The Empty Promises of Consumerism

With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.

Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.

It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.

Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.

Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?

Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?

According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season.  What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?

 What is actually being sold to us?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. 

The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs.  Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom

Alain De Botton, The Purpose of Advertising

Character Develops Through Repeated Action

Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.

It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

What are we really hinting at when we purchase a luxury sports car – perhaps it is our wish for status, admiration and recognition?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.

Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.

Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.  

So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.  

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Title Image Source

26 thoughts on “The Empty Promises of Consumerism

  1. I wonder if people are willing to go more in debt because people are realizing that money is nothing. Maybe intuitively, due to the huge money that the US government just produced out of thin air to supply everyone with the checks, people just subconsciously realize that there really is no such thing as money. And so this little bit of the vestment, just that little hint of sub cognitive doubt in the substance of money, moves a person to not give a shit anymore, just that little bit.

    I mean, the idea that money is some sort of function of people trading things is pretty much pure nonsense now due to the huge markets, really, that are just made up by people with great ideas about how to make deals with one another with nothingness.

    It could be that our economy is going to shit, and indeed coronavirus as a virus which compels us to make a vaccine that actually alters our RNA, maybe the two kind of go together in a kind of “perfect storm“ which defies all psychological reckoning. Indeed, undermines the very idea that even science, even information itself, data itself, is based on anything more substantial than someone came up with this great idea.

    Perhaps.

    Or it could be that indeed there are structures located in consciousness.

    🤔

    I’m not sure how I could tell which one would be more true.

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  2. Have you seen the television series “American Gods”? It’s an unusual fantasy story about the old pagan gods coming back to America to confront and defeat the “new gods” of media, technology, and globalism. The underlying theme of the show is that even secular people have desires that often end in an odd type of worship, only now our gods are more material. After seeing seasons 1 and 2, I give the show three stars out of four. It’s often fascinating, but the plot sometimes takes detours that lead to dead ends and there are promises of an exciting climax that don’t get fulfilled. Perhaps season 3 will be better. (The new shows are only on the “Starz” channel, but they all eventually end up on DVD.)

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    1. I have not but thank you for the recommendation, it sounds very interesting!

      I have heard a similar argument put forth that the various “isms” of the 20th century were examples of the religious impulse manifested in different ways.

      I think this point is what many of the ‘new atheists’ or who adhere to the ‘secularization thesis ‘ don’t acknowledge. We just have different forms of worship now of state\economy etc. ?

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      1. Yes — even if one does not believe in a God that is an omnipotent, personal being, there is still an irresistible human impulse to pursue the Good, in all its forms. Then the question is which Goods to pursue and why.

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      2. Taylor talks about this in A Secular Age, not sure how well it will come out in my summery though. He talks about how pre-axial age religions sacralized violence, sexuality ect. channeled the numinosity. Post-axial age relgions, eg. Christianity desacralize and post something Higher/Transcendent which demands our alligence. Think of monotheism driving out the pagan gods. In the Middle ages, you have this uneasy tension between the “Higher” and “lower”, but the process of Reform wants to make everything over, get everything on the “higher” plane, eradicate the evil, inaugurate the parausia. You have reactions to this in people like Nietzsche, who sort of revels in these numinos, tragic elements of our nature, fully rejecting the Christian path of renunciation. So you see the resurgence of a sort of modern paganism/polytheism in reaction to what Taylor calls “excarnation”, the totalitarian process of Reform, the disciplined society ect.

        In Taylor’s words: (Sorry to dump all this text here, but thought you might find it helpful)

        “Another negative feature of both axial breakthroughs and Reform has been its tendency to homogenize. The urge to reform has often been one to bring all of life under the sway of a single principle or demand: the worship of the One God, or the recognition that salvation is only by faith, or that salvation is only within the church. And this Reform has frequently been carried through by ironing out or sidelining whatever in human life might seem not to consort easily with this single demand. The insight which people try to express today through invoking the superiority of “polytheism” is just this, that these earlier cultures allowed for the integrity
        of different facets of life and their demands in a way that modern religious or moral outlooks have lost. Different gods—Artemis, Aphrodite, Mars, Athena—force us to respect the integrity of different ways of life: celibacy, sexual union, war, the arts of peace, which life according to a single principle often ends up denying.
        Once again, it is not a matter of returning to an earlier form—worshipping Mars for instance—but of becoming aware how easily a Procrustean drive can come to inhabit a movement for Reform. In all of these there lurks a proto-totalitarian temptation. Luther and Calvin were surely right to condemn the ideology of spiri- tual superiority which infected late-mediaeval monasticism, but they ended up dis- crediting celibate vocations as such, greatly reducing the range of Christian lives. And their Reformation has helped to produce, via another stage of “reform”, today’s secular world, where renunciation is not just viewed with suspicion—to a certain degree that is always healthy and necessary—but is off the radar altogether, just a form of madness or self-mutilation. We end up from all this with a narrower, more homogeneous world of conformity to a hedonic principle.
        The point is, once more, not that we need to leaven Christianity with a dose of paganism, but that our Christian life itself has suffered a mutilation to the extent that it imposes this kind of homogenization. The Church was rather meant to be the place in which human beings, in all their difference and disparate itineraries, come together; and in this regard, we are obviously falling far short.”

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      3. Very interesting thank you for sharing. So it seems like he is arguing that the shift to ‘reform’ flattened belief from many diverse ways of being to a select few.

        Curious about how this logic plays into our current day secular age, i.e can it be argued that things like ‘identity politics’ fill the void left behind by religions?

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      4. Sorry, wordpress messed up the formating so you just get that big blob of text.

        Well, part of his narrative is also that the cross pressure between Exclusive Humanism and Orthodoxy generates the “nova effect,” so that you have all kinds of reactions. His narrative is so complicated, you have contradictory impulses happening at the same time!

        Reform upsets the Mideaval ballance between flourishing and beyond flourishing, and you have this totalitarian impulse to try to get everyone to be “civilized.” A major theme of the book is how all encompasing systems of rules are limited, can’t catch everything, run into dillemas and so on. Taylor talks about identity politics at one point and connects it to this idea of a totalitarian code that tries to get everyeryone/everything to fit into its system. Along with this, the sense that you are doing something to heal the suffering of the world/fight for justice, is also a powerful source of meaning. By projecting all evil to the other, you distance yourself from the evil: You are in the right and are doing something to heal the world, those other, evil ones are not. Taylor writes:
        “The victim scenario…a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them. ”

        Btw, if you’re up for it, we could have a lot to talk about! Your blog overlaps so much with mine, I feel like you’re saying everything I want to say. Contact me on my blog if you’re up for it.

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      5. Interesting, yes religion is definitely a topic I have thought about for a while. One of the main tensions it seems that they face is resolving the issues between orthodoxy and changing social norms.

        Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein discuss this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lV_dWnHYA1k

        And for sure, we can connect further. Happy to have further discussions.

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    1. Thank you for reading. Yes, I’ve recently been thinking about Charles Taylor’s work on the “Ethics of Authenticity”. At the core of modern life, seems to be a desire for authenticity, to be one self, and break away from tradition. However, I would say issues arise when we take this to the extreme (ie. empty consumerism). A lot more nuance in his argument but I plan to read the book and write about this in the new year

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  3. Great post. The problem is that companies use aggressive ways of advertisements and with rising social media comparisons, we end up buying things we do not need at all. But that slight dopamine rush, or that sale during Diwali or christmas makes us do unnecessary purchases which un fortunately is a waste of money.

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