iWANT – The Culture of the Consumer.

Nick Thompson 

Of all life’s paradoxes, one of the most prominent and bizarre is the culture of want – particularly among students, who, in the majority of cases have neither the capital, nor the bank balance to justify the desire for anything but the essentials.

In the past we were a society ruled by necessity – to an extent we still are, there is still the inherent and innate ambition to survive, particularly in our formidable and unforgiving economic and social landscape. We all need to: eat; drink; exercise; pro-create… It is essential to the insurance of our longevity.

However in the past century there has been a transcending shift, which has blurred the line between necessity and desire to such a degree that there is no longer any distinction or contention between the two. They’ve become mutually exclusive. This is thanks, in no small part, to one of the 20th century’s most important figures, PR genius, Edward Louis Bernays.

You’ve heard of him right?

No, neither had I. See outside of the contentious, murky sphere of Public Relations, there is no reason why anyone external of that industry should know who he is.

Or is there?

Bernays’ impact on contemporary society is indisputable. He was instrumental in shaping 20th century business, politics, economics and culture. He took his Uncles (none other than Sigmund Freud – the father of psychoanalysis) studies on psychoanalysis and applied them to the population, or the “bewildered heard” as his understudy, journalist Walter Lippman described us – Bernays then drew upon these techniques and combined them with his own inventions – the press release and third party advocacy – and used them to manipulate the masses into thinking in a certain way – tapping into their innate, yet seemingly unconscious, irrational drives. He called this the “engineering of consent” and in his first book Propaganda he wrote unabashedly,

“If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

A revelation that had grave repercussions during the genesis of the Second World War, and whose effect still resounds today in contemporary society.  Bernays’ techniques have been used to forward gross consumerism and mass consumption, by manipulating the public into buying things that they don’t need and have no apparent use value – by studying social trends and thinking and extorting them for commercial gain.

And just as Bernays’ ideas could be used to keep the population in check, effect trends and further democracy, they could just as easily be employed in a way that would subvert them – so whilst Bernays had realised that our irrational desires could be exploited and excited by the correct use of imagery, symbolism, advertising and marketing. He only meant for it to be used for “benign” means – such as the impulse to buy something that you neither need, nor that would add any practical benefit to your life whatsoever – a reality that was rare pre 1920’s. This was the basis of modern consumerism and the reason that you and I want this, this and that — NOW.

On the flip-side, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Head of the Nazi propaganda machine, was enthralled by Bernays’ work, which he then eulogised to his own, much more sinister ends. Taking Bernays’ concept one step further – Goebbels realised that instead of making the German people crave the mundane; like a new cigarette brand or form of attire – he could instead use it politically, to advance German Nationalism – and through strong imagery and colours; repetition; a national symbol and greeting (the Swastika and Nazi salute) and the creation of an unwavering national self belief – he fashioned a new German identity – one which would make the whole country ready and prepared for aggressive warfare. So through Bernays’ methods, he was able to get the entire German population to conspire and collude in some of the greatest atrocities in history. Their complicity was the result of a carefully planned propaganda mechanism, using the same tactics which are employed by Nike, Tesco, Apple, McDonalds etc. etc. to get you and I to buy their products. These companies establish a brand identity, an idea, a hook, a selling point, and they aggressively pitch it to us until we unconsciously desire their products and services. It is capitalism at its best and manipulative consent at its worst.

The mass media and advertising giants are guilty of voiding us of the freedom of choice and the ability to live purely by necessity – something that anti-capitalists strive for.

We are told that we deserve and need these products, sometimes explicitly, sometimes suggestively and if you don’t conform then you are an outcast. If you still use a haggard old 3310 instead of that shiny new Iphone 4s, then you are castigated. Frowned upon.

It is sobering stuff and for those interested in the extremities of our unnatural desires, if you haven’t read it, Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal novel American Psycho is a fantastically dark representation of someone lost in consumerism – a reality that isn’t too far from home for an ever increasing percentage of the population. And with personal debt at an all time high, isn’t it time we started asking ourselves – do we really need that new…


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