The Cost of Consumption


*Taken from the Spring 2009 TAASA Revolution Newsletter*

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the urge to “keep up with the Joneses” has been driving the American economy. For the first time, many average American families were able to not only accumulate wealth but spend money on things that had been previously considered out of reach. Obviously poverty still existed, but there was a large increase in the number of people enjoying economic prosperity. With consumers spending like they never had before, it didn’t take long for people to become accustomed to buying and owning whatever they wanted or needed. People also began to equate social status with possessions. In other words, buying things demonstrated social importance. This was very satisfying to these people because for so long they had to do without.

In addition, the Industrial Revolution opened the door for competition in the marketplace. Falling manufacturing costs and increased demand allowed entrepreneurs to claim their share of America’s newfound wealth. On the surface, competition seemed to be good thing for American consumers. When businesses were competing for customers, they did whatever it took to earn business. This meant companies offered high quality products at low prices and delivered top-notch customer service. However, businesses soon learned that there were limits on how inexpensive products could be made while maintaining quality and service to their customers. It also meant cutting wages or even jobs. Soon, manufacturers had to turn to other means of attracting new customers. Their preferred means of obtaining new customers quickly became advertising.

The first advertising agency in America opened in 1843 in Philadelphia. By 1882 Proctor and Gamble launched the first large scale advertising campaign for Ivory soap with an unprecedented budget of 11,000 dollars. In 1929 the American Tobacco Company topped the list by spending a staggering $12.3 million advertising Lucky Strikes brand cigarettes. In the same year, the collective advertising spending in the United States ballooned to $3.5 billion. The stock market crash in 1929 caused the industry to scale back it’s spending about $1.5 billion by 1933. Since then, spending has been on a steady and steep incline.

Today, the advertising industry spends roughly $200 billion annually and rising. That represents a more than 5,600 percent increase in the United States since the pre-depression peak in 1929. Of that $200 billion, about $12 billion is being spent on marketing to youth. On average, youth are exposed to about 3,000 advertisements every single day. In addition to this huge uptrend in spending, the advertising industry had invested a significant amount of money researching human behavior. Corporations want to know how consumers of all ages react and interact with products: what colors, shapes and textures elicit desired responses, and what is the magical combination that makes products irresistible. The industry employs everything from scientists to psychologists to identify the paths of least resistance for engaging consumers. One company, Sands Research of El Paso, Texas, uses electrodes and computers to record test subject’s cranial fluctuations – logical, emotional, auditory and visual – while they watch a potential or existing advertisement or during their interaction with a product. Sands Research calls this particular type of research neurological marketing or “neuromedia.” The data they collect helps advertisers create ads that maximize audience engagement in the short and long term. As you can see, corporations are fine tuning their marketing so that consumers are programmed to buy and to be life-long consumers. Advertising and products are crafted so that the frontal lobes of human brains light up like an Independence Day fireworks display. Consumption, it seems, is undeniable and unavoidable.

If resistance to consumption is futile, then it is important that we understand what we are consuming so that we can make informed decisions at the cash register. In addition to the actual products, we are also buying the social messages embedded in the marketing of the products. Take children’s bicycles for example. Bicycles are, by design, a gendered product (separate designs for males and females). Bicycles marketed to boys have aggressive styling with angular lines, bold colors and accessories like hand guards and water bottle holders. In contrast those targeting girls are designed with softer, curvilinear profiles, pastel colors (including white or pink tires) and accessories like baskets, handle bar bags and streamers. The underlying message is that boys are tough, adventurous and athletic while girls are soft, safe and pretty. Dynacraft, one of the nations largest bicycle manufacturers, offers a variety of bicycles that are classic examples of this dichotomy. One of their bicycle lines, Rhino, targets boys. The name Rhino conjures images of strength, power and domination – all traits that boys are taught to embody. Some of the bicycles in that line have names like Screamer, Troublemaker and Outcast, again reflecting and reinforcing male gender norms. Likewise, Dynacraft offers the Malibu line for girls. The Malibu name is reminiscent of shopping, fashion and beach life. This line features such bikes as the Gemstone, Sapphire and Bedazzled. Clearly these reinforce female gender stereotypes. In both examples, youth are being trained to adhere to existing gender norms.

This dynamic is found over and over in millions of products and advertisements. These messages, when repeated over an extended period, normalize gender differences at the societal level. If you look at the messages that are generated by the marketing industry over time, you will see a trend that clearly identifies men’s power being connected to their physical strength and intelligence and women’s power being connected to their sexuality and beauty. Also, these messages are increasingly becoming more overt, more sexualized and more violent. In a controversial print media campaign for Dolce & Gabbana, the creative team responsible for the campaign created a series of ads that show multiple muscular, shirtless men surrounding a lone, attractive woman in a submissive posture. In one ad in particular, one of the men is standing over the woman and he is holding her down against her will (or so it appears) while the other men watch in curiosity.

As these ads, and others like them, normalize sexualized violence, space is created in society for domestic and sexual violence to occur. These images ingrain in the collective consciousness of society from a very early age that gender inequality is normal and acceptable. They create an imbalance of power and portray women as sexual objects rather than human beings which allow men to treat women as something less than human. The fallout of gender inequality is a culture that allows sexual violence to exist. According to RAINN one in six women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. This is the true cost of consumption.

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8 thoughts on “The Cost of Consumption

  1. Gender stereotypes can be deeply embedded in marketing messages and marketing traditions (so the one person on a marketing team who says “let’s take a closer look at how we approach gender” might not have an easy time). That said – I have seen that it is more and more important for marketers to notice how the stereotypes about men harm their campaigns. I write about it fairly frequently – but this post might be a good intro to my thoughts: http://learnedonwomen.com/2009/04/allowing-men-to-shop-more-like-women/ It is great to see men having these conversations (as you are doing with this blog), and I believe there is hope for men and women working together to show marketers that a lot of this gender stuff left over from the 1950s (I suppose) needs to go.

    • Agreed on all fronts. I think men and women are going to have to speak up and work together. Consumers ultimately dictate what marketers do. Sadly, silence is taken as permission by marketers so when men and women choose to remain silent marketers beleive they have not yet found boundaries. It is up to us to clearly define that for them and also clearly define the consequences for crossing those boundaries. Thanks for your insight (I loved your article and look forward to reading more).

  2. Glad that was of interest. One more thing I’d love to get your opinion on (and please comment to the blog post directly if you are up for sharing publicly)is my latest PDF, Beware The Gender Trap: http://learnedonwomen.com/2009/03/changethis-gender-trap/

    Part of my work is connecting with more men to explore the communication of these new ways to think about gender – without making it seem too touchy/feely. Thanks!

  3. Nuria says:

    I found that picture hot and provocative. I would only interpret it as fantasy, not reality.

    • I agree that it is not reality, but it is the repeated images of sexualized violence against women that is problematic. It isn’t any one image or one scene in a movie but the collection of these images on the whole that I take issue with.

  4. Lillie says:

    Wow I am so glad to have found this. I just made a group on facebook today concerning these social issues. People do not see how the media affects society so greatly especially with these ads that you referenced. Great work! Keep it up!

  5. iamwoman says:

    I’ve been raped more than 3 times since the age of 13. No one wants to talk about it. People don’t want to believe that its true, including myself. I didn’t even fully realize the gravity of it all until I reached my early 20s. I have several friends who have been the victims of sexual assault as well. Too many to count on both hands, though 1 is really too many. We have got to do something about the condition of sexualized media–not necessarily by impeding the first amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression, but at least to advertise negative valences in consequence for violent and sexual actions if we are going to advertise positive in media! Thank you all for speaking out for this. It scares me sometimes that there doesn’t seem to be any way to counteract the progression of our culture into such a highly sexualized one. Truly frightening.

    • I am truly sorry for what you have experienced. Sadly, yours is an all too familiar story. I am happy to speak out against this and I hope that what I am doing is making an impact. Thanks for your support!

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