Friday, August 7, 2015

Consumerism Comprehension

What does consumerism have to do with User Experience? It's important that we take time to comprehend those larger influences of our user's behavior. With a clear understanding of Consumerism, we can be more intentional about those decisions we get to make.

Have you ever thought for a moment, “How the heck did I get to work?” in a way that was not necessarily due to you literally forgetting the steps that got you there, but in a way that was more like discovering that the mundane ritualistic tendencies have reached a point where you barely have to think about the tasks; you simply do them on “autopilot”? I’ve done this. In fact, many of the choices I make are determined by my practiced “autopilot” behavior. Take shopping for example. Like many workers around me, I find that I live from paycheck to paycheck. The money comes in, I spend it, and then I have to go back to work to get more of it. Where does it go? Food, Shelter,... Entertainment? Yes, even my choice in entertainment is subject to my “autopilot” tendency. Perhaps it’s because I can watch a movie within two hours that allows me to experience an adventure, romance, or scientific thought that would otherwise (or in real life) take upwards of days. My shortage of time is maximized. For that form of entertainment I pay, and that continual payment practiced over time contributes to a phenomenon known as Consumerism. With knowledge gained by exploring consumerism and its impact on the systems around me, I am able to intentionally and intelligently curb my own behaviors potentially for a greater good.

Some might say that one of the most obvious vehicles by which consumerism has influenced systems surrounding us is the marketing machine and the advertisements that it generates to help sell products. In “Chapter 7: Consumerism” of the book American Society: How It Really Works by Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers, it states that “Ads do much more than simply transmit information: they display and reinforce certain values, constantly affirming the association between happiness and consumption, between success in life and buying things, between sexual attractiveness and particular forms of consumption”. In my words, this sneaky, conniving mechanism seeks to leverage all the worst attributes I have in order to help a company make a sale. In this next section we’ll look at the three examples I’ve found in a bit more detail.

The first marketing sample is a Winston Cigarette advertisement taken from a Stanford College website dedicated to researching into the impact of tobacco advertising (see figure 1). This ad depicting a young attractive lad with a cigarette in hand and a pack of Winston’s in her back pocket is clearly trying to sell Winston brand cigarettes to men. I believe it’s directed at men specifically because the product is placed in the attractive women’s back pocket. The ad seems to be playing on the male tendency to be more sexually stimulated by way of “visual cues” (Seltzer). I’m lead to think that if maybe if I’m sitting at a table outside smoking, that I am likely going to meet pretty women who also smoke. Unfortunately for Winston, the advertisement doesn’t work for me since I once-upon-a-time smoked (10+ years), but have since quit (5+ years). For some though, this simple visual is enough to lead them to purchase.
The next ad I want to look at is one taken from the Caples Awards website (, which is dedicated to “honoring the best in direct and interactive marketing around the world” (Caple Awards / Direct Marketing news) (see figure 2). This ad showing skillfully drawn art using a Sharpie marker on paper cups seems to be targeting artists. In her lecture titled “Why do we consume so much”, Juliet B. Schor said that one of the structure features to blame for excessive consumerism is what she referred to as “Consumption Competitions” (Schor). She stated that “The dominant goal of consumers now is for status products and luxury”. The ad makes it seem as though if I were to buy this product, that perhaps I could produce an artistic design that could make me famous, or at least set me equal to the others in the art domain. At the end of the day, I’d buy this pen. Not because of the tricky targeting, but because it says that the pen doesn’t bleed through; I don’t like pens that bleed onto the table under the paper.

This final ad taken from the Mercy For Animals website ( is a billboard with a puppy and a piglet (see figure 3). Both are cute. Both are likely friends. One however seems very edible, and one does not… At least the other does not according to our standards for animal consumption here in the United States. This ad seems to be directed at people who eat meat. It’s an attempt to change the meat eating crowds behavior by way of appeal to their sense of logic and emotion. The ad works for me; I will no longer eat puppies.

So what is the lure of shopping and material possessions? For me, it depends on the product and my life situation. Much of the time my family would say that I do not fit into the mold spoken about in the “Consumerism” chapter from Wright and Rogers book that reads “we are naturally acquisitive, and when possible, will always want more stuff”. In fact, I actually tend to be the one who wants to get rid of stuff. I am essentially a minimalist living with four, what appear to be hoarders in their own rights (I may have a mild compulsive tendency that is likely skewing my perception).

A Functionalist might agree with Wright and Rogers statement that “If large numbers of people were to say ‘enough is enough’ and opt for a life style of ‘voluntary simplicity’ by rejecting consumerism, the economy would face very serious difficulties.” Luckily that doesn’t seem to be any sort of possibility in the near future. Maybe the correct approach is for small numbers of people to begin to feel the way I do with my desire to stop the insanity. Stating that it can either be one way or the other is an “either-or” fallacy. The truth is that maybe equilibrium is simply going to happen through a naturally occurring paradigm shift from consumeristic mentality to an attitude of respect for the environment and our neighbor.

One final thought I have is to a scripture I’ve read in the Bible that reads “The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall too high to scale” (Proverbs 18:11). It is utterly likely that to the rest of the world, the United States has placed their confidence in their riches. I have to admit that I too have actually thought to myself that it’s unlikely that we’d ever need to fear an attack because we have resources to drive a defensive and offensive war machine that other countries simply do not have. To that end, maybe it won’t be the other countries in the world, those countries that would strive to dominate or kick the chair out from under us that will do damage in the future of our nation. Maybe it will simply be our fall from our “fortified city” (Proverbs) walls that are “too high to scale” (Proverbs) that will strike the next damaging blow.

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