Consumer society: When is enough, enough?

Joel Holland The United States is a Mecca of commercialism, materialism, consumerism and many other “isms” that revolve around the power of the all mighty dollar. To some, such raw capitalism is what America stands for. For others, it is a growing concern rife with repercussions rippling through the ranks of age, gender and social status. The fundamental question becomes, when is enough, enough? While it is impossible to give a quantifiable answer to this subjective question, one can evaluate many variables that influence the answer. In this paper, we will explore the possibility of an overindulgent consumer society in an objective manner, looking at the benefits, pitfalls, legal implications, and ultimately, who is responsible for taking action to correct the problem, if indeed there is one. To begin, let’s look at my personal story of an evolution through consumer society, complete with examples of desire, satisfaction and overindulgence. Growing up in Bryce Resort (Southern Virginia), I lived among two distinct groups of people: the local lower-middle class, and the well-off vacationing families. It was a strange dynamic for me, because my family didn’t fit neatly into either group. My father is a lawyer and my mother is a contractor, and they moved our family to Bryce when I was 6 in order to pursue an entrepreneurial lifestyle building investment properties at the resort. We lived at Bryce for 7 years, during which time we built and sold 7 houses. During that time, however, real estate at the resort did not appreciate in value the way that my parents had hoped for, and the properties were each barely profitable. Because of this, money was always extremely tight and my sister and I were held to a $2 a week allowance. This was particularly difficult for me because I chose to hang around the well-off kids that I envied, and I constantly desired the toys and brands


and a note to the tooth fairy with delivery instructions. I drew my own spider logo and taped it onto my ski jacket. Geeks. I would wake up each morning and check the closet. strain on health (many sleepless nights).” “The paradox is that in order to be successful in the ‘conformity game’ students must constantly change…” (Milner 6). As Murray Milner said in “Freaks. The unhealthy level of unfulfilled desire as a child had a deep psychological impact on me that has followed me throughout life: I am driven with a fiery passion to accumulate wealth.” among other achievements. landed me on BusinessWeek’s list of the “Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25. I begged my sister to give me a tooth she had recently lost so that I could put it under my pillow along with a Gameboy holder I built out of tinfoil. and even self 2 . hurts relationships and occasionally drives me through bouts of anxiety and depression. increasingly upset that He wasn’t listening to me. however. and Cool Kids. The year ski clothing brand Spyder became very popular. Unfortunately these “changes” left me in the dust with no budget left to spend on the new fads. Even worse were instances where I would save up my earnings from allowance and odd jobs.that they owned. only to spend the money on a brand or toy that was unpopular within a few months. My obsession with accumulating money as a way to feel fulfillment has led me to start and sell companies. there is a dark side: My obsession with money causes me great stress. I prayed each night for a month that God would make them appear in my closet. I can vividly remember examples of the disturbing level to which my desire took me: When kids started buying Roller Blades and my parents wouldn’t buy them for me. When Gameboys came out. While I am proud of these accomplishments.” and given me the distinction of the US Small Business Administration’s 2007 “Small Businessperson of the Year.

This is because no matter how hard I work towards earning and saving. not a mechanism for identifying my social class position. At this moment. yacht in Malibu or private island in the Caribbean. I fantasize about having enough money to be completely free from worrying about spending. causes me to want to work harder. or taking my girlfriend out for dinner without having to glance twice at menu prices. complete freedom means being able to do anything I want to at any time. yet. For me.destruction. The process then starts all over again. If I had one billion dollars. To cope with the short term anxiety. To me. so too does my spending. In these day dreams I focus on my broader consumption fantasy which includes such immense wealth that I can spend extravagantly on a Lamborghini to drive from my Greenwich mansion to my Gulfstream V. I could afford to pick up and leave right now with no 3 . which I will fly to my cabin in aspen in Aspen. This method of rationalization is the only thing that calms me down and takes my mind off of the pain I feel from parting with money. the money seems to flow out much easier than it flows in. my desire for wealth accumulation does not fit into Holt’s “cultural capital” categorization. This. in turn. money is a means towards complete freedom. As this vicious cycle continues I get irritated. While I do indeed lust after expensive toys. I would prefer to be in Aspen skiing rather than sitting in the library writing a paper. then angry. I day dream about going to the mall and purchasing Ralph Lauren clothing without feeling sick to my stomach. then complacent and numb. as my income increases. Envisioning future prosperity allows me to remove some of the guilt from spending in the present day because I feel silly grappling over a couple hundred dollars now when I’ll have millions in the future.

In middle school I believed that I would be a millionaire by the time I graduated high school. I was suspended in 7th grade. In reality. I must abandon my desire and finish this paper in order to get a good grade and graduate from college with a good GPA that will land me a good job that will give me a good income so that I can provide food and shelter for myself and my family. In high school I envisioned the millions that I’d posses by the end of college. At each step of the way it is getting more and more difficult to convince myself that I’m accomplishing what I need to in order to achieve my expectations (not dreams). and potentially serious implications if future meets reality and the pictures don’t match up.37) to exhibit patterns of hostile. As it stands. Living contently in the present through visions of the future has been an up and down experience for me thus far. Now college is coming to an end and I’m deferring my lofty goals and ambitions yet again. feelings of emptiness 4 . I am 37% more likely (odds ratio of 1. defiant and disobedient behavior towards adults than kids who don’t put a priority on being rich (Kasser 16). the only way to avoid this rat race is through financial freedom. many of my behavior patterns fit neatly into Tim Kasser’s study of “The High Price of Materialism. causing problems in my life along the way. I have started feeling some of the effects of this already.” Kasser would classify me as “an adolescent who put a priority on being rich” (Kasser 16). mood swings. According to his statistical model. Interestingly. Kasser’s formula predicts that I am 33% more likely to have patterns of unstable relationships.repercussions. 11th grade and12th grade for disobeying authority. Kasser’s formula also predicts I am 35% more likely to engage in alcohol abuse than those who don’t prioritize being rich (Kasser 16). For me. Finally. I have a drinking problem when dealing with the stress of not having enough money. As my consumption log shows.

unnecessary activities (mainly related to alcohol). I doubt I will ever be satisfied (Rivlin 1). The current negative savings rate and heavy consumer debt levels in America would no doubt be categorized by Twitchell as a dangerous situation. and inability to be satisfied with what I’ve accumulated at any given point. Whether or not consumers are truly overindulgent is difficult to 5 .and self-destructive behavior than those who don’t put a priority on being rich (Kasser 16). when your debts exceed your credits” (Twitchell 252). Rivlin summarizes this dilemma by saying “…many such accomplished and ambitions members of the digital elite still do not think of themselves as particularly fortunate. difficulty maintaining close relationships and self destructive behavior that led me to being arrested three times as a senior in high school for stupid. television and with a net worth of ten million dollars that still works 80-hour weeks. is approaching unhealthy levels and needs to be addressed? While the point of overindulgence or desire is tough to pinpoint quantifiably. This prediction is in line with my constant struggle with extreme mood swings. Twitchell lays down one possible formula: “It is well to remember that such behavior [gathering stuff] only becomes a sickness. Because of the constant flow of sensationalized stories of wealth flowing over the internet. arises from seeing others around me with more. I am surrounded with constant reminders of what I am lacking. in part because they are surrounded by people with more wealth…” (Rivlin 1). or that of the nation as a whole. no matter how much money I make. My story has direct parallels to the millionaires from Silicon Valley that Gary Rivlin wrote about. an affliction. an addition. Like the founder of Match. But how do I know when my consumer desire. My desire to continue accumulating wealth.

In 1978. This finding seems to fly in the face of Michael Schudson’s opinion in “Delectable Materialism” that “…people ignore the vast amount of advertising they see and distrust much of the little advertising they do take in” (Schudson 31). Juliet Schor argues in “Born to Buy” that kids are extremely vulnerable to consumer desire created through advertising. I was highly impressionable and indirectly impacted by my peers who were heavily influenced by advertising.define in a concrete manner. If advertises are indeed at fault for aggressively targeting young consumers (or guilty for any other forms of misleading consumers. objectifying women or otherwise crippling society) what could be done about it. Furthermore. and the finger seems to point directly towards advertising. the Federal Trade Commission issued a report concluding that children under the age of seven “’do not possess the cognitive ability to evaluate adequately child-oriented television advertising’” (Schor 177). Even though I wasn’t directly exposed to very much television advertising as a child. however. as a child with little disposable income. it is possible to look beneath the issue to figure out what is fueling consumer desire. While it may be true that adults can filter what flashes before their eyes. This didn’t hold true for me because my parents never gave me money (it didn’t exist). children with relatively undeveloped brains may not be able to. so when I wanted something I saw in an advertisement there was no empowerment. but rather an unhealthy “…gap between desire and means…” (Schor 179). I was a violation of one of the major lines of defense that Schor connects with the advertising industry: that advertising empowers kids. and who would be responsible for leading the charge for change? 6 .

the Court found that the government may not issue a blanket ban on advertising that is truthful and non-misleading. Rhode Island in 1996. the government is in place to be the voice of the people. and therefore does not have the same protections under free speech. the answer is no (Valentine). in Supreme Court case Liquormart. More recently. Inc. However. it becomes the job of John Q. These findings opened the door for government regulation of advertising. and disclaimers. the state may require commercial messages to appear in such a form. warnings. Therefore.First. or include such additional information. as are necessary to prevent its being deceptive and it may restrict some forms of aggressive sales practices that have the potential to exert ‘undue influence’ over consumers” (Liquormart). that alone is not enough to effect change. In this case. 7 . however. Do corporations hold the same legal rights to free speech as individuals? According to Supreme Court case Valentine v. Chrestensen in 1942. “We are … clear that the Constitution imposes … no restraint on government as respects purely commercial advertising” (Valentine). In a democracy. Public to influence the political sheep to act by banding together and creating a critical mass of opinion. Specifically. They held that this type of speech is not the same as opinion speech. it held that: “The state may regulate some types of commercial advertising more freely than other forms of protected speech. it is important to look at the legal issues involved in limiting a company’s ability to advertise. the Court coined the term “Commercial Speech” in reference to any language that is expressed only for the economic interest of the speaker (company). v.

Commercial Alert. Whether or not the United States has overindulged in consumerism is a matter of opinion. These public interest groups are formed when a large enough group of constituents feels there is a problem in society that needs to be addressed through proactive action. on the other hand. public interest groups can also influence political representatives to enact protective legislation. among many others. But who determines this point. The theory of efficient markets implies that “bad” marketing and advertising practices will be weeded out of the system automatically as consumer sentiment shifts against products deemed immoral or ill-gotten. and whose responsibility is it to take a stance? Schor discusses one way in which advertising can be limited: Government intervention through the influence of public interest groups. start a petition for government intervention. She points out that in 1974 the Federal Communications Commission enacted a series of regulations aimed at helping children differentiate between programming and advertising (no host selling. limited advertising time. Consumes Union. If. aggressive or manipulative advertising. it is up to consumer advocacy and public interest groups to convince either the masses or the government that there is a problem.Most would agree that at a certain point enough is enough when it comes to excessive. corporations are profiting on a few individuals at the expense of many (Tobacco companies as an example). The FCC was empowered to make these regulations because of pressure from public interest groups such as Action for Children’s Television. the group can fund a study. In a democracy where majority rules. or influence public sentiment towards a company or product. After identifying an issue and corralling support for the cause. separators between ads and programming) (Schor 177). The question of whether advertising/marketing practices are “right” or “wrong” is highly 8 .

Either way. Perhaps at this point I will create or join a public interest group to combat aggressive advertising towards children to protect future generations from living a story similar to mine. this mentality. the capitalistic machine that is America will continue to churn and burn as it is. 9 . images of grandeur and goals of complete financial independence have existed as long as I can remember. could be disastrous when and if I finally realize that my consumption fantasy is not realistic. For me.subjective and relies on the public to determine the “tipping point” at which change is necessary. I know a major weakness of mine is the inability to find satisfaction with anything. the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Perhaps I will conquer my aspirations. matched with my aggressive personality. As for me. On the other hand. and I will continue working feverishly to make them reality. in which case I may become a lobbyist in support of the advertising industry. If left unaddressed. with modifications made possible only by intervention from active citizens who develop a critical mass in support of change.

" LEXIS Case Law (1942).lexisnexis.babson. 12 Nov. and Cool Kids. Millionaires Who Don'T Feel Rich. 2006. Geeks. "In Silicon Valley.ezproxy. INC. Michael. "LIQUORMART. 2007 <http://www. Milner..html>. POLICE COMMISSIONER OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK. 1991. The High Price of Materialism. 1999. LexisNexus Academic.Works Cited Kasser. INC. risb=21_T2500169354&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resul tsUrlKey=29_T2500169359&cisb=22_T2500169358&treeMax=true&treeWidth= 0&csi=6443&docNo=1>. 2007 <http://http://www. AND PEOPLES SUPER LIQUOR STORES. New York: Scribner." The New York Times 5 Aug. London: The MIT ocview.nytimes. Twitchell.lexisnexis. "VALENTINE. Babson Park. Born to Buy. Babson Park. view/docview. Freaks." LEXIS Case Law (1996). 2002. James B. V. RHODE ISLAND AND RHODE ISLAND LIQUOR STORES ASSOCIATION. LexisNexus Academic. New York: Columbia. 2007.babson. Babson College. Schor. 2005. Juliet Murray. Rivlin. 15 Oct. 2007 <http://www. Lead Us Into Temptation. 10 . "Delectable Materialism. Gary." The American Prospect Apr. PETITIONERS V. 12 Nov. New York: Routledge. Babson College.

risb=21_T2500147677&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resul tsUrlKey=29_T2500147684&cisb=22_T2500147683&treeMax=true&treeWidth= 0&csi=6443&docNo=1>. 11 .

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