“In a nation … where there is no demand for unnecessary things, a man slips into a lazy state, loses all his pleasure for life and becomes unusable for the public” (Hume in De Vogli, 2013, p. 41).
In the 18th century, when, because of feeling of threat, the strongest institution of that time, the church, started to promote the modesty and persuade people to put spiritual and moral values before material goods, those who thought exact opposite, have spoken out: for the society the accumulation of wealth is crucial. As Adam Smith explains: “The surpluses generated by the excessive consumption of the rich provide the resources needed to support others, including the poor” (De Vogli 2013, page 41). The idea of improving society by the mere fulfillment of one’s selfish desires created a moral justification for their consumption. Times of “Conspicuous Consumption”, as Veblen names it in his book The theory of the Leisure Class, had begun. People tended to search for gratitude for frivolous things and searched for happiness through material goods and status symbols. Like Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray observes, “age when unnecessary things are our only necessities” had started. In postindustrial era, the conspicuous consumption had spread throughout every segment of society. It spreads like a virus, from top to bottom of a social ladder and infects the society through laws of psychological imitation and cultural assimilation. While the wealthier class with affluence shows it’s status, in other social classes they awake need to imitate their consumer habits. Even though the poor and middle class are not just some herds of followers lacking their own free will and choice, they still pursue and desire things elite has. More than higher class consumed for keeping its status, higher stage of the importance of consumerism flows and spills among the lower class. This happens not just because of psychological imitation. But because wealthier class also introduces its own principals and has possibilities to manipulate with beliefs, values, and expectations. With taking over the “ruling hights” of informing in communication systems, higher class establishes social norms which determine collective behavior (de Vogli 2013). Not only did conspicuous consumption infected class after class, but also state after state. Economic globalization, which integrated states through trade, capital, and finances, caused a global diffusion of fever for luxury to reproduce fertilely.
Consequences of global cultural transformation are being more and more obvious, not only in the environment but also in the mental health of societies. Although is the increase of conspicuous consumption a symptom of easier access to goods and services that made our lives easier and happier, are its benefits to a great extent overrated and costs almost entirely ignored. In medias the shopping is presented as a path towards a happier life, not mentioning that consumerism creates fleeting advantages. When reaching their material goals due to fast adaptation, people stay unsatisfied. In other words, because of the ability of fast adjustment to the new standard of living, constant changes of material state create only transient hedonistic effects. Once adapted to a better mobile phone, bigger TV screen or faster car, the positive effects of purchase fade away.
But our lust for affluence is the side effect of constant bombing to which our brains are exposed to: blizzards of countless messages and pictures convincing us that what we currently owe, is not enough to be happy. Billions of dollars are yearly spent to persuade us, that are needs are outdated and that they need to be updated. We are the eternal target of advertisements and information that trigger inside us the “buy” button every time we see the movie, bulletin boards, we surf the internet, listen to a radio or visit an event. Every day we are exposed to more than thousand of advertisements; in the USA that is one advertisement, every 15 seconds on the awake person (de Vogli 2013). Beside greedy and never satisfied adults the favorite target of advertising is children. Children are the best consumers because of two reasons: (1) emotionally and cognitively they are unable to understand and identify deceptive communication. Due to that children are easier to persuade to emotionally engage with a product. (2) once they are caught in a grid of consumerism, they stay consumers until the rest of their lives. And to catch a child in a storm of consumption is not hard at all: In the United States, the child spends on average three hours a day in front of a television screen. 10% of nouns of two-year-olds are the names of well-known brands, about 96% of US schoolchildren can recognize Ronald McDonald. The only one with a greater percentage of recognition in the category of fictional characters is Santa Claus (de Vogli 2013).
- de Vogli, R. (2013) Progress Or Collapse: The Crises of Market Greed. New York. The USA. Routledge
- Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. Source: http://moglen.law.columbia.edu/LCS/theoryleisureclass.pdf
- Wilde, O. (1890) The picture of Dorian Gray. Source: http://www.planetpublish.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray_NT.pdf