The Myth of Consumerism
Every society has mythology. In some societies, it's religion. Our religion is consumerism.
Ellen Weis, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Mythology
Consumerism fuels the capitalist fire. In a capitalist society, the goal is to make money, by whatever means possible, exploiting whichever potential weakness that might exist. The human race is one with a wild imagination, and this wild imagination, though a great strength, can, like all great strengths, serve as a potential weakness.
It is our imaginations that advertising exploits, and it is our imaginations that religion and myth traditionally played the role of satiating, telling stories that have morals to them, lessons to be learned. Now consumerism fulfills this role. The consumer ideology serves as the golden rule, advertising serves as sermons, products serve as our idoltry, and just as religion instills faith at an early age, so too does consumerism.
Ellen Weis (qtd. in "Advertising Characters" 1997) speaks from the perspective of one who is an authority on mythology. Her analogy between religion and consumerism is an accurate one. Undoubtedly, she's referring to this role that consumerism is playing in stimulating our imaginations. It does this by telling us a story, with us playing the lead role, painting a picture of life as being better with the products being sold to us. Our imaginations are carried away by these stories. We want to believe them because they make sense of the world. We want to believe that all it takes to be happy is a trip to the store. This making sense of the world and simplifying to such a triviality is exactly the reason why myths are created.
For example, nearly every cigerette ad features a picture of an ideal person smoking their brand, ideal at least by the standards of most people who long to be accepted. For women, the smoker typically has long blonde hair, a beautiful smile, and perfect, white teeth. The ads that best demonstrates this are those for Virginia Slims. For men you have Marlboro with the infamous "Marlboro man," who is a rugged, handsome loner out in the countryside with his horse and campfire. The ads seem to say, "this could be you." All it takes is a trip to the store and a couple of bucks for a pack.
Like all myths, the stories these ads tell have a moral to them. The lesson they teach is: your life can be better with these products or, put another way, you can be a better person with these products. This is the consumer ideology and, just like every religion has some "golden rule" that pervades all of its lessons, consumerism too has its own golden rule, the consumer ideology. All of its lessons seem to be based upon this underlying assumption that more is better, that we need the things we're being sold, and that somehow buying them will make us happier and better people.
Of course the medium for these lessons are the ads themselves. Advertising nearly always has some emotional appeal to them. Instead of catering to our intellect and giving us rational reasons why we should consume the products they flaunt, rather they cater to our emotions. What better way to stimulate our imaginations? This is almost directly analogous to the emotional appeal traditionally found in sermons. Especially before our society has become so secular and scientific, sermons were heavily driven by emotion.
One heavy emotion that we're susceptible to is fear. Fear tactics are used in advertising just as they are in sermons. For example, the Dial soap ads use the slogan, "aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everyone did?" This slogan seems to assume that the consumer already uses their product which can't possibly be the case because if it were, why would they need to advertise? Thus they seem to be implying that if you aren't using Dial, you'd sure better redeem yourself quickly before they find out! Similar fear tactics are also used in religious sermons. One extreme example of such sermons are those presented by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he says, for example, that sinners "deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them." Whereas the Dial ads try to subtly hint that you'll become one of those people cast from society if you don't redeem yourself, the sermons tend to blatantly tell you that you'll become one of those people cast from God's Kingdom if you don't redeem yourself. One is subtle and the other blatant, but both are effective in swaying their audience.
Just as advertising and sermons both appeal to the emotion of fear, they both also appeal to the emotion of hope. This can be seen in many of the Chevron commercials a few years ago. These ads are almost indistinguishable from religious sermons. They show deeds of great philanthropy and conclude, "do people really care this much? People do." They ensure us that there is still hope, that things aren't as bad as they seem, although they also seem to imply that they're somehow partly the cause of it all. Why else would they show the ads? You could almost take such an ad, remove the name "Chevron," and call it a sermon on the Good Samaritan. Indeed, the Good Samaritan was a God-fearing person, and the implication is that that's somehow the cause of his good deeds.
Such reassurance almost takes the place of people actually being Good Samaritans themselves. While they themselves seem less than perfect, they can always look to this image of kindness and project onto it their fears of their race being a total abomination of God and be reassured by it. Such projection onto material objects seems almost a religious necessity. Since they cannot have the actual Buddha or the actual Christ, for example, sitting in front of them, they instead meditate or pray to a sacred idol which represents their savior. This sort of idoltry is exactly what consumerism offers. People seek happiness, acceptance, nobility, and love, and since these attributes seem so hard to come by in America, they instead substitute for them the products that represent them, which seem much easier to come by. In fact, they require nothing more than a trip to the market.
Our imaginations are so susceptible to such idoltry that it can be taken to levels of outright absurdity and still be effective. A recent ad for the PalmPilot, which is nothing more than a handheld computer, featured a completely naked woman holding one in such a way as to cover the bare essentials. We can't have the naked woman, but we can have the PalmPilot. Although we seek love and sex, these are harder to obtain, so we settle for a handheld computer that's been visually associated with these desires yet have nothing to do with them.
There are hundreds of stimuli which elicit reactions that are induced by advertising. From before we can speak, we experience constant, repeated, product-oriented stimulation coming in from all five senses. Many companies base their entire existence on the temptation of children. Some of the first words many children speak are from advertising jingles. It's no wonder that we're all obsessed with consumerism. It's almost surprising that anyone is capable of breaking this trance. Often, religion is seen as being this way. Although most religions do similarly instill their faith at a young age, the exposure to it isn't nearly as constant and repeated, it's message not so tempting. The effect is greatly underestimated and, for the most part, mysterious, because we're all caught in its spell.
All of the toy companies and most of the fast food restraunts have multi-million dollar campaigns aimed at children. It's not even children that do the purchasing, it's the parents, and these companies are cashing in on the parents' love for their children, as well as the susceptable minds of the children. Religion, too, aims a lot of its teachings at children. Almost every church has a Sunday school oriented toward convincing the susceptable children. There are plenty of animated Bible story books available to teach children in a way that they can understand.
The perfect marriage between consumerism and religion can be found in the myth of Santa Claus. As if the celebration of the birth of Christ wasn't quite enough, a new character had to be born, one specifically oriented toward children, one that is more expendible and mysterious. This is religion for children, replacing toys for Heaven, Santa Claus for God, reindeer for angels, and a naughty and nice list for punishing sin. It's difficult to sell Heaven to children because they live much more in the present than do adults, but toys they want, and toys provide instant gratification: they can see the results of their behavior on Christmas morning. But most of all, the increased need for toys to supply for this myth provides a tenfold increase in profits. The effect doesn't stop there but trickles down into the economy for the entire lives of those children, for once a child learns the love for toys, they will always love toys, more expensive and exotic though they may be. Whereas a child might have miniature-sized cars for toys, when they get older they have full-sized cars for toys. If consumerism is our religion, then Christmas would be our religious holiday, now representing both our worship for products as well as our worship of Christ.
It seems consumerism shares with religion many more of the bad characteristics than the good. Like the example above shows, consumerism takes advantage of innocent minds much more than religion does. Also, religion serves many good purposes, such as teaching charity and love, whereas consumerism tends to only teach greed and fear. Even Good Samaritan ads, like in the Chevron example, are tainted with the greedy intentions of the company. Finally, although religion does tend to portray sex as taboo, consumerism tends to cash in on this attitude by portraying it as something scary, as in the PalmPilot example; the ads seem to act like the only way to get sex is by buying their products. While some religions and cults have bad effects on people's minds, consumerism seems to have worse effects. Still, they both share all of their main characteristics: morals, stories, idoltry, and faith, but consumerism seems to be coming out ahead in the race for the minds of Americans. Ellen Weis seems correct in calling consumerism our religion.
Adams, McCrea. "Advertising Characters." Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 2nd ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford, 1997.