ESSAY: The Cycle of Consumption

Adapted from the forthcoming book Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
Consumerism is a life of consumption—consumption limited only by the ability of each individual to consume. Before consumption, though, there must be production, and to consume, there must be a means to acquire. It should be evident that these three things are intertwined, a never-ending circle of producing to earn to spend to buy to consume. There are few people whose lives are not shaped by the drive to produce and earn so that they might consume more, and far too large a proportion who produce and earn to the very limits of their ability, that they might consume to the limits of their reach.

As we saw in the preceding essay, this cycle of consumption is a natural thing and when individuals consume only what they need, their efforts to produce and earn need only be enough to enable that consumption. The problem comes from the cycle speeding up, from both internal and external forces, until the damaging condition of utmost earning to reach maximum consumption is taken as the norm.

Let’s examine the cycle of consumption—the engine of consumerism.

See-Want-Buy

The front-line champions of consumerism are the advertisers and marketing departments of companies large and small, as well as those of pan-industry “boards” and “councils” created to foster consumption of an entire industry’s output. Since at least the early twentieth century, the goal of the marketing industry has been expressed in the three-word mantra “See, Want, Buy.” Their goal is to get you to see a product, want it, and buy it—as mindlessly and automatically as possible, and increasingly, as quickly as possible. In some ways, See-Want-Buy is the distilled essence of consumerism’s destructive force.

Marketing has become a sufficiently well-honed tool that the mantra can be effectively collapsed into two words: See-Buy, with even the stop in between reduced from a pause to a blink. “Want” has become so ingrained and automatic that the advertising campaigns for many products hardly need to expend words and effort making the viewer want the item; seeing it creates an instantaneous desire to acquire it. In this respect, advertising has streamlined itself so that the presentation of a product becomes its own invitation to buy. Look at how many ads have almost no content besides an image of the product. Advertising, and the ad audience, are a generation past the point where attractive art of the product caught the eye so that a few dozen to a few hundred words could explain why the product was so desirable. It’s gone from “See this wonderful product? Let us make you really want it, so that you go out and buy it” to a flash-card “Buy this!” with “NOW!” rippling subliminally beneath the images.

It’s easy to illustrate this progression: find a few copies of any general-circulation magazine from the 1940s through early 1950s—Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, etc. You will find few ads that do not make a specific and detailed “why you want this” pitch, and the long-text ads (a full page of text, or nearly so) popular in earlier eras can still be spotted. Compare these issues with any more recent ones, at ten-year intervals up to the present, and you will see a steady diminishment of text (“copy”) and specific pleas to want/buy the product. Most ads in present-day mainstream magazines will have no more than a well-crafted cutline (slogan sentence) or two; the extreme is reached in fashion and upscale magazines where a full-page ad often consists of a high-art photo of the product and an inconspicuous brand name or icon. Distilled essence of “See-Buy,” with “of course you want this item, right now” needing no expression or specific encouragement.

This is a common progression in all advertising, both over time and over the life of the product being advertised. It is especially noticeable over a span of decades, as above, and when presenting products that are significantly changed from predecessors or represent a completely new category of product. When a new class or type of product is created, the first ads have to explain the purported problem, and how the product addresses them, in considerable detail. Later ads can simply reference the problem and solution in shorter terms while moving the product and brand name to the foreground. The final stage is when the product can simply be presented, without any explanation of its function or purpose, and generate Want-Buy simply by being Seen. The audience has been conditioned to understand the product and its purported benefits, and needs only be sold on that brand, model or source… along with any improvements, of course.

An Example: Programmed Hygiene

Nearly all modern grooming and hygiene products followed this three-part advertising curve. In the early years of the twentieth century, women first had to be told that underarm and leg hair was unsightly and “not modern,” with a mention that shaving products especially for women were now available. Later installments reminded them of the problem and emphasized that the manufacturers had a wonderful solution. In the final phase, there was no need to describe or mention the problem, only that the lady of distinction of course preferred the advertised brand for all her needs… needs that were created by the marketing campaign itself; needs that were driven more by the desire for corporate revenue than any meaningful need for women to remove their down. In the end, the razor makers were more concerned about doubling their market base than providing any truly worthwhile service or function.

The same pattern has been used to drive the rise and near-universal acceptance of mouthwash, underarm deodorant and many other products—first explain what it is, then explain why ours is best, then explain no longer, just sell. In recent years, the process has been used to create and then drive markets for instant and fast foods, disposable cleaning products, and increasingly complex and expensive “shaving systems” for men. That few if any of these products bring genuine convenience, savings or improved efficiency has nothing to do with their creation, marketing and blind acceptance by consumers. They are con games created to separate money from eager marks.

It is not enough for manufacturers and product producers to improve existing products; the sacred endeavor is to devise, create and then sell products as the putative solutions to invented problems… all with the maximum lock on that exclusive solution through patents and other methods. The need is created from thin air, and once accepted by the market, it can only be bought from the source that invented it. The stereotypical street-corner drug seller can only gape in awe at the ice-hearted corporate process that leads to such cycles. (We’ll look at such created needs in more detail, further on.)

It’s a part of the renegade manifesto that we are not opposed to marketing and advertising; it has a place in the conduct of business. That place, however, is not in manipulating and controlling lives, choices, hearts and minds, and there is little consumer advertising that works to any other end. Such selling of created needs is manipulation not far removed in principle from armed robbery.

The Universal Omission

It is worth noting that no ad, in any medium, has ever presented a product with the message “buy this only if you can genuinely afford it” or even “if you genuinely need it.” The goal of marketing is to encourage the audience to buy the products at any cost—any personal, financial, ecological or global cost, and irrespective of any genuine need. When challenged on such grounds, marketers primly defend the practice by expressing the belief that all buyers must be self-responsible adults and make their choices accordingly.

Which would be fine and logical, were the marketing mavens not collectively working to beat the idea of acquisition for its own sake, acquisition at any cost, into the minds of all they can reach. Even more so, were it not that an increasing amount of advertising is focused at pre-adults, raising ethical questions about selling to those too young to make reasonable choices about acquisition and need… and raising yet further ethical questions about conditioning youth to grow into even more grasping consumers. Their absolving argument is akin to scattering poisoned candy in a school yard and then blaming the child who eats it.

You can’t condition someone to want something desperately, even come to believe it’s an essential need, then say it’s their fault for taking it. But the marketing and advertising industry stands on this contradiction: If someone destroys their personal finances making a purchase, or purchases, driven by incessant and meticulously targeted advertising, it’s their own fault; they should have known better. You shouldn't have picked up the candy, you idiot.

Renegades do know better—first off, that the marketing industry itself has a few things to learn.

Advertising: The Monster’s Shadow

The terms marketing and advertising are used throughout these writings. It is of surpassing importance that readers—renegades in development, or in full—understand that they are not the same thing, and are only very loosely interchangeable. Further on, we’ll get into a detailed discussion of what defines marketing and the role of advertising, but for now absorb and understand these basics:

Marketing is the overall effort to promote a product’s desirability to buyers.

Advertising is a promotional tool used by marketing.

It’s fair to say that if marketing is the monster stalking our economic lives and well-being, advertising is the monster’s shadow. That shadow tells a useful tale and gives away the monster’s size and shape, at least to a savvy observer, but it is not the monster itself and deserves little attention.

Many prior anti-consumerism efforts and endless individual pundits have expended their energy and bile railing at advertising, with somewhat less than zero effect. Taking an anti-advertising stance, by itself, is to allow yourself to be distracted by the illusion... and that is part of its purpose. Let’s keep the real monster in mind as we proceed.

Selling vs. Buying

For every thing sold, there is a buyer and a seller. Obvious, no? Yes, but the next step in describing the transaction is also dual: there was a purchase, and a sale. Most discussions of economics brush aside the purchase as understood or secondary and speak exclusively of sales—an item is sold, contributing to a business’s total sales. This may or may not be an intentional blurring of the role and position of buyers—consumers—but the model does tend to obscure buying, purchasing and consuming under the umbrella of that understood positive: sales, sales, sales.

Let’s look at again at the definition of consumerism from the first essay:

Consumerism is the idea that buying goods is the central engine of an economy, and that the purpose of a population is to spend money on goods.

This uses an inversion of standard economics dialectic. With its built-in top-down viewpoint, the more conventional economic statement might be:

The central engine of an economy is selling goods, and the purpose of this effort is to gain revenue.

Both statements are true, but view the matter from different angles—and not necessarily opposed ones. Understanding the role of the consumer in economics—really understanding it, not just accepting a two-dimensional stand-in while focusing on the “important” things—requires the bottom-up viewpoint of our definition. The consumer is buying the goods made by business and industry and is thus the central engine of the economy—he or she is not merely a collection bin, a de-vending machine, for the goods industry produces.

Framing the discussion in terms defined by those who benefit from the cycle of consumption is self-limiting. The proper viewpoint is from the position of those being used to fuel the cycle, and when looked at from that perspective, the cycle’s insanity becomes ever less defensible.

When Instant Gratification Is Too Slow

A large part of the reason for the rampant growth of consumerism in recent years is the increasing speed of gratification. Between readily available payment methods (most of which extend into debt tools) and rapid delivery times (down to same-day in some cities, and instantly for digital products), it’s possible to scratch an acquisition itch almost as soon as it occurs. No longer does a buyer have to waste time driving to a store and fencing with a salesperson to acquire an item. No more does he or she have to rummage a catalog, fill out an order form, write a check or get a money order, find stamp, mail off the order, and wait for it to be received, processed, and then shipped. Many online sellers conveniently store buyer information, including credit card data, and allow visitors to buy items with one click—literally one click, with perhaps a confirmation click, and the item is on its way, likely to arrive within one business day. With no hurdles of time or effort, buying every product for which a whim passes became first easy, then accepted, then expected… and is likely crossing into “demanded.”

Marketing has for many years focused on quick gratification, both in selling the product and in how the product in turn can be used to instantly gratify desires. (Nowhere moreso than in the snack and prepared foods area.) Now, it can focus on the next level, truly instant gratification, selling the notion of “click here to own this item now.” Whether it’s one-click ordering or in-store purchases requiring only the wave of a RFID-equipped payment card, the goal is to remove as many small barriers to buying as possible. By enabling the buyer to skate across even the last few hurdles to purchase, moments when they might reconsider or realize the valuelessness of the item, the purchase cycle is speeded up to nearly bypass human perception. It’s apparent that the ultimate goal of the merchandising industry is to remove buyer’s forebrains from the equation, slamming even “See–Buy” down to “Grab!”

Being able to purchase things easily is far more to the seller’s benefit than the buyer’s. Keep that in mind the next time you encounter streamlined payment options, and take it as a warning sign. Purchasing convenience is never for the buyer’s benefit. But then, little is in the world of consumer product sales.

Generational Conditioning

It is difficult to say how long the cycle of consumption has been spinning up to its present, overwhelming levels. There has probably never been a time in modern history that the cycle was one of only need; even in U.S. colonial days and after, there were merchants who sold their wares as trappings of luxury and taste. Without taking a long detour into the history of marketing and advertising, I can say that the early part of the twentieth century seems to represent the earliest days of advertising and consumer buying going past a few luxuries and into the beginnings of See-Want-Buy—the promotion and acquisition of products for their own sake, by individuals and families of modest means. (The rich have always been overconsumers in this respect, but have historically played only a bit part in national economies. One person buying a $300,000 car is a drop in the sea of one million people buying $30,000 ones.)

The rise can be seen even through the Depression-era 1930s and war-frozen 1940s, but the tsunami really gains momentum in the immediate postwar period. By 1950 there are magazine ads that are eerily charming and frighteningly naïve in their naked exhortations to consume, consume, consume… for the good of all, of course. It was presented as good for the U.S. (and thus good for the whole world) to drive up the economy through lavish consumer spending. It is a measure of the absurdity, as viewed from the present era, that there were ads essentially urging families to go out and drive around to use up gas to boost the oil industry. The nuttiness of that message is easy for us to see because decades of concern about oil reserves, fuel costs and gas mileage have changed our viewpoint. The other messages to consume should be as obvious and easy to reject… but they strike us as merely charming, as we have been conditioned for a further sixty years, with increasing sophistication, to do just that, and to a level that would shock a 1950s consumer.

We are, by my estimation, into the fifth generation that has been specifically goaded to consume to our individual limits, and beyond. This applies most to U.S. citizenry, but the rest of the Western world was quick to recover from its more immediate war setbacks and join us (even surpass us, in some places) with exploding consumer economies. India has been chasing consumerism hard since coming into dominance as a member of the technological nations, and the arc of Southeast Asian nations have blended both Western-style consumerism and their own traditions of conspicuous consumption.

As with so many other social and economic trends, each generation takes its parents’s consumption as a norm and is ripe to be sold on an increasing amount. The changes from generation to generation are modest, when viewed on the overall scale, but the consumption habits and methods of my children would have shocked my grandparents into insensibility. The idea that their descendants would shape their lives to consume would horrify them; my own horror at the idea is likely a pale shadow of what theirs would have been.

With the current generations, we have been pushed to exist purely as consumers, and pushed nearer the limits of how much we can consume, always striving to acquire more, at any cost. It is blankly horrifying to consider where the cycle might go from here.

Two-Handed Engines

To put things less conventionally, we have become nothing more than economic engines, expending our days and our energy and our potential earning to buy to consume, always eyeing the next step up that will increase our earning-consuming ability. Few of us ever say ‘enough’ and stop the cycle; those who seem to have usually only changed targets. They have the largest and most lavish house they can conceive of owning, so they turn to filling it with the most expensive and lavish contents. Growing weary of things, they turn to a sport or a hobby or travel, finding new ways to spend as much as they can earn. But always it is one more leg up in earning ability or income, so that another step up in consumption can be achieved. The course may wander, but it is ever towards the same goal.

We have become two-handed engines powering the cycle of consumption; sheep guided in the direction of maximum self-fueled acquisition; weary hamsters endlessly running in a wheel whose power benefits only a system aimed at extracting yet more from us. Everything in our lives is subjugated beneath this implanted drive to become maximum earner-spender-consumers—everything. When viewed from a suitable distances, what seem to be our free choices, made for personal, ethical and individual reasons, turn out to be guided acts turning us to the paths and positions most profitable to those who guide us.

Shopping

There is no more naked expression of the drive to consume than the rise of the pastime called shopping. Except in ingrained compound phrases like “grocery shopping,” the term rarely refers to going to a store to buy planned and needed items. Shopping, as the term is usually used and understood, means, “I have a bunch of money and I am going to go find something to spend it on.” It is the drive to consume stripped of any last vestige of need or sensibility; it is the act of acquiring for acquisition’s sake.

Unfortunately, it is often also stripped of that first clause, “I have a bunch of money.” The replacement is usually a credit card or other debt, making that shopping the act of acquiring for acquisition’s sake using future earnings. It’s bad enough that there are millions undisciplined and misled enough to keep money from “burning a hole in their pockets”; it’s incomprehensible that so many fail to recognize the damage done by burning holes in their future.

Shopping, as a pastime, needs to be put on a social par with getting loudmouthed drunk at a funeral—or worse. It is a raw and deliberate form of consumption mania, a pinnacle symptom of the disease, and its sufferers deserve both immediate intervention and a lasting cure.

Debtor’s Prison

The real damage from a consumption-driven lifestyle comes when the drive to acquire goes past an individual’s means and into spending borrowed from future means—debt. If nothing so far in the discussion of the cycle of consumerism has raised any particular anger in you, this may be the consideration that does. The endless urging to use debt to acquire is the basest level of consumer manipulation. It is different only in degree from the con man who encourages the mark to borrow money from friends and family to keep feeding the con game. Sellers are not content to squeeze an individual dry through fostered consumption; they want any liquid wealth he might absorb later, and they want it now.

Consider this: ”going into debt” is the dire phrase used by parents, financial counselors and government agencies; it is a bad thing, to be assiduously avoided. Fortunately, we've been assured that it's completely unrelated to the universal practice of “buying on credit”... and turning that identical concept into a plus, divorced from the notion of “debt,” is to the everlasting credit of the marketing industry. Or maybe it's debt.

Like the marketers mentioned above, sellers stoutly maintain an “ethical firewall” between the consumer’s debt and their involvement. Their sole concern is getting full payment for the goods; they decline to care whether the payment comes from funds the buyer can afford, or not, or are stolen (as long as they aren’t traceable) or are borrowed on crushing terms. It’s not their concern, as long as the cash register or credit terminal rings up the sale. Here caveat emptor is scrupulously enforced, and should the buyer—the battered, bewildered, bewitched, bedazzled and besotted buyer—make a poor choice of purchase funding, the seller’s hands remain clean. No seller ever seeks to determine if the buyer can really afford the item; it’s not their job. You chose to pick up the candy, good sir or madam.

As with the marketers and advertisers, it should therefore not be their job to have pummeled the buyer into wanting the product at any cost. If their ethics or professional distance prevent them from considering the buyer’s ability to afford the item beyond seeing that a proper number of bills or digits are tendered, then it is just as unethical to press for the sale, through marketing, direct encouragement in a store or any other way. The bystander who chants, “Jump! Jump!” bears an ethical burden for the future of the dazed soul standing on the ledge and has no right to turn away from their plunge calling them an idiot.

Casualties of War

As extreme as everything said so far might seem, I have actually kept it a bit softened and sugar-coated. We have not yet begun to explore the depths of how consumers are manipulated and used to no better end than feeding the insatiable greed of product makers. Let’s put it all in context before we move on—and I give fair warning that it’s an ugly, shocking but utterly correct context.

We’ll begin by backing up to how “everyone knows” that all this goes on—everyone knows that manufacturers and producers use deception and coercion to sell their products. Everyone knows that marketing is a major component of product sales. Everyone knows we’re swimming—or drowning—in an endless sea of advertising and marketing hype, coming at us under high pressure from every tiny crack in our personal bathyspheres. Some goodly portion of “everyone” knows that all the major producers of consumer goods have within their marketing departments teams or divisions whose job it is to find ways past our remaining barriers. And it’s fair to say that only a naïve few among us don’t understand that every one of these companies is in the game to make money—that it’s first and last and all about profit, with products, quality and people reduced to being mere vehicles for that profit.

What very few people seem to realize is the scope and scale and intensity—ferocity, even—of mindless greed that drives all these things, and drives them to extremes that should shock the buying population—us, that is—into full-blown revolution. I can’t imagine even the most self-satisfied conservative thinker who admires everything about “business” and thinks of success in the most conventional economic terms not being shocked at by a full understanding of what “success” means to the sellers of consumer goods. Even if the success itself is judged admirable, its cost in human lives and quality of lives is beyond the pale.

Those who understand a little of how products are marketed might be ready to dismiss these arguments. Of course products are shaped for maximum sales—if marketing research shows that a six ounces of a given product in a pink box with two exciting “splashes” in the design tests best, that’s exactly what you’ll see on the shelf. Of course products are “what people want to buy”… but just how is that determined, or defined? Those who make these counter-arguments to claims of consumer manipulation and deception are unaware—or artfully dismissing—that such notions of product shaping and development are decades out of date: makers were successfully redesigning packages for better sales in the 1920s and before, and trying to find out “what people want” in structured ways since at least the 1950s.

What these contrarians, and you, need to understand is the phenomenal level of engineering that goes into almost every product on every store shelf. Not just direct product engineering, as in design of the electronics, colors, fabrics, flavor or functions, although those are all intensely market-research driven; if pink denim tests best, that’s what you will see hanging on the rack. No, the engineering goes far past product issues to human, behavioral and social engineering—and past “engineering” to outright behavioral manipulation and modification. Product marketing is often distinguishable from brainwashing only in intensity, and while the effect of any one product’s campaign might be negligible and dismissible, the collective assault is not. The endless yammer of advertising and other marketing activities around us control and shape our lives, often in highly indirect ways. One rain drop can be ignored; a roaring thunderstorm cannot. But we’ve learned to accept the roar and slash and drenching as entirely normal. No, not learned—been conditioned to. We become conditioned to many things in our lives, usually for the better or at least the self-serving. However, we have been manipulated into tolerating, accepting, even embracing this onslaught of marketing even though it benefits only those intent on extracting every last dollar we can force ourselves to acquire.

A large number of the major consumer goods makers, especially in the food and personal electronics arenas, treat sales as a war, and even call it that. Whether a “war room” is a temporary setup intended to win a single product or sales campaign or a description of their day-in, day-out operations (as is reputed to be Coca-Cola’s sales mentality), it’s the term they use and even take pride in. To them, it is a war—a war that must be won in the dollars they can find a way to extract from buyers and, sometimes more importantly, keep from their competition. For every industry that has settled into a grudging sharing of their market—cars, clothing and appliances come to mind—there are multiple industries that have no goal below 100%. Food, personal electronics, online providers and other industries see their market as monolithic—the other companies competing for it are to be outfoxed, outmaneuvered and outabusinessed. Kraft cannot stand a foot of grocery store shelf space not filled with their product; neither can competitor PepsiCo. Apple has never conceded a place for any personal computer but one of their own, while perennial market leader Microsoft regards other platforms as lost sales. Google and MSN, and the dozens of provider/portals that came before them—Yahoo, MySpace, AltaVista and most especially AOL—have never aimed for less than every online user. For these companies and others, the great majority of those who produce and sell consumer goods, it is war; war to be won at absolutely any cost. And the very least of those costs are those of the consumers, the buyers themselves—us.

These companies have forgotten entirely that people are buying their products—products that are engineered in every respect to be insanely desirable, but often engineered into everything but usefulness and value. In their unyielding efforts to dominate their market, they have forgotten ethics and in some cases reality; there is only the ultimate victory of sales share. They will do whatever it takes to push that share as close to unity as their budget, branding and engineering battalions can take it. They forget that there is a cost to the acquisition of their product, and sometimes even a cost for its use, as with the surfeit of goods that actually demean and damage our lives. They have turned us into numbers, statistics, targets… casualties of war. We are the peasants, ground between the armies and utterly beneath notice except as economic fodder.

It is past time for consumers to marshal their own brigades in this economic war, and fight back.

Taking It to The Street

On their own, most companies have a limit to their greed; they will be satisfied with a banner sales year or a string of good quarters, or maintenance of a hold on their market share. The number of companies that exist “on their own,” however, is small and, among the megalithic conglomerates, consortiums and amalgamations, effectively zero. These companies have all usual internal desires to extract endless wealth from as many marks as they can… but the real fire in their pants comes from the desire—which is a polite way to say need or requirement—to please those who demand ever-rising value and consistent returns from their operation.

Companies that answer to holding company boards and stockholders participate in a meta level of consumerism, where ownership shares are bought and held with the expectation of perpetual value. Many if not most stockholders don’t really care what the company does or how it does it, as long as the stock price stays high and continues to add value, and dividends keep being declared to distribute its profits. Holding companies and conglomerate boards are not much different; the junior company’s financial sheet is all they care about. Ethical considerations rarely enter into portfolio selections and corporate management at this level; it’s all about ROI, PER and dividends.

When a company considers its obligations to stockholders or a parent paramount, its products and services to customers and consumers can only suffer as a result. The demand to keep sales and profits high trumps all other manufacturing, sales and product issues; it becomes imperative to develop and market what will sell the most—which is only rarely congruent with what is best for either buyers or the long-term financial prospects of the company. This aspect of the cycle of consumption—the need to produce wealth as a product for an elite market—may contribute more to the destructive nature of the cycle than any other. It will also be the most difficult aspect to fix.

It is not too extreme to say that the economic woes of the U.S., the Western world and the globe all stem from the madly out of control cycle of consumerism. Not too extreme at all—it should be easy to see that the frantic flow of consumer goods from one place to another, from one nation to another, coupled with the economic loads of affording those goods, is the problem.

In all the economic reports, analyses and news stories, though, the evident problem is obscured behind layers of faulty explanation, with blame pointed everywhere but at those who have pushed the spin of the cycle of consumption ever faster. Those who extract wealth from those of us whose lives and efforts power the cycle are distanced from the problem while at the same time they are lauded for promoting business and industry and growth and an ever-rising stock exchange index. They are bellowing for us to jump, and then using the wind of our passing to dry their hands.

It is time for us to rebel against this yoke that makes our seemingly free lives into invisible slavery. It is time to reject an economic model that assumes individuals are merely engines of consumption. It is time to silence those who incessantly exhort us to jump off the ledge of financial security. It is time for us to become a militia opposing our senseless processing for profit, especially when the real profit level is at a level disconnected from the world of the products and services themselves.
It is time for us to become renegades.

Renegade One