This is part of an ongoing series of blogs examining the consequences of neoliberalism over the last several decades, particularly in the U.S. Neoliberalism is a modern politico-economic theory favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, and reduced public expenditure on social services.
The advertising industry has not been content to just transform adult behaviors but sought to change the behavior of children and teens as well. Since children are young and have not fully developed rational, mature behaviors that we normally associate with adults, their impulsive, impetuous behaviors are perfect for consumption but needed to be refocused into desiring more profitable adult products. Advertisers, intent on luring even pre-consumer children as young as toddlers to identify with their brands, want to embed this early brand identification for the rest of their consuming lifetime. Teens, flush with cash from part-time jobs or indulgent parents, are prime advertising targets. With their impulsivity and need to vie for peer status, they feel they must have the latest products, typically the domain of adults in the past. They feverishly buy high end goods such as cars, technological gadgets, or a closet-busting wardrobe of the latest hip fashions.
Adults holding to a consumerist ethic are pawns of the advertising industry. The demands of the mobile global economy have severed their ties to traditional place. Instead, their sense of belonging and identity has shifted to brands of consumer products. As Barber explains, “Consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity has become reflective of ‘lifestyles’ that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label, as well as with attitudes and behaviors linked to where we shop, how we buy, and what we eat, wear, and consume.”[i] The brands selected by an individual or family indicate their particular income, class, and place. These branded identities are superficial veneers replacing traditional ethnic, cultural, and national identity. Although it appears that we freely choose these identities, in reality they are reflective of the permeation of the ubiquitous commercial culture into every aspect of our lives. Advertisers happily promote this brand identification among consumers because it cuts across national and ethnic boundaries to mold a true globalization of identity.
The omnipresent impact of advertising on consumers actually homogenizes taste and narrows rather than expands variety and choices. Although there are many consumer choices, as evidenced by the multitude of cool clothing shops in any cookie-cutter mall across the world, the actual choices are not first order choices but actually second order choices. A first order choice might be to have a real option as far as public transportation is concerned, since we realize that automobiles contribute to climate change and foreign oil dependency, and they are expensive. The second order choice would be to select a particular make of automobile or model of a desired car manufacturer, since automobile transportation is the only choice available in many locales. Another first order choice would be the ability to pick from an assortment of high quality, nutritious food offered at a reasonable price in a convenient location; instead, we have a whole range of artery-clogging, pound-packing, second choice fast foods readily available for our immediate consumption.
Perhaps this would all be fine if the consumption of goods and services made us happier and healthier and resulted in loving relationships—all the promises implicitly make by advertising. But we are not happier, and we are certainly not healthier. In fact, impulsive consumption actually leaves us more depressed and unsatisfied. Of course, this is exactly what advertisers have planned all along, since that unquenched desire is the catalyst for the consumption of more goods in an endless cycle of trying to achieve the pleasures that advertising assures us they will provide and that we innately crave. Fortunately, even though the consumer society may appear to be all-embracing, it is not totalitarian. Unlike citizens living under totalitarian regimes, we do have the choice to reject or participate in the consumerist society.
Critical Thinking Question to Consider:
1. Think of two additional examples of first order choices and second order choices in your life. Possible areas for consideration are education, health care and the legal system.
[i] Barber, Benjamin R., Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole,
(New York: Norton & Co., 2007) 167.