Archive for November 16th, 2007

What To Do With a Slightly Used Elephant?

November 16, 2007

I found this interesting: The Consumer Paradox: Scientists Find that Low Self-Esteem and Materialism Goes Hand in Hand.

The upshot is that they’ve apparently established a causal link between low self-esteem and what I’ll call consumerism (both because it’s more descriptive, and because “materialism” has too many other meanings), though I don’t see any indication that they’ve demonstrated the mechanism. Low self-esteem causes people — young people, in this study — to buy more stuff. Events that raised those same people’s self-esteem caused them to buy less stuff. And the causation works the other way, too: consumerism causes low self-esteem.

If they’ve actually demonstrated a causal relationship there, this seems to me major news for the U.S.

Our whole society is based on consumerism. Our economy runs, almost purely, on consumerism. And not just ours. It’s a truism among economists that, “The American consumer is the engine that drives the world’s economy.” We aren’t just based on buying things; we’re based on selling each other things. We’re a marketing/advertising driven socio-economic system.

Consumerism is as central to our society as Leninism was to Soviet Russia. The thing Soviet Russia sold to its people above all else was Ideology. The thing America sells to its people above all else is Buying Stuff. There was a time when Work was the dominant American trope and ideology; now it’s the buying of stuff.

If, as this study apparently suggests, Buying Stuff is making us sick, we’re going to have to stop making it the core of our society. We’re going to have to stop selling Buying Stuff. The problem is, what then? In the absence of Buying Stuff, we don’t have an economy. Work isn’t there for us to fall back on, anymore. Nobody wants to work; we just want to buy stuff. Work is no longer seen as redemptive (e.g., the Protestant work ethic), or ennobling, or as giving purpose, or as worthwhile effort toward a socially valuable work-product, or as an expression of and outlet for character, or as providing, in itself, any other benefit. It’s just what gets us to Buying Stuff.

Buying Stuff, meanwhile, has become a good in itself. The point isn’t even owning things, it’s buying them. That’s where the pleasure is. There’s a phrase I’ve heard increasingly in recent years: “fun to buy,” as in, since the holiday season is upon us, “We could get Susie X, but that’s no fun to buy. Ooooh, let’s go to Cool Stuff Emporium and get her Y!” The point of the exercise becomes not Susie and the pleasure or use she might get from the gift, but ourselves and the pleasure of Buying Stuff.

The linked article references a Mad Magazine quote that’s been making the rounds on the internets lately: “The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.”

Exactly. Why? Because elephants are useful to have around the house, or add value and satisfaction to one’s life? No. Because if elephants were for sale, they would be fun to buy. Nobody would want to own an elephant, of course. But buy one? What a blast!

Does this new study indicate we’re moving toward making advertising a national health issue? It seems unlikely. Advertising is pretty much all we do anymore. The interests are too large and too entrenched and too general.

If consumerism is causing widespread degradation of mental health, though, what’s the appropriate response?

(NB: I couldn’t find online the actual study mentioned in the linked article, or even a complete cite for it. Here’s author, title, and journal: Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, “Growing Up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents,” Journal of Consumer Research.)