Consumerism & marketing
“There are two ways to get enough:
one is to continue to accumulate more and more.
The other is to desire less”
– G.K. Chesterton
If consumerism were a major disease, most Americans would probably find themselves lying in hospital beds helpless and overtaken by the disease. Alas, no cure is in sight for this disease as the hapless patient is constantly assaulted by external threats of bacteria, viruses and germs from all over the place. These threats attack his senses of sight, smell and hearing and the very core of his being through the relentless advertisements he hears, reads and watches everyday and everywhere he goes, even inside his very own home. And so he happily plays along. Surprisingly, he gets satisfaction from doing this. And after all, everyone else does it, right?
Indeed, consumerism has taken hostage the American family like cancer ailment that has crept up silently and taken over completely. There is no escaping it. Consider this sad fact:
For the majority of Americans that managed to stay afloat with dual incomes, despite falling real wages, the economic boom of the eighties brought with it an escalation of consumer expectation. For most, the limits of the “indispensable” expanded from the mortgage and the car to such late-modern necessities of life as VCR’s, another car, microwaves, CD’s and Nikes. But this frenzied, ‘shop-till-you-drop” syndrome has had its price: In order to purchase the pleasures that insulate us from the world, we must work till we drop and contract out the care of our children to others.” (Snell, Marilyn, “New Perspectives Quarterly, 1990)
This is the sad state of most American families. They spend more hours shopping and less time taking care of their children. They work double jobs to pay off mortgage of big houses they can’t enjoy and live in, for the newer and better models of household and personal gadgets that they don’t really need and will probably be out of fashion in a few months’ time anyway. Meantime, they postpone having kids until they are financially stable while enjoying themselves and their freedom. And when they do start having kids, they look for childcarers to take care of them, so they can pay off the things they don’t really need. Hapless children grow up in the care of childcarers who probably do not care if their wards are well-nourished and well-taken cared of. Worse still, in most instances, these childcarers / babysitters probably rely on the ubiquitous television set, their all-reliable partner in childcaring. And then societies wonder where they have gone wrong in raising their children? What kind of values do these children imbibe and grow up in? Whatever happened to precious family bonding time and the very important communication between and among family members, from parents to children and vice-versa, for instance? The television has taken over this most important time for the family. And it does not help that the kids have a lot of options to spend their time on – the internet, the electronic gaming, their cellular phones, the endless choices on TV, and the list goes on and on. Parents need to talk to the kids and vice-versa? Not to worry, we can always call each other through the mobile phones, or send text messages to one another, or simply email. There are a lot of options to keep in touch, right? Never mind that these options have taken away the personal touch. It is ironic that the more options there are for communication, the more detached people have become. Perhaps nothing will ever compensate for human touch, presence, comforting words and making time to communicate. Is it any wonder therefore that the family has disintegrated so and the children are simply out of control? People connect but are still disconnected.
This is a nation of consumers who define their sense of self-worth from what they have, not what they are. The general populace seems to patronize the notion that the more things you own, the happier you will be. And so, happily, they go on about the business of accumulation, of this and that and so much more. And so it continues in an endless spin until a newer item comes around and one simply has to have it. After all, their belongings have become the most important parts of their lives.
Why has this frenzied need to accumulate taken hostage of the American family? Simply put, the difference between needing and wanting has changed. In the past, people bought products because they needed them; however by time, wanting has become the new needing. Purchasing “new goods and services with little attention to their true need, products origin, durability or the environmental consequences of manufacture and disposal” has become the new way of consuming. Buying products has fulfilled entirely different needs: to keep and maintain an image of success (measured by what one can buy, regardless of need); to belong; to prove one is better and more successful, to be fashionable; to be hip and cool. Never mind if the things they buy lay idle after a few times of use, or a bigger and better model comes out sooner than a blink of an eye thus, making their previous purchase obsolete.
The consumerist American also need not save up for the things he wants. No money to buy what you want? No problem. Get it on credit. If he wants it now, he can have it now. Credit card companies are there to rescue the distraught consumer – it issues credit cards to anyone, even those who absolutely do not need it. Americans, they say want more and more and are willing to be slaves of debt to get them. Consider this insightful information as cited in the article “Consumerism in America”:
In 1968, the average American household’s personal debt was equal to about 63% of their personal disposable income. In 2000, that percentage had risen to over 106%. Not only has consumer debt increased, but consumer bankruptcy filings have continually risen for decades (ABI). In 1980, consumer bankrupcy filings for that year totaled 331,264. By 2001, total consumer filings for the year had reached 1,492,129 (ABI).
And so as these sayings go, “Many people have finally realized that money can’t buy happiness. Now they’re trying credit cards.” And also, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go”. These may be funny but are nonetheless true. And if this is not a troubling information about the sorry state of consumerism that has consumed the American, then what is? Already, the entire nation is reeling from a crisis that is caused, to a large extent, by abusing credit. The consumer can blame the media for peddling all these lies about what real needs and wants are, but he should also carefully review his own behavior and attitudes. It is time to take responsibility for actions. Take the case of a consumer who died during a stampede to beat everyone else to get inside a mall for a sale. Had the situation become so desperate that it had to come to that? Was it worth risking one’s life for?
Let us consider how the typical American family is depicted, with all its foibles and funny flaws, through The Simpsons. It is probably one of the longest comedy / cartoon shows in the country and beyond, and has maintained its popularity to this day, owing to its biting sarcasm and cynicism about the excesses of the American culture in a comical way. What makes the show so successful? Marissa Lee, in her article, “The Simpsons: A Thorough Essay on America” (2006) explains it this way:
Many people would agree that The Simpsons is easily one of the funniest shows on television, as it has been consistently since its debut in 1989. But what is it precisely that makes it so funny? I think it is the truth in the humor: we see America in The Simpsons. We see our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our schools, our churches, and our legal system. Exaggerated maybe, bizarre of course, ridiculous certainly, but nonetheless, the show takes American culture, society, and politics and humorously points out its foibles one after another. Every character in the show is a satire in and of his or herself.
What is the show’s take on consumerism in America? A lot! In one episode, “The Simpson Family Smiley-Time Variety Hour”, the whole family except Lisa sings a song about candy. No one questions why they want it and why they are singing for candy except for Marge, the conscience of the family. Despite Marge’s questioning however, they still mindlessly cheered for candy. Candy, in this episode, represents anything that society wants – be it money, technology, gadgets and or beauty products. We crave for them, yet we don’t know why.
In one episode (Season 20) entitled “Mypods and Broomsticks”, we are given a prelude to a consumerist society with opening scenes from Springfield Mall where screaming announcements of sale are plastered all over. Christmas is over and a new holiday is about to start. The opening scenes show the blatant commercialism for Christmas as just another marketing scam to sell more items. Watching workers mechanically put away Christmas paraphernalia, Marge laments the lack of Christmas spirit asLisa, the voice of reason says “They are already exploiting the next holiday”. Lisa, gets sidetracked by a Maple store that sells Mypods – it beckons to her and hypnotizes her into getting one. This speaks of advertising’s powerful effects on our purchasing behavior. Everyone is taken, absorbed in their own worlds until Bart mocks the owner and exposes the capitalist in him. While the episode deals with differences on religions and our prejudices, it shows that consumerism cuts across religions as the Muslim dad of Bart’s friend is himself obsessed with working hard, not staying at home so he can get the office with the corner view. The episode likewise focuses on Lisa who is so enamored in her mypod that she downloaded 1212 songs at $.99 cents and how profit-oriented companies, like Maple, exploits their customers to milk them dry. How can a child such as Lisa get access to such downloads? And how can Lisa get to listen to all 1212 songs? Shades of excess? Probably so.
In another episode from season 20, entitled “No Loan Again, Naturally”, we see the capitalism of lending that is motivated by profits alone, and unmindful of the consequences of market rates on its borrowers. The show opens with Homer preparing for a Mardi Gras, a marketing scam that producers / manufacturers use to sell their ware, just as any other holiday celebration that turns into a marketing ploy. Marge decries that “each celebration is always bigger than last year” and Lisa asks if there was a need for such party paraphernalia such as a huge toy horse. It shows how people do not mind spending lavishly for one day minor celebrations like even a mardi gras, complete with props and costumes and the whole nine yards. This show spoofs how American families go to great lengths to show off to some friends – to satisfy their need to keep up an image – of wealth and success. In fact, a guest asks Homer “Can you afford this party every year?”. How did Homer finance such lavish party? Why through the ever-reliable credit, of course! The show’s main subject is, however, the growing concern over home foreclosures in the United States, and the whole system that reeks of capitalism and profit. As the show progresses, we see how Homer reacts when the adjustable rate on their mortgage resets at more than they can afford, and they must put their home up for sale. Good Samaritan Ned Flanders buys the house and rents it out to them at an affordable rate. But Homer pushes his luck too far when he takes advantage of Ned’s generous land lording duties. All is well that ends well.
In another episode on Season 15, we find Homer and his two kids, Lisa and Homer planning to get a gift for Marge for Mother’s Day. This is another cynicism on the commercialization of any special day or holiday. Upon entering Kwikmart, viewers are greeted with logos of Kwik Cola. This is another take on advertisement. Upon consulting their Aunts Patty and Selma, Homer decides to get Marge a Kitchen equipment, Kitchen Carnival, that is supposedly endorsed by the Kitchen Association of Carnivals. This is a sarcastic take on how supposedly professional organizations prostitute their credibility in exchange for lucrative product endorsements. The gift itself shows the gender role that Marge plays, she is a domestic servant and thus, is happy with anything domestic, like a kitchen equipment. The gadget, surprisingly, churns out sweet treats – a bite into the nation’s obsession with candies and anything loaded with sugar and is, therefore, unhealthy. Even Homer could not resist the large candy treat that he gobbles up a big blob. Everyone gets a little too obsessed with the gadget and the wonders of sugar fix. It haunts them even in their sleep.
Many other episodes poke fun at advertisement of many products that people should frown at, but consume in large amounts anyway. It pokes fun at the people’s nicotine addiction, where many episodes find many of the characters constantly billowing smoke from their mouths. The two most notorious smokers are Marge’s sisters, Patty and Selma. Their appearances are always marked with dangling tobaccos from their mouths. Worse, it parodies the propensity of tobacco companies to expand their markets to include the youth. In one episode, junior girls are showing smoking junior Laramie cigarettes.
Other episodes also poke fun at people’s tendency to abuse alcohol. In one episode, the entire town is up in arms after Bart’s public drunkenness and demand a prohibition on alcohol. To this, Mayor Quimby replies, “You can’t seriously want to ban alcohol. It tastes great, makes women appear more attractive, and makes a person virtually invulnerable to criticism.”
The patriarch of the Simpsons family, Homer, embodies the age of convenience and instant gratification. He is the typical American dad, fat, lazy, loves beer, fatty foods and whose life revolves around the television. In fact, the whole family’s bonding time revolves around the television, in obvious cynicism of the typical American’s obsession with television. Homer goes to work out of need and goes about his daily work detached and disinterested. He does not hate this work, he is simply disinterested. What matters most about his job is not his satisfaction, or a sense of meaning that he derives out of it, but the fact that it puts food on the table and pays well. Day in and day out, he goes to work and is stuck in a daily rut he is totally indifferent to. This speaks so well of many workers in this country. They just go about their daily routine as a force of habit, and never bother to ask what their mission in life is. After all, it puts food on the table. Physical nourishment takes precedence over mental and emotional nourishment.
Marge is the conscience of the sitcom, but rarely is she given the attention she so rightfully deserves. She embodies the way that women are still generally treated in the present times. They are relegated to the background, and their opinions hardly matter. She is reduced to the humdrum of keeping the family together by way of her maternal responsibilities – keeping house, nourishing and nurturing. Although she gets ignored by Homer and Bart most of the times, she plods on. She knows her place. She is a woman. Such is the curse of her gender.
Mr. Burns embodies not only the capitalist, but capitalism itself. His only interest is money and profits and nothing more. He is not interested to know his employees’ names and be involved in their lives. His only purpose in life is to make money. In fact, so pervasive is his obsession for money that he does not have any meaningful relationship with anyone – no family life and not even with his own mother. It does not help that his business, a power plant, is a threat to the environment.
The character Mr. Burns is another critique to the American consumer lifestyle. Marge is the one that catches the attention to the consumer behavior. Before a commercial break Marge says that she is going to think about products to purchase, she closes her eyes and says “Oh! I don’t have that” and “Hey, I can use that.” Marge’s comments are a critique against the commercials that are to come. One can think that Marge is warning the viewers against the very negative effects that advertisements have on our psyche – creating a veiled “need” and warns that the main goals of commercials are to create a need that will only be satisfied with the product sold. “Oh! I don’t have that…” is the part where the need has been created. Marge is thinking that she needs the product. And then “hey, I can use that” shows that the desire can be satisfied with purchasing the certain product. We see a progression of how cunning advertisements can be through working on our subconscious.
In the consumer industry, marketing techniques are guiles used to ensnare customers to patronize their products or services despite the absence of an actual need. So many techniques are being used to entice consumers, and the clueless consumer is constantly under attack – billboards, magazines, TV ads, streamers, radio ads, call center agents, among others. The main strategy is to use the popular, the rich and the trendy for the customers to aspire what they endorse and be like them in the process.
The Simpsons show can be seen as a personification of the ignorance of man towards material things. It is a perfect example to show how marketing works, the brands in the sitcom and the brand itself. The Simpsons portrays many brands in its episodes like Duff Beer, Buzz Cola and the Kwik-E-Mart Duff Beer is the representation of every beer brand. One can see its advertisements, the amount that Homer drinks it, the overemphasis related to existing companies. “Buzz Cola” is another drink that is related to the real life sodas. Buzz Cola parodies the real cola companies, with their slogan, “Twice the sugar, twice the caffeine”. Buzz Cola is a representation of Jolt Cola sold in the United States with the slogan “All the sugar twice the caffeine”. Most health practitioners have warned against the negative effects of cola on our bodies, yet people continue to drink it in large amounts. It is after all, a multi-billion dollar industry.
The sitcom itself became a brand. It is not just any TV sitcom, but it has its own comic books, movie, ride in Universal Studios, video games and other merchandises like DVDs, trivia games and board games. After the Simpsons show most of the towns named Springfield celebrated the show. One 7-Eleven store transformed into a “Kwik-E-Mart” to promote “The Simpsons Movie”.
The Simpsons, a parody of American culture on consumerism and excess, should jolt people to re-examine their consumption behaviors and patterns, to look deeply into their habits and decide on what are essential against nice-to-haves. There are a lot of things that people have but do not really need. And then it continues, this wanting to have more and more and more, in a never ending cycle. This does not only hurt our financial positions, but cuts through the very moral fiber of our values, as a people and as a nation. At this crucial time, when the nation is reeling from a very difficult crisis, it will help to review patterns of consumption and savings that will help the economy recover and not sink it deeper into troubles. True, the affluence of American society affords its citizens more economic freedom than that of its neighbors from Third World Countries (TWCs) . When the economically marginalized citizens of TWCs are fighting with their lives for table scraps to feed their families, the affluent American is preoccupied with malling, and having tummy tucks, nose lifts and breast enlargements. Such disproportionate advantages must behoove the American consumer to carefully rethink and reconsider his behavior.
The hunters and gatherers of yesteryears had nothing, yet had everything they needed. They had food, shelter and each other. They did not need to be entertained because their surroundings were their entertainment. They ate healthy and kept themselves healthy. They hunted for what they needed and had no frantic need to store and accumulate so much. They spent precious times with each other. And that is all they ever needed — until their conquerors came along and advertised they needed more. Nothing is wrong with civilization. People owe what they are and what they have to the early civilization. But it may help to go back to the basics from time to time.
Wanting to have things is not necessarily bad. Every once in a while, people should reward ourselves with life’s little pleasures to take away the stress of daily living. Things are meant to be enjoyed and not to possess its owners. It only becomes bad when people get controlled by wanting to have too much, at the expense of the more important things in life, like family values and aspirations that are higher than ourselves.
Everyone, after all, will leave the world exactly how they arrived in it – with nothing.
Wright, Kendra. “Consumerism in America. 10 July 2009. http://www.leland.k12.mi.us/spring04/wright04_1.html
“Consumerism in America” 2002. 10 July 2009.
Lee, Marissa. “The Simpsons: A Thorough Essay on Americans”. 2006. 10 July 2009. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/76060/the_simpsons_a_thorough_essay_on_americas_pg2.html?cat=39