There’s lots of talk floating about about consumerism being a great evil that needs to be subverted and overthrown. What there is much less of is intelligent discussion of what consumerism actually is, and particularly what it is that drives it and sustains it. In that vein, I’m reading The Rebel Sell (which is now published as A Nation of Rebels), which attempts to go beyond the Adbusters and No Logo-type indictments of consumer culture for something much more rigorous. Here’s a sample:
Say the word “consumerism,” and what image comes to mind? Most people think, once again, of the classic ’50s suburb. They see shiny Buick tail fins, white picket fences, cookie-cutter homes, men in gray flannel suits and skinny ties. They think of people trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” trying to impress the neighbors with the latest gadget, parking their shiny new cars in the driveway and obsessing over their status in the community. Above all, they imagine a society of compulsive conformists, a herd of sheep, subject to eternal manipulation by advertisers and corporations.
Yet the idea that consumerism is driven by a desire to conform is not obvious. Kids sometimes demand a particular style of jeans or a given brand of sneakers, on the grounds that “all the other kids have them.” They want to fit in, to be accepted. But how many adults act this way? Most people spend the big money not on things that help them to fit in, but on things that allow them to stand out from the crowd. They spend their money on goods that confer distinction. People buy what makes them feel superior, whether by showing they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (Cuban cigars), better informed (single-malt Scotch), more discerning (Starbucks espresso), morally superior (Body Shop cosmetics) or just plain richer (Louis Vuitton bags).
Consumerism, in other words, would appear to be a product of consumers trying to outdo one another. It is competitive consumption that creates the problem, not conformity. If consumers were just conformists, then they would all go out and buy exactly the same stuff, and everyone would be happy. Furthermore, there would be no reason to go out and buy anything new. Thus the desire to conform fails to explain the compulsive character of consumer behavior—why people keep spending more and more even though they are overextended, and even though it brings them no happiness in the long run.
Heath and Potter, The Rebel Sell, 102-3.