Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor

Isabelle Szmigin on how ‘pleasure engineers’ have affected our physical and social well-being

October 9, 2014

Although it is implied throughout, it is in this book’s final chapters that Gary Cross and Robert Proctor present its principal argument: the packaged pleasures that have brought us convenience and enjoyment come at a significant cost to our physical and social well-being. These costs include obesity caused by highly calorific sweets and convenience foods, smoking-related illnesses, and a somewhat less easy to identify loss of sociability engendered by packaged images (cinema and television), recorded music and even funfairs. So-called pleasure engineers have enhanced the sensations of food, sound, pictures and rides and in so doing are responsible for the loss of social interaction. We would prefer to spend time listening to our MP3 players, contend the authors, than exploring the beauty of the countryside. Marketers are held responsible for finding new ways to insinuate packaged pleasures on a public longing to smooth out and improve their quotidian existence.

So yet again, marketing is held to account for the evils of the modern consumer world, but there is a flaw in the authors’ argument. Up to this point, they have provided readers with a comprehensive discussion of the history of the technologies that produced the highly calorific foods, easily accessed tobacco and entertainments that we can all now enjoy at home. But it is this research and development that has brought us these packaged pleasures; marketing only communicates to potential consumers that such pleasures are available. Cross and Proctor worry that this “stuff”, as they refer to it, will spread to the wider world. In his essay on the poverty of morality, anthropologist Danny Miller has warned that we should be wary of criticising others’ aspirations to the consumption we enjoy in the West, but this is exactly what Cross and Proctor seem to suggest – we may have been duped by packaged pleasures, but we must somehow stop the rest of the world falling for the same opiate.

Nevertheless, for the historian of consumer goods, Packaged Pleasures offers a comprehensive discussion of an eclectic mix of products including confectionery, convenience foods, cigarettes, sound recordings, film and amusement parks. Each chapter carefully and methodically describes how, over the past century or so, technology has transformed our sensual experiences into packaged pleasures that are relatively inexpensive, wrapped, labelled, branded and marketed to ever more people. While I can accept the argument that this process has led not only to the individualisation of experience but also to many physical as well as social ills, technologies such as the containerisation of food have also enabled relatively cheap food to be available to many more people.

I was left with a nagging sense of an elitism that posits packaged pleasures as being merely for the common herd. Why, for example, does the chapter on “packaged sight” use a Hollywood casino as an example of a culture of sight, when it could just as easily have cited an art gallery such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has very carefully packaged the experience of its visitors? The authors recommend we desensitise ourselves to packaged pleasures and pursue hobbies or adventures, and seek satisfaction in increasing our skills and experience. Personally, when I get home from a long day at the office I am glad of a few packaged pleasures.

Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire

By Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor
University of Chicago Press, 336pp, £24.50
ISBN 97802261217
Published 23 September 2014

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