy a new suit to attract women. But where do these feelings of inadequacy originate? Why do we feel that buying something is the solution to making us feel better? The answer stems from the long history of advertising. Advertisements have paved the course for the consumer’s perceived need to purchase certain items to solve their problems.

Gary Cross brings up an interesting idea regarding the growth of the consumerist timeframe in his article wherein he states “In the generation after 1900, consumption had become a substitute for conversation in a society where rituals of communication were already weak and growing weaker.” This analogy exemplifies the rate at which consumerism was taking hold of American society, and also highlights the beginnings of when Americans started becoming detached from the real world around them, replacing and filling the void of real relationships for shallow consumption tendencies and technological toys. However, as we see more clearly now in analyzing growing trends and consumerist patterns within the last decade, the latter is the healthier way of life. I believe balance to be the key component of life; realistically there are many conveniences and benefits to technological advancements in modern society - it is when such advancements become one’s central focus that they actually in turn lose focus of the finer things in life.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick Tingle published on December 28, 2010 12:04 PM.

Entry 3: The Emergence of Consumerism was the previous entry in this blog.

Entry 5: Why the Self Is Empty is the next entry in this blog.

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