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For better or worse, consumerism (alongside its bedfellows: private and commercial interest) has infiltrated the very core of Western culture, profoundly affecting every aspect of our domestic lives. Though taken for granted, it remains a phenomenon of modern-day living. Along with TV viewing it has become a national pastime, an all-embracing passion. We are instinctively driven to it on an unprecedented and monumental scale, and simply cannot get enough of it. For some individuals it brings liberation, for others enslavement. Many are so dedicated to shopping they are pathologically addicted, these so-called 'shopaholics' never getting enough of what they really want.
So entrapped in 'materiality' have we become as a culture that many purchases, such as homes, cars, holidays, clothes, etc, have come to signify who we are and what we represent as individuals - consumer products as status symbols, reflecting lifestyle statements, prestige and power, displaying our social standing to the world.
The link between shopping and emotional fulfilment is unmistakable. Shopping, beyond providing our basic necessities and satisfying physical needs, has a far-reaching agenda. Material possessions have become the royal road to happiness and contentment, their pursuit offering the promise of emotional security and well-being.
In the customs of consumer capitalism, our emotions are directed towards objects; material belongings of every description. Many are tempted to swoon with desire at every new product on the market - including electronic toys and gadgets, fashion accessories, 'designer labels', keep-fit paraphernalia - often purchased on impulse and/or found to be short-lived, disposable and surplus to requirements (think exercise bicycles!). Many 'white goods' and so-called 'consumer durables' even have built-in obsolescence, making it necessary to replace them at regular intervals, keeping the market fluid. Whatever, the aura of consumerism itself offers indulgence in sensual pleasures. We become entranced by the product's novelty value or its life-affirming qualities. Consuming new products gives a thrill, a sense both of belonging and being different, charging our mundane lives with the excitement of the unusual.
Colourful and decorative wrappings and trappings, and countless soft-focused images of consumer products, invariably invite fantasy beyond what is presented. This is the equivalent of dressing up in order to heighten aesthetic appearance and appeal. On special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays, we can all recall the way in which presents cast a certain spell, invoking a sense of wonder... and the anticipation of unwrapping them! At such moments, faced with the unknown, it is as though we are in the grip of some otherworldly presence. But, once unwrapped and in the clear light of day, the fantasy bubble bursts. The fully-exposed gift then inhabits a different order of existence and we rapidly experience a dissolution between appearance and reality; the original desire evaporates, bringing a touch of disillusionment.
The Seductions of Advertising
Advertisements, as vehicles for consumeristic behaviour, pervade all the media and are an inevitable part of everyone's lives. The world of advertising forms a vast superstructure with an apparently autonomous existence and an immense influence. It is a shrewd and complex business, its basic role being a deceptive and manipulative one through the use of correlatives1 with seemingly disparate, often meaningless, objects. For example, by wearing or using certain products - from 'exotic' perfumes to wholemeal bread - we are invited to remember (and associate the product with) an idyllic, mythical 'past', full of nostalgia, beauty or a 'back to nature' ambience that the advertisers themselves have created. These products are connected by a magical route to this past, which then itself becomes a commodity, something that can be recaptured and owned by purchasing the product. Fundamentally, advertising is designed to stimulate desire and thereby propagate and maintain the consuming habit.
The Shadow Side of Consumerism
The slogan 'shop till you drop' is a stark reminder of the mania surrounding consumerism; its irresistible but 'deathly' charms. To shop at any cost not only invites the spectre of personal debt but also betrays the shadow, devouring side of voracious consumerism. We have become slavishly devoted to it and embraced it as a way of life so much that we are at risk of losing sight of its downside: the negative outcomes and multiple harms it causes to humans and nature alike.
Society accepts the onrush of technologies that spawn endless new commodities with alarming passivity and little consideration of the social, political and ecological changes they bring. In an individualistic society, where self-interest is the norm, there is a general inability to make judgements beyond our personal experience and accept collective responsibility in the face of the damaging effects of consumer technologies. Our optimism about the advancement of society seems misplaced. The pervasiveness of free market ideologies and the development of the global economy, controlled by transnational corporations, has dire implications, having brought the natural world to the brink of breakdown. Increased competition and demand for consumer goods, and giant corporations' domination over the means of production, threaten to eliminate local economic control and self-sufficiency. Highly automated work environments have meant the shedding of millions of jobs, with mass-production also achieved through exploitation of cheap labour. Add to the list the environmental cost of consumerism, notably pollution and the depletion of the world's resources, and we begin to see its short-termism and unsustainability.
Consumerism as an individual pursuit is therefore a force to be reckoned with. Consumer society, rather than leading to prosperity and peace for the majority, has left people vulnerable to distant interests. Arguably, such interests are 'cannibalistic' ones2.
Consumerism as Entertainment
The desirous nature of shopping, together with the seductions of advertising, have blurred the boundaries between need and greed, spawning a 'must have' and 'get rich quick' culture. If we can't possess it then we can dream of riches, bathing in material luxuries, no more struggling to keep 'the wolf from the door'. Whether shopping on the streets, in catalogues or on the Internet, there is an insatiable appetite to spend, spend, spend, which sometimes verges on the obscene. We are swept along on a tide of manic devotion into hypermarkets and shopping malls, those modern day 'cathedrals' of consumerism.
Let's face it, shopping has become 'sexy' and there is much prurience associated with it. One TV game show in the UK, called Supermarket Sweep, exemplifies this unadulterated worship of consumerism more than any other. The action takes place in a surreal mock-supermarket, where three couples answer simple questions about the price of goods. By answering correctly, the contestants are awarded varying amounts of time to go 'wild in the aisles', which involves stuffing as much shopping as possible into a trolley. The couple collecting the most expensive assortment of goods goes into the final, thrilling stage of the game: a hunt for clues leading to a jackpot ticket that is cunningly hidden on one of the supermarket shelves. Roars of encouragement (mimicking consumerist hysteria) are provided by a live audience positioned to one side of the supermarket, their evangelical zeal reinforcing the belief that consumerism is an all-consuming passion.
Amazingly, this morning TV show regularly attracts over four million viewers, and its overly enthusiastic and camp host, Dale Winton, has a cult following3.
What lies behind the show's vast appeal; the fascination that keeps viewers hooked? Objectively, the show's format is brain-splittingly simplistic, even banal. Those with more discerning tastes might label it as downright 'trash' - the depiction of greed being the height of vulgarity. The pretence to normalcy, the excruciating potrayal of ordinary people behaving in ostensibly surreal ways, defies analysis. We are not invited to think but to indulge the senses in a kind of simulated hyper-reality that bears little resemblance to, even parodies, familiar everyday experience. In this stage-managed, show-biz presentation, as in advertisements, actual reality becomes redundant.
In post-modernistic terms, the show is as it is, without reference to anything other than itself. The distinction between representation and reality breaks down. It thereby has no inherent meaning but rather multiple meanings depending on one's viewpoint. In short, anything goes, as there are no longer any rules or categories by which to judge its quality and legitimacy, or lack thereof. It boils down to personal taste.
Entertainment value aside, the show's unquestionable popularity derives in large part from our over-emotional investment in consumer products and the opportunity to satisfy our consuming desires by proxy. The show is also an overwhelming endorsement of the ideological values and qualities underpinning consumer-driven Western societies, notably competition, success and fame. It is a celebration of consumerism as the new religion. The apotheosis of salvation on the perverse assumption that what ensnares us will ultimately set us free.
Is being let loose in a supermarket and not having to pay at the check-out a vision of consumer heaven for many? This fact is not lost on the show's production team who contrive to match such stereotypical expectations. The shadowless, squeaky clean, sanitised environment, the glaring lights, the lustful and frenetic desire of the contestants, the fully-stocked shelves and the promise of emotional fulfilment are all images that reinforce the allure of consumerism. Like one big advertisement itself, those 'glittering prizes' stoke up our consuming passions.