The Empty Promises of Consumerism

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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.

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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

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The Modern Alienated Individual: A Closer Look at Fight Club

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We achieved everything we ever wanted and more. We’ve built technologies which elevate humanity to the status of gods. We’ve tamed and controlled nature to align with our needs, and built industrial playgrounds for the flourishing of economic progress and industry.

Yet underneath the bright screens, fancy clothes and luxury cars lies an individual who is deeply disconnected with the world. They pride themselves in their status but are unable to authentically connect with others. They feel like strangers in their own society, feeling the pull to conform with the latest trends in consumer products.

I do not wish to seem naïve or ignorant. I of course value the comforts and opportunities that living in the 21st century has afforded me. However, despite all this exponential progress, I think we have to remember what we have lost in modernity. With our laser focus economic growth and individualism we have abandoned our need for genuine connection, community and wisdom.  

One of the movies which explores the issues that we still wrestle with today is Fight Club. Originally adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club tells the story of a depressed middle-aged man who desperately seeks to escape the chains of a monotonous consumer-based culture. The narrator and his imaginary alter-ego (known as Tyler Durden) starts a fight club as an attempt to liberate themselves from nihilism and existential dread.

Let’s look at some of the key quotes and themes of the movie to see how it applies in our modern-day society.

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Consumerism  

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, and the things you own, end up owning you.

The endless flow of advertisements that we are flooded with in our day to day lives try to subvert the distinction between want and need.

We too easily fall into the trap of the hedonic treadmill.  The luxury items we purchase soon loose their glamour, status and prestige. We feel like we have to keep up with the latest trends to gain acceptance and approval from our peers.

In an attempt to gain status or recognition from society, we needlessly spend a fortune on luxury brands when much cheaper goods can fulfill the same exact function. A Rolex and a plastic watch purchased from a convenience store, while widely differ in price, both perform the same purpose of telling time.

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It is like we are running after a moving target.  

However, few realize that no purchase can ever fully quench our desires – the void remains unfilled.  

Alienation and the Loss of Community

This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. If I didn’t say anything, people in a group assumed the worst. They cried harder. I cried harder. Look up into the stars and you’re gone. Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.

To deal with his insomnia the narrator frequently attends various different support groups. Devoid of any social life or genuine friendships, these groups provide him with a sense of connection , community and companionship.

Despite the low cost of connectivity in our society, the issues of loneliness and isolation in our society have been well documented. A trend which is  most prevalent with middle-aged men.

The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about a decline in what he calls ‘social capital’. That is, the social bonds, connections and networks which he argues is responsible for a loss of trust in political and societal institutions.

Putnam notes that the social fabric, that ties us together as individuals in a society, has been eroding in the later half of the twentieth century. In his book Bowling Alone, his research points to several trends which he claims are responsible for this decline including: the proliferation of electronic entertainment, suburban sprawl and changes to family structure.

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The consequences of this for our individual and collective wellbeing are dire.  Perhaps this has been most evident in recent years, as we have become more polarized and divisive, unable to compromise and empathize with others.      

Yes, we have gained more individual freedoms and liberties, but we have become more isolated and egotistical. We have pursued individualism and self-interest at the cost of meaning and belonging that comes with being in a community.

Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning

We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.                    

The irony of the film is that the men who joined Fight Club as a means to escape the chains of consumerism, end up being drawn into another ideological group, Project Mayhem.

We must ask the question why are our minds so easily manipulated? Why do we so easily move from one dogma to another?

When individuals lose purpose or meaning in their lives, they can be more suspectable to be seduced by extremism and reactionary political ideologies. The most frightening examples of this of course can be seen in the rise of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.

As mentioned in several of my other articles, John Vervaeke as well as many other thinkers, attributes this crisis in meaning to the loss of wisdom and spiritual practices that were provided to us mainly through religions. With the erosion of many of our spiritual and cultural traditions through the secularization of modern society , many of us come face to face with what Victor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl says these feelings of existential angst are manifested through boredom and distress. While our modern culture tells us we ought to fill this void through the pursuit of short-term hedonistic pleasures, Frankl reminds us that the solution rather is to pursue what is truly meaningful for us.

Conclusion

Admittingly, this article presents a pretty gloomy depiction of modern life. However, I do see the emergence of philosophies, spiritual practices and communities that aim to help us deal the existential issues we are dealing with in the modern era.

From the re-emergence of interest in Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, to the revival of ancient Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and to the research being done in the possibilities of psychedelics to address the mental health crisis, I see a thirst for wisdom and meaning on the horizon.   

The present may be grim, but I remain an optimist.  

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Authenticity and the Supply Chain

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Most of our lives are mediated by the unwritten rules of social convention. Our fashion, interests, language and ambitions are all in some way shaped by our desire to conform with the group. This deep-seated longing of course finds its roots in our evolutionary history. Previously living in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, being in good standing with the tribe was often a necessity of survival.  

This desire for social acceptance comes at a cost however. We become alienated from our authentic selves and become afraid of being open, honest and vulnerable. Many of us fear embracing our inner nature, and instead senselessly adhere to the conventions and path set out by society. This may perhaps bring us short-term pleasure as we attain social standing and status, but this strategy will eventually lead us to existential angst as the façade begins to unravel.

The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.

Jim Morrison
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As our realities our becomes increasingly shaped by the fictions glowing at us from our screens, we develop an unrealistic idea of what it means to be ‘normal.’ Social norms inform that we have to check off certain boxes and achieve certain milestones before we can feel justified in having a sense of accomplishment.  This pressure to conform to certain ideas is compounded by social media, advertisements and marketing try to shape our desires and sell us a certain lifestyle.

Pick up any newspaper or magazine, open the TV, and you’ll be bombarded with suggestions of how to have a successful life. Some of these suggestions are deeply unhelpful to our own projects and priorities – and we should take care.  

Alain De Botton

There is nothing inherently wrong with adhering to the expectations placed on you by society. I think it is important rather to be self-aware and cognizant of the underlying motives and rationale behind these decisions. Through critical self-examination we can get to know our selves a bit better in order to understand if we are truly acting and living authentically.

However, we must exercise caution and self-awareness in order to distinguish fact from fiction. Through marketing, advertisements and self-help gurus, modern society is fixated on the notion that we ought to be authentic, think different and ‘be our-selves.’ The risks we face in identifying with these ideas and brands is that they are attempts by advertisers to sell us a product (perhaps a new MacBook or a new pair of Nike sneakers) and have an influence on who we are.  

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This begs the question, what exactly is authenticity, and how can we live lives that are more attune to our inner desires, feelings and emotions. One way to do so is to acknowledge our vulnerability, and to come to terms with the fragility and flaws of the human condition.

Rather than hide from our mistakes or our strange idiosyncrasies, we can accept them. This is what makes us unique after all, and enables us to share our distinct perspectives about how we make sense of the world.    

No matter what your work, let it be your own. No matter what your occupation, let what you are doing be organic. Let it be in your bones. In this way, you will open the door by which the affluence of heaven and earth shall stream into you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Due to digitization, interconnectedness and polarization of society, it can sometimes be more difficult to be authentic, truthful and vulnerable. In our social media driven world in which we express ideas in 140 characters or less, we can often be misunderstood or misinterpreted.  This incentivizes us to ensure that we are on the right side of what society deems to be ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable.’ [1]

Respectful and open dialogue is not only necessary for building social trust, but is also imperative for allowing us to discover and unveil our authentic selves.

What can be done to restore the open and honest dialogue needed to cultivate a greater sense of understanding, community and authenticity? I’ll explore this in another article but if you have any thoughts let me know in the comments.


[1] If you want to dive deeper on how mass media shapes and maintains conformity I highly recommend looking into Jordan Hall’s article Understanding the Blue Church