Consumerism as Religion

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

The T.V show ‘Hoarders’ gained popularity on TLC about ten years ago. This show was centered around the lives of people with a disorder that drives them to buy an excessive amount of items until they become buried in their home, refusing to throw anything away. As humorous and pathetic as this show seemed to me; I began to see the same habits in my life. I have always felt an urge to work any job I could and ‘reward’ myself with clothes that I have no space for, and books I’ll never read.  Though I wouldn’t call myself a hoarder, I do belong to another group of people. If you are born in a society centered around capital and labor: you belong to this group as well. We are mindless consumers. 

Hoarders’ showed an extreme consumer——nonetheless——our thinking aligned. “They do not know it, but they do it” (Karl Marx). After the technological boom around the 1960s, society began to streamline further and further into the mindless consumers. People that participate in this market and mindset are never satisfied: just as saltwater to a dehydrated person, the need to quench this thirst for more water or more items, will never be satisfied. 

This constant cycle of working and buying is meant to only subdue us further — a system that runs on capital will try to gain that capital at any cost. Consumerist culture is not a simple advertisement or a local shopping mall: consumerism has become an ideology, a religion that has warped the minds of billions creating mindless, reward-seeking laborers. Consumerist culture catalyzed by capitalism in America has affected the way we perceive products, work, and life itself, controlling us in every aspect. 

(Image Credit: Getty Images)

How can simple advertising change the minds of millions within a society? A significant example of this manipulation is seen through the Public Relations debuts from the famed Edward Bernays. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and during World War 1 he seemed to have some success in a couple of advertising campaigns. Bernays was then hired by the American Tobacco Company that desired more female smokers. Women smoking was seen as taboo at the time as it was the 1920s’, women rarely smoked, and only did so in private. During this time in history, women had just won the right to vote, and the Women’s movement had just begun. Bernays noticed that a pertinent detail about women at this time was the sense of freedom and equality: with this information he devised a plan. A protest was staged: during the 1929 Easter Day Parade in New York, modern women were seen smoking. These women were not smoking cigarettes; Bernays coined these “torches of freedom”(Omeka RSS).

By exploiting the word “freedom”, at the brink of the women’s rights movement, Bernays was able to make this product a symbol of equality and freedom; instead of a regular cigarette that would be ‘unladylike’ to smoke in public. From the outside looking in, women seemed to enjoy freedom with cigarettes and breaking down toxic gender norms. Unfortunately, this was all a consumerist ploy made to sell cigarettes. Bernays remarked himself in his seminal 1928 text “Propaganda”, that this form of psychological manipulation “is the true ruling power of our country”. Consumerism has changed and conditioned us to think about a certain matter forever.

(Image Credit: ‘Women Are Free!’ American Tobacco C., 1929)

Consumerism plays hand in hand with the way your brain functions and the chemicals released. Have you ever wondered why you get excited to shop and buy things? Dopamine, our ‘happy’ brain chemical, can be released when receiving a reward. The nucleus accumbens in the brain is the pleasure center: a reward circuit is triggered by a stimulus (receiving a reward) and the brain releases a shot of this neurotransmitter into the brain. This hedonistic urge within our id craves this satisfaction, and consumerism plays into our urges (U.S. National Library of Medicine). We want to feel this dopamine, and we want to be happy. When receiving rewards such as shopping after working, or buying things for yourself, your brain is imprinted with this feeling, and you always tend to go back to it (Washington University). Our lives are dictated by work and the ability to sell back our labor for a source of happiness, and a reward for working. Coffee shops, restaurants, and vacations exist to coax laborers into needing a ‘reward’ and falling back into the consumerist illusion.

And why is this psychological consumerism detrimental to society? If people are constantly working to buy things and give back to society and the economy, isn’t that beneficial? Bernays had that same idea. He believed that social peace would be maintained if consumerism is upheld in society. Consumerism makes people happy and helps maintain peace in society. But this illusion of peace and happiness is not ideal. When there are legitimate problems within society and the government, people weighed down with consumerist debt will not have the will to protest to the government or their bosses.

Money is one of the driving forces of subduing people within a capitalistic society: without money, there is nowhere else to go. Moreover, why would people protest something that the government is doing, when we can flaunt our symbolic and useless symbolic treasures? It’s easier to just smoke a cigarette, or wear a BLM t-shirt, or have a “peace” sticker on the back of your car. Real progress is difficult: consumerist symbols are more convenient. The murder of George Floyd was caused by systemic brutality and racism: a raging conflict in America and the police force. Companies saw the death of an innocent man and realized they could capitalize on it; making t-shirts, mugs, hats, and more. Every tragedy caused by an authority is commercialized and ultimately nothing is ever solved. This is the unfortunate truth of consumerism: it consumes our very being.

Amazon search of ‘George Floyd’ showing 815 results of merchandise associated with his murder.

Everything in our lives is integrated with capital, and this way of living is almost inescapable. We’re taught from early on that after we finish our public schooling we go to college, and after college, we get a job, and after that, we work until we save enough to retire and die. There is no other way out, but to participate in this ideology. If you choose not to pay for college, people end up selling their labor someplace else and in turn will go to consumption. And if a consumer wanted to leave and just live off the land, that would be impossible as well. The land is privatized, and upkeep of taxes and payments is required to simply live off of the free Earth. Consumerism is made to be inescapable: there is no other life than this, it simply isn’t imaginable. Digital Marketing experts estimated that the average American is exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day (Forbes Magazine) We are surrounded by this culture that feeds into buying and working every single minute. This ideology has become so normalized that advertisements everywhere we look doesn’t phase us anymore. 

Before civilization was centered on capital, life was centered on self-fulfillment, family, and survival. This fulfillment is hard to find anymore in this grandiose country of buying and selling. The “self-help” movement centered around helping people find fulfillment, became another market campaign to keep consumers feeling this artificial happiness. In the first week of January in 2021, the sales of “self-help” books reached 17 million sold books (PublishersWeekly). Our happiness and self-fulfillment were narrowed down to a simple purchase once again. Where in actuality, is genuine self help? Have we eradicated the basic pillars of happiness to a purchase instead? If so, we are doomed from the beginning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view of democracy and freedom has been eradicated. We have emerged into a conformist society, damning the views of freedom: the freedom to act, the freedom to change yourself, the freedom to be an individual, and the freedom to be self-sufficient. The pillars of self-sufficiency and freedom have been brutally dilapidated by corporate advertising. 

We don our name-brand clothing that matches the crowd of people outside, as we all serve as free advertisements for the brand. We get into our car, which is the same as a million other people and goes to the same bland job at the same time as everyone else. 

Consumerism is a God: an intangible and inescapable matter in all of our lives. However, realizing and uncovering this mirage of ideology can serve to personal self-fulfillment and happiness. Society should not continue to be subjugated by the corporate dictators that rule over us in such a manner. Bernays saw the weaknesses of the human minds and led generations of people to become wage slaves to the system. This realization of our consumerist culture and exploitation paves a path for a future; transcendental and new. Slowly take control of your life and find fulfillment within yourself and fight injustice: without taking out your wallet. 

Citations

Berridge, Kent C, and Morten L Kringelbach. “Pleasure Systems in the Brain.” Neuron, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 May 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425246/.

Fitzpatrick, Tony. “Reward-Driven People Win More, Even When No Reward at Stake: The Source: Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source, 13 Jan. 2016, source.wustl.edu/2010/04/rewarddriven-people-win-more-even-when-no-reward-at-stake/. 

Marx, Karl. Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I – Chapter One, 1867, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S1. 

Milliot, Jim. “Self-Improvement Boom Sets Book Sales Off on Fast Start in 2021.” PublishersWeekly.com, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/85316-book-sales-get-off-to-fast-start.html.

Simpson, Jon. “Council Post: Finding Brand Success In The Digital World.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 25 Aug. 2017, http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2017/08/25/finding-brand-success-in-the-digital-world/?sh=47dd9737626e. 

“Torches of Freedom Campaign.” Omeka RSS, biblio.uottawa.ca/omeka2/jmccutcheon/exhibits/show/american-women-in-tobacco-adve/torches-of-freedom-campaign. 

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