Tag Archives: consumerism

How did the consumer society come about historically?

There’s a fantastic movie, The Century of Self, which deals with the emergence of modern consumer society. You can check it out here:


It talks about the emergence of some consumer psychology out of the propoganda machines of World War 1, and does a great job of describing how modern marketing has evolved to get at our subconscious desires rather than our rational, utilitarian need for stuff. It talks about how Edward Bernaise, Freud’s Nephew, got women to smoke (thanks a lot, Ed). Rather than focusing on the utility of cigarettes (taste, relaxation, etc), he made them a symbol of female stength and independence. 

This gave cigarettes a bizarre kind of disfunctional utility. At first glance, you could say that cigarettes got more useful. Before they just made you relaxed, all of a sudden they made you relaxed AND gave you a semi-socially acceptable way to stick it to the man. This social utility of rebellion made cigarettes more appealing, which shifted indifference curves and drove sales. Except that “utility” is kind of a misnomer here, because cigarettes weren’t actually solving any problems. They weren’t helping women take on the patriarchy, they were giving women cancer. If anything they were a distraction, a false solution to a problem that they are useless to solve.

It seems to me like this model is a big part of how consumer society operates. Simply solving problems will eliminate the supply of problems, so marketing departments have had to learn (from folks like Bernaise) how to manufacture and maintain problems for their products to solve. It’s much more lucrative to create a problem, then offer a solution which solves the symptoms of that problem without solving the root cause. Say I struggle to respect myself. A clever marketer can identify that problem and offer a brand new cell phone to help solve it. In essence, he’s just manufactured my self respect problem into a new cell phone problem, one which I can solve temporarily by buying a new cell phone every year. Consumer society seems reliant on these sorts of manufactured problems, and to me that makes it vulnerable. The new cell phone problem and the extra consumption that it requires only exists if there is no better way to solve the self respect problem.

To me this creates a gigantic market opportunity, one which could help to move us away from a consumer society. If modern corporate culture is more about maintaining and manufacturing problems than actually solving them then actually solving them is a significant unrealized business opportunity. Say Boog starts a business that sells community garden kits. By setting up a community garden I find a new, better, and cheaper source of self respect, so my new cell phone problem shrivels and dies. Even though I’ll never be a repeat customer of Boog’s, she can still make a tidy profit anywhere the self respect problem is unsolved and she can effectively communicate her product as a solution.

Ok, so that model is incredibly utopian, but to me it raises a couple of interesting questions. Are there “root problems” that consumer society is afraid to solve? If so, how can we identify them? How can we create business models which actually solve them?How can we create new marketing tactics which communicate those solutions?

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