The Consumer Society
By Larry Romanoff, August 06, 2022
I don’t know if Americans were ever fiscally responsible, if they ever had a time when saving was valued, where you didn’t borrow for consumption, and where low-quality throwaway goods and products were avoided, but if they did experience such a period in their history, it was brief. Twenty years before Elmer Wheeler’s discovery of sizzle, Bernays and his friends had already instilled the equally important concept of spending tomorrow’s money today. The process began with Layaway plans, then moved to ‘Pay as you Go’, ‘No money Down’, ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’, and other easy credit schemes. Television ads displayed beautiful people enjoying their new home and car, kitchen appliances and furniture, TV, clothing and vacations, and not having to pay for them today. The marketers hired Bernays’ psychologists to create a tactical plan to change American values from saving to perpetual consumption, and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. US marketers conceived and created a ‘throw-away’ society, where appearance was more important than substance, where quality was sacrificed for fashion. US automakers changed the entire external appearance of their models each year, converting transportation into fashion accessory with advertising campaigns that made people ashamed of driving last year’s car. This is so true that since the 1950s, one of the largest ‘fashion events’ of the year was the unveiling by American auto manufacturers of their new models. There was never any attention paid to engineering or quality; it was all superficial consumerism.
Most Americans are too young to realise that their throwaway society is a recent development. It was not so long ago that quality and durability were important characteristics of any purchase, because people weren’t rich enough to buy shoddy products requiring repeated replacement. Consumer goods were meant to last a lifetime – and many did. Many toys were expected to last for generations, and often did. As a child, I played with toys that were handed down from my grandfather. Early in his marriage, my father purchased a set of kitchen pots for my mother, for which he paid nearly two month’s salary. My mother died at 91 years of age, and those pots still looked as new as when they were purchased. It was Bernays and his marketing people, the evangelisers of capitalism, who found a better way to make more money faster. Rather than selling you one good item and losing you as a customer forever (since it would never need replacement), they began lowering the quality, making and selling increasingly cheaper products that would soon fail and require replacement. This way, American manufacturers would have high profits and permanent repeat customers from a wasteful disposable society.
American manufacturers had developed the processes of large-scale mass production to serve the nation’s war machine, but after the war these massive factories would remain mostly idle. The solution of Lippman and Bernays was to engineer one of the greatest shifts in social values the world has ever seen, by re-defining the concept of “need” in the public mind to coincide with every product American factories could make. They employed their wartime propaganda methods to indoctrinate the American people with a need to purchase everything possible, in their pursuit of “a higher living standard”.
“Bernays began the process of selling not so much products as emotion itself. In psychologically linking the act of consumption to feeling free, happy, empowered, and confident, he tied notions of identity and self to items that could be purchased.” This was the true birth of consumerism, and why it existed (and exists) only in the US. America evolved into a ‘shop-until-you-drop’ throwaway economy, based on easy credit and superficiality. In a few decades, Americans went from ‘thrift’ to ‘spendthrift’.
Few people have any idea of the extreme, almost fanatical, extent to which Bernays’ consumption virus succeeded in infecting the American population, having long passed the point where it can be deemed pathological. As one measure, that of shopping mall space per capita, Germany has 2.7 sq ft per person, Japan has 3.9 and the UK has 5. For every American shopper there are 24 sq ft of mall. The so-called “American Dream” evolved from this massive psychological abuse, and is why the American search for a higher standard of living manifests itself in mere useless purchase and consumption. The US economy, dependent for 75% of its life on consumer spending, is an entirely artificial construct that could never have existed without the greed, immorality and twisted psychological principles of Bernays and his “elite few”. Americans have now defined this bizarre consumption standard as the default position of all mankind’s economies, which they are now aggressively trying to inflict on China as ‘best practices’ and the will of God.
In his book ‘The Affluent Society’, Galbraith so wisely noted that US consumer demand was contrived and not natural. P & G is widely noted today for their unusual marketing model that enjoys a mostly artificial product demand driven by propaganda and supported by massive advertising spending, twice that of any other firm in the world. It is not a secret, and is acknowledged even among P & G executives, that the firm’s sales would within months fall by perhaps 70% if the advertising flood were terminated. As one author noted, “There is a very direct correlation between demand for a product and the marketing expense in synthesizing that demand.” The propagandists representing the elite owners of US industrial production recognised early on that contrived demand and consumption were a royal road to riches for them, and that they held the key to infecting Americans with a consumption virus. They eventually penetrated not only the homes but the school systems, to the extent that today Americans are taught from kindergarten that consumption is king. In this model, industrial production cannot increase without a corresponding increase in consumer demand, which means Americans must be moved to increasingly desire more products and spend increasingly more money to obtain them, which meant not only marketing and advertising but the development of consumer credit. Since Americans would not always have enough money today to purchase today’s new products, they were increasingly encouraged to borrow and spend tomorrow’s money. In a PBS program series, the narrator boasted that “One of the most wondrous inventions of the age was consumer credit. Before 1920, the average worker couldn’t borrow money. By 1929, “buy now, pay later” had become a way of life”. This is virtually the entire picture of the US economy today, consisting of the production and purchase of unnecessary and increasingly lower-quality products, the sales of which are stoked by ever-increasing advertising expense and the fiction of brand value, all financed on credit.
Galbraith noted correctly that American society evaluates people by the products they possess. Because for generations the corporate propagandists created and propagated the myth of striving for “a higher living standard” – which they defined as owing more things – as the epitome of the American Dream, it is natural that Americans now judge themselves and others according to their rates of useless consumption. It is probably true that the principal social goal of Americans is owning more things, the direct result of generations of intense programming. It is often said that Americans have a standard of living while Europeans have a quality of life, an accurate observation beyond the appreciation of most Americans. Galbraith again noted that American values are wrong, that “We set the wrong goal, the national dream, which created the evaluation system that is now conspicuous consumption and possession”. He wrote further that the urge to consume – which is virtually the bedrock of the US economic system – was deliberately created by fostering a false value system that emphasised production and consumption as the governors of prestige.
As far back as the 1920s, economist Paul Nystrom claimed that changes in lifestyle had induced American society to a “philosophy of futility”, of consumption for its own sake as a kind of social fashion. Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblen first coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, which was defined as a narcissistic behavioral addiction, a kind of psychological deformity induced in a population by promoting the purchase of usually expensive goods that are not necessary to one’s life, simply to show that one is able to afford them. Veblen’s original proposition was that conspicuous consumption was a psychological end in itself, providing the honor of superior social status while provoking envy in others. This kind of consumption is most notably seen in the behavior of the newly-rich, demonstrating their immaturity and lack of good taste by showing off, though we can sometimes observe it in the lower social classes who perceive themselves as relatively poor and give themselves a psychological lift by the unnecessary purchase of an expensive item. We see this often in the black ghettos in the US, where the poorest teenagers will spend unaffordable sums to buy a pair of sport shoes that happens to be in vogue.
This is not the same as purchasing something that we really do want for its own sake, and which would add pleasure and enjoyment to our lives. If we really love something and would be happy for owning it, there is no harm in indulging ourselves. Life is for living. But if you buy something for the sake of status or prestige, in other words, not because you love it for itself but to impress others, you are not living your life – you are living theirs. The British economist John Stuart Mill stated this quite well when he wrote, “I by no means wish to see discouraged any indulgence which is sought from a genuine inclination for, and enjoyment of, the thing itself; but a great portion of the expenses of the higher and middle classes in most countries is not incurred for the sake of the pleasure afforded by the things on which the money is spent, but from regard to (public) opinion.”
Of course, American society and quality of life were the natural victims of this propaganda. When we are overwhelmed with advertisements to buy new cars, we have much less sympathy for higher taxes that would pay for schools, hospitals or a high-speed rail system. And since US corporations and their elite owners and financiers exert a virtual ownership function on the US government, American government policies were recalibrated to support the capitalists instead of the best interests of the citizens and the nation. It is not for nothing that the US has no government-operated health care system, spends more on prisons than on education and that virtually its entire physical infrastructure is crumbling today. All of this stems from the same propaganda directed to serve the top 1% and satisfy their personal greed.
A significant characteristic of US media that exists in no other country is the subtle but persistent reinforcement of consumerism. When George Bush finally appeared on TV after 9-11, his only advice to Americans was to “go shopping”. Ben Bagdikian, Danny Schechter, Noam Chomsky and others have all detailed the extensive infiltration of consumerism into all aspects of media communication, where informational programs, documentaries and other important measures are eliminated because the media want “to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the ‘buying mood'”. Media owners want to keep Americans sequestered in their private little local worlds, cut off from too much knowledge about the world, preferring viewers to be “tranquilized, pacified, entertained”. According to Shechter, the dominant media mantra to viewers and readers is “shut up and shop”. Embedded in this approach is also a constant selling of the benevolence of capitalism and benefits of free enterprise. Bagdikian detailed how subtle forms of this cultural reinforcement appear almost everywhere, displaying corporate imagery flattering to capitalism, promoting the concept that “all businessmen are good, or if not, are always condemned by other businessmen”, that the ‘American way of life’ is beyond criticism.
P&G’s expenditures on TV advertising are so huge the company uses its power to dictate program content to the networks. For decades, P&G have demanded of TV networks: “There will be no material that may give offense either directly or by inference to any commercial organization of any sort. There will be no material on any of our programs which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless and lacking in all sentimental or spiritual motivation.” Sound familiar? I could provide a list of significant events that might easily categorise P&G as “cold, ruthless to the point of criminality, and lacking in all sentimental or spiritual motivation”. Not only that, P&G have a vested interest in maintaining the utopian mythology that so controls American consumers. From their policy statement again: “If there is any attack on American customs, it must be rebutted completely on the same show”. The result of all this influence from owners and advertisers is that all US media content, not only news but all network programming, and all movies, are subject to a subtle but pervasive censorship, all of which works together to reinforce not only the consumer society but the entire range of American social and historical mythology. The entire media and communications landscape in the US is infected with propaganda of one kind or another.
Let’s put aside marketing fraud for a moment and review the most important consideration of US consumer spending. To re-state, the American economy depends for 75% of its life on consumer spending, a ratio far higher, nearly twice as high, as that of most other nations, a condition that is pathological by any economic or psychological measures. This condition did not derive from natural development but was instead the result of decades, generations in fact, of an insidious program of marketing propaganda consciously promulgated to turn Americans into witless consumers for the sake of enriching the industrial 1% of the nation. An economy based on a level of consumer spending of this magnitude is so unbalanced that in the long run it cannot survive. And indeed, its temporary survival comes at enormous cost to the nation. One such cost is that the US is now a country with an infrastructure, including dams, highways, bridges, airports, railways and more, that has seen no maintenance or upgrading for more than 60 years and that is increasingly experiencing collapse. The money that should be extracted in taxes and spent on crucial national needs is instead spent on shoddy goods at Wal-Mart. In fact, the funds requisite for critical national needs are being siphoned off as corporate profits for the benefit of a chosen few. Yet we have the Americans today furiously urging China to follow their path and drastically encourage consumer spending. Of course, part of this evangelising is an equally furious urging for China to cease all infrastructure spending and other national development to release funds for consumers to spend. The reasons are two-fold.
One is that following the US advice would mean China’s development would be frozen in place, all improvements would cease, China’s hopes for the future would die on the vine, all this being part of the plan. The second reason is that the Americans hope to profit the most from a potential doubling of consumer spending in China. It is astonishing to me the clearly-flawed economic theory postulated by the Americans has been able to gain any traction in China. Briefly, the postulation is that consumption, consumer spending, will replace investment in development and therefore permit China’s economy to continue to grow unimpeded, a theory so obviously false one would need to believe in fairies to give it credence. Consumption – consumer spending – is not the driver or creator of national growth and development, but is the result of growth. As the economy grows, wages and incomes rise, and people have more money to spend. To freeze investment and encourage the population to spend all their money will not make the economy “grow”, regardless of the temporary (and false) effect on GDP statistics. It will simply transfer private savings and incomes to the owners of those firms selling consumer goods, impoverishing the nation while enriching primarily the American MNCs. The entire proposition is rubbish, pushed onto China for the perceived benefit of American firms with the added attraction of derailing China’s economic development and thus removing China as an economic threat to the US. And that is the entire story. China’s economy is neither unsustainable nor unbalanced, and to follow the advice of the Americans to “shift China’s growth model to one driven by household consumption rather than by investment and exports”, will serve only to destroy China. And that is the plan.
NOTE to readers: This essay is a companion piece to a chapter in one of my E-books titled Bernays and Propaganda, which deals with a wide range of related topics. This is the link:
The related part is: Chapter Four — The Transition to Education and Commerce, which provides more detail and background, and some live examples. Scroll down to the heading “Turning to Commerce”. The Chapter is not long but is necessary for the extended view it provides.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).
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