Thinking about consumerism

Kind of following my post about branding, this post is about consumerism.

The word evokes different emotions, depending on how you view it. And there are many meanings, depending on who you talk to. Some view it as an economic model, some as a political/cultural situation, and others as just a synonym for modern capitalism. At it’s foundation is the idea that people buy their products, rather than make them. Throw that on top of a capitalist market, and that is basically consumerism.

The effect though, is as a market is designed for consumerism, it depends on consumption. This is where consumerism can bite the people it serves. As if your business depends on constant sales, consumption, you then need to create avenues for those sales, and try to increase them. And you generally do this by increasing demand. However, there are many ways to increase demand.

The traditional model of capitalism generally didn’t consider itself ‘consumerism’, but operated on more of a supply and demand state of affairs. Simply take a look back to advertising at the beginning of the 20th century to see this.

Things were bluntly stated, and it was easy to understand what is being sold. Now, compare that to a modern day commercial for a pharmaceutical, folks walking through fields, a commercial in which you have no idea what is being sold. The latter is a different approach. It’s a visual example of the shift from filling a need that can be rationally explained on the side of a products, to evoking an emotional response, sometimes creating a need to be filled, by playing on emotional desires and fears of potential buyers.

And yet there is another tricky way to create more demand: reducing product life.

One example of this would be the incandescent light bulb, and the cartel situation that had global producers limiting the hours of each build to increase sales.

But not all consumerism has to be murky, or deceitful, but when we get into the way branding comes into play, and markets are over-saturated, creating needs based on emotional appeals becomes something of the way that many modern businesses work.

To navigate through consumerism, one must become literate to both branding and their needs.

And this can be a very complex thing to be literate about, because the market hires experts to figure out how to make us buy more things. So many times when a we walk into a store, we are looking at products that a psychologist helped the company design, to make it the most alluring. And unless we are psychologists ourselves, we will find ourselves at a disadvantage.

Like my piece about branding, there are a few ways I’ve found helpful to try and make consumerism helpful to me.

1. Ask myself if I really need the thing. Many objects today are sold with an implied promise of how they will change our lives. Am I buying it for reasons that the product may actually deliver?

2. Can I get the thing used? With so much production, comes waste. And new comes with a premium cost. So for things like clothing, there is usually a thrift store full of almost new (or even new, sometimes) products at a fraction of the cost, and minus the marketing.

3. Will it last? This comes down to repair-ability, and overall quality. But sometimes this can be elusive. For instance, while a fifty-thousand dollar car may be built with more precision than an fifteen-thousand dollar one, (and may have commercials about it romanticizing the amount of engineering that went into it), the fifty-thousand dollar car will probably require more maintenance, and cost more to repair. And it may be more unreliable. The manufacturer didn’t brag about reliability, they bragged about the development. I’ve heard of similar things in other luxury items, like watches. Ever had to send your watch in for a $100 servicing a year after buying it? Some expensive watches require that, despite being perceived as better built, and better engineered. In fact, if you hear a lot about the engineering, it probably means the repair bill is going to be insane. Of course, there are exceptions.

4. What will it actually cost? This is a two-step equation: One: If the company sells me a product that requires ‘consumables’ (printer ink, gasoline, batteries), I need to factor those into the prices, as most times, the advertising points out how well it performs but glosses over the requirements to do so, like requiring an excessive amount of batteries, or requiring premium gasoline, or only using a specific, half-filled, expensive type of ink. These can usually be found out before purchase.

And the second part: We have to factor in the first three variables listed here. A printer that uses the cheapest ink, but dies after a year, may not be a better buy than one that costs a little more, but lasts longer. And sometimes, a used item that has to be replaced quicker, may cost more than in the long run than buying new. And then we have to factor in our desires and our needs, particularly in fashion. If an item is something we would use for the next three months, we probably shouldn’t spend on it the way we would if it would last the next three years.

In all of this process, it is as much about learning things about ourselves (desires, values, ethics, economic situation) as it is about learning about the products. And that is the particular difficulty in consumerism, in that the market encourages us to not ask those questions, but rather to go with the flow of the well lit paths that the seller, through marketing and branding, has laid out for us. And in a society like ours in the west, where much of the infrastructure and jobs depend on that path be walked through to purchase, questioning that path is really the struggle.

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