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December 14, 2004 — 12 PM

Ho Ho Ho

‘Tis the season of mass consumption.

We’re in that heady surge towards the shopping Mecca now; those last ten days of mass buying and wrapping when it’s nearly impossible to resist the advertising and promotion of goods. And yet, most of the year, it’s very fashionable in some quarters to be against consumption, isn’t it? Although the anti-globalization/anti-corporate/anti-America rabble seems a bit confused these days as to who the real enemy is — is it Bush? Tobacco? Nike? Fundamentalist religion? SUV-driving suburbanites? Warmongers of any sort? — there is nonetheless a strong counter-culture movement. And the movement has a lot of drawing power. Books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, films like Fight Club, they work just as hard to sell their ideas as do all of the ads from Apple, Nike and Pepsi.

In this article from This Magazine, I read one of the most astute statements about consumption and critique of it that I have ever come across:

“The critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.”

Yes, that’s right:

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank—most even cite him approvingly—and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.

This isn’t because the authors, directors or editors are hypocrites. It’s because they’ve failed to understand the true nature of consumer society.

The entire article is worth reading, but so, I imagine, is the rest of the book based upon it, which I only just noticed was published recently. (Too long has my attention waned from cultural studies works since graduating!)

I must admit to having never read No Logo, and although I often wondered to myself why I, as a former student of mass media and communications, would snub my nose at such seminal literature, there was something distinctly off-putting about it — as indeed there is about any work that gets swept up by “the masses” and touted as a sort of bible for one area of thought.

That is, people who believe it is vitally important to reject or even destroy the symbols of mass consumption, end up wanting things that the suburban-dwelling masses do not have or want, and, whether they like it or not, cause those rarified things to become “cool”, and thus commodified. Act different, and people will want to copy you, and different becomes cool, and then it loses its difference. This is precisely the cycle of our consumption-based society.

I get the sense that the authors of the article and book have a bit of a vendetta against Naomi Klein in particular, as their attack against her for promoting urban loft-living is a bit vicious, but their point remains salient. Even if Klein herself and people like her have only the best intentions in mind, the counter-culture movement spawned by these works has unwittingly become just as much part of the marketing of consumption as it is a force against it. Their other examples, like “wilderness hikes and underground music,” ring true for me. Nobody ever stopped consumption by listening to a counter-culture band.

Or, in other words, the people in marketing are smarter than you and me, and they will always be a step ahead, by exploiting what is “cool”.

I’m afraid I’ve veered too close to the express lane of harsh cynicism, even while I guiltily participate in the Xmas excess just the same. I’m a hypocrite like all the rest. I will buy gifts for people, I will be induced to desire goods and services from others. And to be honest, I don’t even completely believe it’s bad. Giving and receiving gifts feels good. People will read those books, they will listen to those albums, they will wear those socks and ties, they will use those iPods and digital cameras.

What is the poor, concerned citizen to do? Well, the books authors would argue that we ought to change the system the grown-up way, through legislation. One broad-stroke solution they suggest is to stop permitting businesses to deduct the cost of advertising from their taxes. If you’ve ever wondered why that bottle of brand-name detergent costs so much more than the no-name equivalent, well, it’s mostly because of the massive cost of promotion and marketing a brand needs to maintain its elevated status. Yet businesses find this model of production works because advertising is considered a basic “expense”, like raw materials or labour. Can you imagine the Wall-Street-shattering effect a paradigm shift of that sort would have?

Again, the last paragraph of the article is instructive:

What we need to realize is that consumerism is not an ideology. It is not something that people get tricked into. Consumerism is something that we actively do to one another, and that we will continue to do as long as we have no incentive to stop. Rather than just posturing, we should start thinking a bit more carefully about how we’re going to provide those incentives.

Spoken like a psychologist. We don’t need ideology, we need “incentives.” One of the great mistakes of the current counter-cultural movement is its assumption that people are ignorant and will behave better if they are only educated or shocked into doing so. Perhaps a certain segment of society will respond to “culture jamming”, but so much of it falls on deaf ears. There are other ways.


Why is it that people don’t get this concept? This is almost exactly what we’ve been told in one of my courses last semester, and wow, the number of blank stares.

“What do you mean, it’s all about money?”

Good lord. Head for the hills.

— Megan | Dec. 14, 2004 — 7 PM

Anti-consumerism is a privilege of living in a wealthy society.

Ian | Dec. 14, 2004 — 9 PM

I couldn’t read No Logo because the entire book is typeset in Rotis Sans.

Kate M. | Dec. 17, 2004 — 9 AM

You may be interested in some of the discussions going on about The Rebel Sell over at the This Magazine weblog (full disclosure: I’m also one of This’s bloggers).

mason | Dec. 18, 2004 — 8 PM

However, these views disregard elements of counter-cultural ideology that would dramatically reduce consumerism if they were popular; i.e., counter-culturalism is not necessarily always “cool.”

But I agree that incentive must precede ideology in the progress of any movement. The question is what sort of incentive will it take to initiate change? The depletion of resources or environmental catastrophe? Force? Subsidies?

— erk | Dec. 22, 2004 — 1 PM

Even if Klein herself and people like her have only the best intentions in mind, the counter-culture movement spawned by these works has unwittingly become just as much part of the marketing of consumption as it is a force against it.

This is all so amusing to baby-boomers, who invented mass counter-culture, then mass counter-counter-culture, then spawned a generation who bought massive quantities of Klein’s book! I’m glad to see Heath’s and Potter’s idea gaining traction with gen X, Y, Z or whatevers, though.

I’m all in favour of critiques of the culture. But I think that playing counter-culture warrior, or introducing draconian legislation (in what way is advertising NOT a legitimate business expense?) is barking up the wrong tree. Want to battle consumerism? Stop consuming. Want to battle advertising? Stop benefitting from it. Don’t watch non-pay-per-view TV, don’t listen to commercial radio.

But whatever you do, don’t become an evangelist, we’ve already got too many. The idea that “society” is a singular entity whose behaviour can, and should, be exploited to suit one’s own ends IS the problem.

Tedd | Dec. 24, 2004 — 11 AM

I agree that there are too many “evangelists” around these days. At the same time, though, I can’t allow myself to begrudge people who get up on soap boxes to preach the word of counter-culturism, because, when you think about it, large-scale advertising is one of the most powerful forms of evangelization that exists. Also, the expoitation of society with the aim of furthering one’s own interests is one of the guiding principles of such advertising.

— ERK | Dec. 26, 2004 — 1 PM

Previously: Everything Must Go!

Subsequently: I’m Not Dead Yet

December 2004
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