A brief history of consumption

Fables of Abundance - Marketing Madness - The Unmanageable Consumer
November 24, 1995

The 20th century has spawned many new ideas and movements, the notion of consumerism and the consumer movement being one. These three books in their own way discuss and evaluate the evolution and development of our consumer society. Some anthropologists have argued that Homo sapiens developed language to improve deception, the use of deceptive strategies being viewed as having an evolutionary advantage. This argument could then be taken further with the notion that advertising is an extension of this hypothesis, seeking to maintain and extend consumerism by the use of advertising/marketing strategies that many consumers might view as deceptive.

In Fables of Abundance, Jackson Lears has sought to document and explain the cultural history of advertising in America. While not being quite in the tome category, it is an impressive volume tracing the pervasive advance of advertising in American society. Not a book for the casual reader but one seeking the very roots of advertising in American culture and suggesting arguments for its present omnipotence. It will, therefore, be of interest to both social historians and those interested in understanding the evolution of the consumer culture.

In his introduction Lears acknowledges that when research for the book began, in Jimmy Carter's presidency, the climate in America had changed, challenging some of the values being pushed by corporate America. This was quickly reversed during the Ronald Reagan years when American business was striving to regain its market share and actively promoting the concept of ever increasing consumption, feeding on individual consumer greed and the need for an ever improving lifestyle with corporate-sponsored advertising moving to new heights. This was paralleled in the UK with our own consumer boom in the 1980s.

The first part of the book is concerned mainly with the reconfiguration of wealth and much philosophical imagery is used, from "hungry peasant bent to face the earth" to the "severing of production from consumption" - the author seeking to outline the "lyric of plenty". If I have one criticism of this work it is not of the content, which is admirable and comprehensive, but that on occasions it tends to read like an historical novel, which I am sure was not the author's intention. The second part is concerned with the growth of corporate power from its early beginnings with the travelling salesman, culminating in the acceptance by successive administrations that "advertising performs a useful economic function". It charts graphically the dramatic rise of American-led consumerism to a mass market fed with ever increasing expectations by inventive and expensive advertising - "National corporations employed advertising agencies to represent factory-produced goods to a mass market". I found this section the best in the book, liberally sprinkled with excellent historical anecdotes and examples. Lears also includes copious references in each chapter which are listed in a notes section at the back of the book. This was a trifle confusing. A list of all references by sequential number rather than each chapter individually numbered would have made the reader's task easier when trying to trace the source of a particular reference.

Lears goes on to chronicle the changes in fortune - "trauma, denial, recovery". Starting with the stockmarket crash of October 1929 - "decades of complacence had left advertisers vulnerable to adversity" - through to the changes in attitudes in America brought about by the Vietnamese War. While the author includes many well-known, and in some cases not so well-known, figures in the text there are some omissions. I would have thought that Ralph Nader and Henry Ford were worth a mention for their contributions to the advertising/ cosumerism debate; the Ford Motor Company gets only a brief mention. Their ideas and commercial practices have made just as big an impact on corporate America and its advertising arm as others mentioned, especially Nader's comment about the automobile industry in America: "their cars being unsafe at any speed". It would however be unkind to criticise Lears for this, as numerous examples are admirably discussed. The final part attempts to link advertising with the arts and, as the author puts it, "the search for form and meaning in a commodity civilisation". The book, while certainly not one for the casual student of advertising and the consumer movement, outlines in detail the cultural history of American advertising and should fuel much debate between social historians.

Students of consumer studies, marketing and allied areas should be jumping with joy at the publication of the next two books, especially The Unmanageable Consumer by Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang. In such a broad subject area as consumer studies, which encompasses so much, it is difficult for tutors to find texts that cover such a broad curriculum at an affordable price. Marketing Madness and The Unmanageable Consumer fulfil such a task. With increasing cohort numbers on degree programmes, tutors are having to rely more on a student-led approach to teaching and learning than perhaps was previously the norm in areas such as consumer studies. These texts should be there on the reading lists for such courses.

Marketing Madness - a survival guide for a consumer society - is aimed principally at the American reader, but with multinational corporations and mobile consumers many of the examples cited will be readily understood by their British and European counterparts and probably further afield. A helpful foreword by Ralph Nader, looked upon by many as the guru of the consumer movement, introduces the reader to the economic, moral and political issues addressed within the chapters that follow. The magazine-type format aids the reader through the various parts, chapters and sections and in following the many excellent examples outlined. The book is divided into two parts; the face of commercialism and facing commercialism. The reader is introduced to the perils facing today's consumer; the various ploys used by advertisers and marketeers in selling their goods and services are graphically represented. Most sections contain a "what you can do box" outlining how unsuspecting consumers could or should respond to such ploys and to whom they can complain. The organisations cited can in most cases be readily transposed to their British conterparts, and the many American examples and case studies will be readily identifiable by British consumers.

The authors go on to address the impact of commercialism and how consumers can seek to control the seemingly endless advance of commercialism into their daily lives. Each chapter is divided into a number of sections which student readers should find helpful and tutors useful in planning their teaching programmes. Written by Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Commercialism and executive director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, together with fellow author Laurie Ann Mazur (writer and consultant) in a student-friendly style, it is liberally sprinkled with examples and advertising anecdotes. The subtitle of Jacobson's and Mazur's book is A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society. It is a survival guide in so far as it offers remedies for individual consumers and more importantly policymakers. On the debit side some of the arguments cited have a particular social and political slant. I found particularly interesting the chapters on targeting children and private and public broadcasting because of my own research interests. Here the authors outline the strategies and ploys that are used to stoke childrens' desires, with the outcome being the purchase of expensive consumer durable products which have a limited lifespan, such as Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles. As if that was not bad enough, the authors show how the use of food products marketed in the same fashion can lead to food-choice behaviour that can have detrimental long-term effects.

The final book, The Unmanageable Consumer, could have been entitled "The Unpredictable Consumer" since, as Gabriel and Lang point out, consumers and consumerism have produced a plethora of unforeseen consequences. Tim Lang will be well known to those working in the area of consumer policy-making and this book will add to his reputation. Under the coaxing of pressure groups, consumers now boycott tins of tuna, cosmetics tested on animals and products using animals reared under dubious conditions. This in itself has spawned products that are specifically marketed to counter these boycotts. In fact, you might argue that the extreme case of the consumer acting as an activist is the tampering with products in stores. The consumer is portrayed acting in a number of guises, as chooser, communicator, explorer, identity-seeker, victim, rebel, activist and citizen. It was pleasing to see that the authors made reference to the many academic journals that those working in the developing field of consumer studies use to publish their work, particularly the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Consumer Studies and Home Economics. The book is well written and has extensive references that the serious scholar can use to examine his or her own ideas. The final chapter, "Twilight of Consumerism", is a brave one to attempt, since it is acknowledged that the consumer society in the Western world is in a state of flux. Terms that the authors use, such as "vanishing consumers" (primarily aimed at Third World economies), are becoming increasingly obvious in our own society where many have limited choices they can make but are still confronted by the full blaze of advertising.

Chris Strugnell is course director for consumer studies and director of continuing education, University of Ulster.

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Author - Jackson Lears
ISBN - 0 465 09076 1
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £17.99
Pages - 512

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