In today’s consumer culture, the customer is king. But do all our consumer preferences end up determining our identity? Are we merely the sum of our choices? And what if it turns out that many of our preferences have been formed and shaped by a culture of marketing? Who are we then?
On this program, the hosts will explore these issues and will also discuss the ways in which churches in our time have bought into various manipulative strategies from the culture of marketing. Join us for this special edition of the White Horse Inn.
“In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville said, when he came and visited America, ‘The continuous activity which prevails in a democratic society leads to the relaxation or the breaking of the links between generations. When it comes to the influence of one man’s mind over others, that is necessarily very restricted in a country where the citizens have all become more or less equals. And so, they are continually brought back to their own judgment as the most apparent and accessible test of truth. One must admit that equality, while it brings great benefits to mankind, opens the door to very dangerous instincts. It tends to isolate men from each other so that each man is forever thrown back on himself alone and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart. In a time of equality, nothing is more repugnant to the human spirit than the idea of submitting to formalities. Men living at such times are impatient of figures of speech. Symbols appear to them as childish artifices used to hide or dress up truths which could more naturally be shown to them naked and in broad daylight. Ceremonies leave them cold and their natural tendency is to attach but secondary importance to the details of worship.
“The father is the natural and necessary link between the past and present. In aristocracies, the father is not only the political head of the family, but also the instrument of tradition, the interpreter of custom and the arbiter of values. He is heard with deference. He’s addressed always with respect and the affection felt for him is ever mingled with fear. When the state of society turns to democracy and men adopt the general principle that it is good and right to judge everything for one’s self, taking former beliefs as providing information but not rules, all opinions come to have less power over the sons. So as aristocracy loses its power, all that was austere, conventional, and legal in parental power also disappears and the sort of equality reigns around the domestic hearth.’ In other words, the democratization of everything in our culture surely is something that Christianity will want to step in and question.”
Term to Learn
Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. A consumer culture can broadly be defined as a culture where social status, values, and activities are centered on the consumption of goods, services, and experiences. A large part of what you do, what you value and how you are defined revolves around consumption. Some theorists have regarded consumer culture as oppressive and manipulative, and some argue that it is a model of “consumer sovereignty.”
After World War II, consumer spending no longer meant satisfying an indulgent material desire. The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s, as someone contributing to the ultimate success of the American way of life. “The good purchaser devoted to ‘more, newer and better’ was the good citizen,” historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote, “since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.”
Historian Elaine Tyler May argues that the new consumerism was a way to deemphasizing class differences while stressing traditional gender roles. The federal government and the American people saw that what had become defined as “the good life” was now within economic reach. For the working-class people could achieve the upward mobility they craved.
Consumerism has become one of the dominant global social forces that seeks a life of uninhibited consumption of goods, services, and experiences with almost total disregard for the global effects of such lifestyles. It is the pursuit of a good life narrated and marketed to through such practices which has cut across natural differences of religion, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality. It is central to what Manfred Steger calls the new ‘global imaginary.’ This market driven vision of life has seeped into all aspects of life, turning even rebellion against the status quo into a new market niche ready for branding and consumption, wedding itself to the politics of uninhibited desire.
(Adapted from Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, p. 119; James, Paul; Szeman, and Imre Globalization and Culture, Vol. 3: “Global-Local Consumption,” p. x; and “Consumerism” from the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia )