Ve have vays of making you buy

Tony Emerson considers consumerism and what role Joy in Enough might play. 

“Consumerism”, according to its Wikipedia definition, “is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. With the industrial revolution, but particularly in the 20th century, mass production led to an economic crisis: there was overproduction—the supply of goods would grow beyond consumer demand, and so manufacturers turned to planned obsolescence and advertising to manipulate consumer spending.”

In essence Consumerism is a process of creating extra demand, above and beyond the demand for goods or services that satisfy our basic needs.  It’s a form of collusion between commercial marketers and our receptivity to the myriad of seductive messages that they send us. It is a very worrying phenomenon: the unnecessary production resulting from it wastes scarce planetary resources, contributes greatly to climate change and other pollution problems. Consumerism can also lead to very stressful lives for all who are vulnerable to consumerist pressures; while many of the most vulnerable start to see their core identity in what they consume, rather than thinking of themselves as citizens or as members of particular trades or professions.

All very problematic from a faith perspective. The shopping mall rather than the church becomes the shrine where people worship. If we could contribute in some way to challenging and undermining the consumerist pressures that would be a worthwhile achievement for Joy in Enough.

I’ve been very interested in this area for many decades. I did some work on car marketing for a post-grad degree some twenty years ago, and a decade or so later as a visiting researcher at Middlesex University later. However, I still find it hard to find comprehensive sources that give you a good overview and fairly complete picture of this topic. Many of us have at best a partial perspective on the topic, myself included.

One thing I have learned over the years is the importance of the processes of market segmentation and product differentiation, vital tools for commercial marketing. For instance:

  • The Ford Fiesta sold to younger women who are very security conscious – esp. young mums wanting to ensure their kids are brought safely to school.  One ad even showed the mum driving into the school playground. (This category of young women is the segment here, the Fiesta is the product.)
  • Relatedly, this or other car models are sold to the mum who sees a drive to work as a sort of haven of peace between getting the family out to work and stress and arriving into her own work where the floodgates of work demands open up when she puts her key in the office door.
  • By contrast certain high-powered car models are sold to men (mainly young men) using the thrill of speed.

Of course other people outside the particular segments or niches may buy the product in question. But the marketing messaging for the Fiesta or whatever targets the media that people in the particular niche are most likely to view or listen to.

As Wolfgang Sachs summarised it: no longer a car for everyone (referring to the old VW beetle, ‘the peoples’ car), but for everyone a car.  (Sachs, Wolfgang: For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back into the History of Our Desires)

Being aware of these sorts of techniques makes us better prepared to make good decisions about what we buy, and to resist the pressure of marketing. There are many of these techniques and we encounter them every day, from product placement in films, to shop layouts optimised to maximise customer spending.

Strangely enough, people like me who are at least trying to live ‘good lives’ (in the sense of trying to live sustainably or live according to Christian values) are probably the least aware of marketing processes! We tend to buy relatively little and what we buy is fairly predictable, therefore we receive relatively little marketing ‘information’.  We spend relatively little time in shopping malls, real or virtual.  We might be less likely to commune with others on social media, which are the media par excellence for transmitting the marketing message. There is a risk that consumerism and the problems around it get less attention from us because we aren’t affected by them as much.

What role can the church play in addressing consumerism? How can we help people to find their true identity as children of God, rather than identities constructed through branding? And how can we protect ourselves and others from a system which is ultimately exploitative, using human psychology against us for profit?

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