Although a lover of fashion I’ve never really been the kind of girl to call myself a trendsetter. On the flip side I can also say that I have never been a trend follower, preferring to move to my own beat, and not just when it comes to fashion but life in general. I believe this mindset has served me well when I look at the pressures placed on today’s society to keep up to date with the newest tech gadgets, stay dressed in the freshest fashion brands, stepping in the hottest creps of the moment, and of course not forgetting to strike the perfect pose for an Instagram pic so everyone can see just how lit you are. This pressure is most evident in the world of social media, and I believe this pressure is also one of the reasons we are consuming at an alarming rate.
Think about it…whether it be for the latest iPhone release, Supreme collaboration or Yeezy 350s for example, queuing outside overnight (sometimes in undesirable weather conditions), has become the norm for many. And talking about Yeezy’s, despite the ridiculously inflated prices of trainers nowadays, many of us continue to buy a new pair on a monthly basis. Oh, unless you’re my younger sister who has a new pair delivered every week! She doesn’t think she has a problem but I seriously think she’s addicted and I know there are many others out there just like her.
Observing this kind of behaviour led me to ask myself questions. In particular, how and why. How have we come to adopt this ‘by any means necessary’ attitude when it comes to buying new products, and WHY do we consume so much of what we don’t actually need? Because let’s face it, whilst it would be nice to have a pair of footwear to match every outfit, we don’t actually need, let’s say… 160 pairs do we? No. In my quest for answers, I found out some interesting facts and historical information that took me back to the 1920’s.
Firstly, it’s a fact and scientifically proven that buying new things makes us feel good. When we shop our brains release a chemical called dopamine. This chemical is like a drug and gives us a rush creating a natural, temporary high and excitement which occurs whether we are shopping online or in an actual store. We don’t even have to buy anything as we get this high even in the anticipation of making a purchase. It is probably for this reason that some shoppers have said they were more excited receiving their online orders in the post in comparison to making a purchase in store. I’m all too familiar with a dopamine rush and I have to admit it does feel good. I can also understand how and why people (like my sister) can become addicted to shopping!
If you stop, try and take your eyes off your mobile device and take a moment to look around it’s clear that we are living in a consumer culture but, this is nothing new. Consumerism has been described as a ‘socioeconomic model built upon the engineering of desire’ and its original purpose was to drive economic growth by manipulating people to spend more.
The man responsible for the consumer behaviour many of us have become accustomed to today goes by the name of Edward Bernays, and it’s fair to say his influence on the 20th century has been huge.
Bernays was the nephew of a famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and worked in America as a press agent in the 1920’s. During WWII he was hired by the US Government as a propagandist to promote its war aims in an effort to gain the support of the country, by making people believe that America joining the war would be beneficial and ‘bring democracy to all of Europe’. Bernays was so successful with this task that he was invited to accompany the President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, to the Paris peace conference. Bernays had made Wilson a hero of the masses and their propaganda had portrayed the president as a liberator of the people. Bernays was amazed by the outpouring of the crowd and seeing the reaction triggered a lightbulb moment. He thought to himself if propaganda could be used for war it could also be used for peace.
Bernays set out on a mission to put his theory into practice and set up business as a Public Relations Council in New York. He wanted to put his theory into practice by manipulating the way people thought and felt. To help him with this he read the writings of his psychologist uncle, Freud, who in one of his many pieces had written that within the human psyche were ‘hidden irrational forces’. Bernays became obsessed with this and began to wonder if he could make money by manipulating the unconscious of an individual.
The opportunity came for Bernays to put this thought to test and one of his first major experiments was to persuade women to smoke. One of his client’s, a tobacco factory owner, wanted Bernays to break the taboo around women smoking in order to help him sell more tobacco, and make more money. Bernays rose to the challenge and staged a campaign during an Easter Day parade that was held every year in New York and attended by thousands. Being the smart man he was Bernays tipped off the press beforehand that something big was going to happen at the parade. This was to ensure they were there to capture the moment. Bernays had put together a group of women who, when given the signal, all took out a cigarette and proceeded to smoke in front of the massive crowd. With this one event, Bernays made women smoking cigarettes socially acceptable. He had created the idea that women who chose to smoke were powerful and independent. Which woman didn’t want to be seen as more powerful and independent?! From this one symbolic act, Bernays learned that irrelevant objects could become powerful symbols of how you wanted to be seen by others.
Large corporations had become fascinated with the impact of what Bernays was doing. In particular, he caught the attention of a Wall Street banker by the name of Paul Mazer, who, like Bernays wanted to manipulate the masses. Mazer wanted to bring about change and said:
“We must shift America from a needs to a desire culture. People must be trained to desire new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Mans desire must overshadow his needs”.
Bernays was very successful in the running of his public relations business. He was seen as the man who understood the mind and it wasn’t long before politics became involved with public relations. From the writings of Freud, the lurking threat of ‘hidden irrational forces’ within the human psyche, stuck in the minds of men. To prevent these ‘forces’ being unleashed consumerism quickly became a tool used by those in power for social control.
Fast forwarding from the 1920’s, it’s now 2018 and clear to see that whilst a lot has changed, there is a lot that has remained the same.
Coming back to my original question, we consume at an alarming rate because, thanks (or rather no thanks) to the manipulation of Edward Bernays and Paul Mazer, we have for generations been trained to be driven by a constant desire for new things before the old even becomes old.
We also buy things because it makes us feel happy…who doesn’t want to be happy? I know I do! And let’s keep it real…. we are all in search of happiness in one way or another. However, this feeling of happiness is short-lived and so the cycle of consuming continues.
If society remains distracted it will continue to run smoothly as we won’t have time to think about our ‘hidden irrational forces’ and unleash them upon the world. But on a deeper, more concerning level, consumerism is dominating the world. During my research I came across an interesting point, constantly being bombarded with the latest sneakers, newest technology, flashy cars and freshest fashion also keeps our focus away from the things that really matter, such as politics! I’ve asked myself many times how the hell did the likes of Donald Trump end up in the Whitehouse?! Now I wonder if it’s because, as planned, individuals are so distracted and focused on consuming to fulfil their desires.