The Consumer Trap / Edition 1 available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- University of Illinois Press
The Consumer Trap blows the lid off the trillion-dollar-a-year business marketing industry, explaining how it continues to soak up economic and environmental resources and dominate the personal lives of citizens. Flouting conventional mainstream and radical thinking about consumer culture, Michael Dawson reveals how corporate marketing embodies and extends into personal life the scientific management principles famously enunciated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose earliest disciples predicted the big business marketing revolution. After revealing why corporate capitalism fuels an ever-increasing marketing race, Dawson provides a step-by-step account of how this behemoth works and expands. Using firsthand evidence, he explains in detail how big business marketing campaigns penetrate and profoundly affect the lives of ordinary Americans. Dawson argues that if people are to escape the costly consumer trap set by the overclass, they will need to renew class struggle from below, inventing new institutions for democratically governing and implementing major economic decisions. A blueprint for reinventing the study and debate of the sociocultural effects of corporate marketing practices, The Consumer Trap makes big business marketing a target of direct historical and sociological scrutiny.
About the Author
Michael Dawson is an adjunct lecturer in the department of sociology at Portland State University
Read an Excerpt
The Consumer TrapBig Business Marketing in American Life
Chapter OneThinking the Unthinkable
Big businesses in the United States now spend well over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This is double Americans' combined annual spending on all public and private education, from kindergartens through graduate schools. It also works out to around four thousand dollars a year for each man, woman, and child in the country. Four thousand dollars, in turn, is triple the annual per capita Gross Domestic Product of the so-called low- and middle-income countries, where 85 percent of the world's people now live.
Nonsense and niceties aside, big business marketing is class struggle from above. It exists to make commoners' off-the-job habits better serve corporate bottom lines, and, thereby, to further fatten the portfolios of the established ultra-rich families, who, in the words of the nation's leading business historian, "remain the primary beneficiaries" of large-scale private enterprise. For our private jet set, big business marketing is a prudent investment in finessing underlings into profitable "free time" routines.
Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Americans who struggle to make ends meet, who only rarely sip from corporate profit streams, and who don't get to vote on major economic decisions, big business marketing imposes a heavy financial burden. Because corporations blend their marketing expenses, untaxed, into the prices of their products, buyers of Pepsis, Nikes, and Fords pay not just for the drinks, the shoes, and the cars, but for all the things Pepsico, Nike, and the Ford Motor Company do to lure and cajole them into purchases. And because, as a group, they buy most of the corporate products sold in the United States, working- and middle-class Americans also wind up paying for the lion's share of big business marketing.
For ordinary Americans, however, corporate marketing's burden is far more than merely financial. Over time, our increasingly marketing-saturated life spaces make us dumber, lazier, fatter, more selfish, less skillful, more adolescent, less politically potent, more wasteful, and less happy than we could and should be. The damage occurs on many levels. As corporate marketers press us to pack our activities with the maximum number of maximal products, they coax us into habits that clutter our homes, poison our bodies, undermine our independence, pollute our ecosphere, and waste our precious time and energy. As corporate marketers ratchet up the commercialism and commodity intensity of our personal lives, a vicious cycle of jobs, traffic jams, shopping, fast food, and television bleeds away quality time for family, friends, community, politics, and self. As corporate marketers invent and extend marketing "platforms," their sponsored programs and events crowd out noncommercial venues and pastimes. As this happens, sensationalism and titillation-the two great cultivators of receptive advertising audiences-corrupt our mental, emotional, and practical capabilities.
Of course, in some cases, big business marketing is directly homicidal. Pushing cigarettes and beer are obvious examples, but what about cars? Using modern marketing's standard tools-surveys, focus groups, databases, constant product changes, incessant advertising and promotion-as well as lavish public subsidy of the infrastructures their products require, the auto and oil corporations have sold Americans hundreds of millions of automobiles. Compared fairly with feasible transportation systems centering on trains, buses, and bicycles, our undebated autos-uber-alles arrangement is as wasteful of our time, sanity, health, money, and natural resources as it is profitable to corporate barons. It is also massively deadly. Inevitably, despite air bags and other safety improvements, all our high-speed rolling around in independently steered metal boxes prematurely introduces tens of thousands of us to the Grim Reaper every year. In fact, car crashes have killed far more Americans just since 1950 than have all our wars combined, from 1776 to the present.
Big business marketing is also pied-pipering the human race toward ecological disaster. How much longer can our societies and our planet withstand overpackaging, planned obsolescence, petrochemical artifice, and the promotion of ecologically wasteful products? All these toxic trends are part and parcel of corporate marketers' tireless efforts to sell us more, more ornate, and more "disposable" products. At some point in the very near future, such expanding efforts will almost certainly become environmentally intolerable, if they have not already.
Finally, there is the ugly irony that, despite all our piety about family values and putting children first, kids in the United States are already paying dearly for their growing immersion in corporate marketing. As the new millennium unfolds, the profusion of shootings and killings in commercial media have already begun to inspire real juvenile shooting sprees. Meanwhile, big businesses continue to spend billions to paint soda pop and junk food as fun and hip, in total disregard of the U.S. surgeon general's 1998 listing of childhood obesity-a contradiction in terms until the most recent decades of human history-as an epidemic in America. Likewise, corporate entertainment and toys continue to render traditional kids' games and other "self-organized children's amusements," which were usually both financially inexpensive and physically active, "an endangered species." As this happens, students reading below already watered-down grade levels masterfully debate the minutiae of the latest corporate combat toy or smart-ass cartoon character, while parents and teachers must battle ever harder to block and counteract these terrible trends.
A Great Evasion
Despite all this, and despite widespread private disgust with commercialism, coherent public debate of big business marketing has yet to materialize in the United States. As corporate marketers have invaded every nook and cranny of our personal lives, and as our off-the-job habits have conformed with our business elite's interests to a degree that would make Joseph Stalin blush, the most basic facts and consequences of big business marketing have escaped rational analysis. In the mass media, newscasts regularly expose two-bit con artists, government pork-barrelers, and city workers sleeping on the job yet stay dutifully mum about the gargantuan marketing swindle by which their sponsors meddle in people's leisure time. In academia, scholars wage "culture wars" over the curious sociopolitical malaise of post-cold war America but give no coherent accounting of corporate marketing's massive impact on how ordinary Americans live.
Opinion leaders' great evasion of the topic of big business marketing and its costs has seven major causes.
Cause 1: Business
As Leslie Savan, one of the few clear-headed critics of commercialism, puts it, "Conveyors of commercial culture are free to question nearly all of modern life except their own life-support system." Afraid of costing their employers advertising dollars, media personalities diligently avoid exposing big business marketing to critical reporting. As Savan explains, this evasion "means that, unlike 'official' cultural products-films, TV shows, books, paintings, and so on-advertising finds few regular critics in the mainstream press."
Even Savan neglects to add that corporate marketing, the larger managerial discipline of which advertising is but a part, finds still fewer critics.
Cause 2: Business Secrecy
Any corporation that shows the world its marketing plans undermines itself in two ways. First, competitors who know your marketing methods can more easily copy, counter, or improve upon them. Second, customers who see how you're pushing their buttons are likely to refuse to let you continue to do so and may even fight back. For these and other reasons, corporate marketers keep honest discussion of their strategies to themselves. As a result, it's hard for public-spirited pundits to get primary, behind-the-scenes information about big business marketing.
Cause 3: Linguistic Bias
Before the twentieth century, the word consumption meant tuberculosis, and consumer was a nonentry in the lexicon. Now, parroting capitalists, even our purportedly left-wing pundits label us "consumers," treat all our off-the-job product-related activities as acts of "consumption," and tell us we live in a "consumer society" with a "consumer culture."
For all that, do we roll our cars off cliffs to see them explode? Do we scramble to pour our just-bought beverages out in the grocer's parking lot? Do we rush home to smash our appliances with sledgehammers, then burn the sledgehammers in our fireplaces, then allow fire to burn down our houses-all to maximize our destruction-our consumption-of goods?
Of course we don't. We gas and fix our cars, cap and refrigerate our undrunk beverages, and care for our homes and appliances until upgrade becomes possible or further repair becomes irrational or impossible. In general, we work hard to maintain the products we acquire and use. Whenever possible, we strive to counteract product wear and tear, which is ordinarily an unintended, costly, and regretted consequence of our product usage, not its goal. Usefulness, pleasure, longevity, and cost minimization are our normal goals as product users. Consumption, the final using up of a product, is almost never our intention.
Of course, it makes sense for corporate moguls and executives to ignore all this. In big business planning, off-the-job human beings count only as mere money-spending garbage disposals, mere programmable units for buying and using up the firm's wares-i.e., as mere "consumers." For corporate capitalists and managers, the plain fact that product destruction is neither an aim of nor a benefit to us "consumers" is both a point to be suppressed (at least at the level of public discourse) and a business problem to be managerially overcome.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens needing to comprehend big business marketing and its impact on their personal lives can ill afford to swallow corporate capitalists' "consumer" vocabulary. To do so is to let language mask our real intentions and interests as product users, and, thereby, to stymie clear thinking about the political economy of these vital realities.
Tellingly, big business marketers themselves know that the kind of lazy, sloppy "consumption" talk that is now the standard coin of the public realm is not conducive to making sense of product users' activities. In fact, as every busy corporate marketer knows, the stuff we've been trained to slur as consumption is actually an interlocking set of social processes (see figure 1).
From the perspective of ordinary individuals actually living the social processes in figure 1, the main motive for action is to acquire and use products for the sustenance and enjoyment of life. Whatever its importance to capitalists, to noncapitalists consumption ought to have no meaning beyond denoting "the using up or destruction of a good or service." For ordinary product users, it is merely an unfortunate costly by-product of living life. Consumption happens, but it is not coveted by so-called consumers.
To fathom how perverse it is for us and our advocates to ignore all this and accede to our rulers' consumer vocabulary, consider figure 2. Aside, perhaps, from an undertaker, no sane person would think of this process as "death" and call its participants "die-ers." So, why, then, do we talk about all the things we do to acquire and use goods and services as consumption? The only rational answer is that the consumer vocabulary is a particularly apt proof of an old sociological hypothesis: "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class that is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."
Ordinary people are product users who generally rue and work to minimize the consumption of goods and services. By desensitizing us to this massively crucial fact, the consumer talk that presently rules public discourse helps keep us from making good sense of our personal lives and the powers endeavoring to manipulate them.
Cause 4: Fear of "the Five-Letter Word"
In the post-cold war United States, there remains a very strong taboo against publicly discussing the social and economic costs of putting corporate investors first. This taboo has been especially effective in barring heretical questions about the evolution of personal life in America. As neo-McCarthyism and wall-to-wall Business Speak have made c-l-a-s-s "the unmentionable five-letter word" even in relation to labor and employment issues, the notion that class domination has anything at all to do with off-the-job experience has stayed almost unthinkable.
As a result, even the best, most public-spirited commentators have simply never dared to explain big business marketing for what it patently is-a systematic effort by agents of the rich to use corporate resources and management to coerce the non-rich into off-the-job habits that make the rich richer.
Cause 5: "Free Market" Dogma
As the late Alex Carey documented, throughout the twentieth century corporate interests labored to teach Americans "to identify the free-enterprise system with every cherished value" and to vilify the very idea of public enterprise. As part of this effort, our televisions and schoolbooks have long portrayed personal life in America as the kingdom of free choice, the best part of the best of all possible worlds, the new Garden of Eden. This quasi-official doctrine deflects attention from big business marketing by implying that, whatever its minor nuisances, corporate salesmanship is a necessary part of an economic system that is all for the best and, therefore, unworthy of democratic scrutiny.
It is important to note that this Panglossian attitude has been especially near and dear to the scholars, pundits, and media mouthpieces who have manufactured and distributed it. Indeed, most of our major opinion makers have accepted it on faith that, when it comes to procuring and using commodities, ordinary Americans get what they choose, rather than choosing among variants of what they are going to get. In mainstream politics, the big media, and leading think tanks and universities, capitalism means free markets, and free markets equal freedom of choice for product users-end of story, case closed. Among defenders of the status quo, not even the present trillion-plus-dollar-a-year reality of corporate marketing dents this doctrine.
Yet free market dogma cannot withstand serious contact with the core facts of big business marketing.
Excerpted from The Consumer Trap by Michael Dawson Copyright © 2005 by Michael Dawson.
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