Top 5 Questionable Origins of U.S. Consumerism

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Consumerism, a theory mixing both economic and psychological elements, largely explains how the U.S. went from a “take or leave it” society to “the customer is always right.” Another part of the consumerist movement is the belief that the more material goods we accumulate, the better off we all will be. The origins of consumerism in the U.S. are far from settled. Many theories abound about when and why we became a consumer-oriented society. A handful are more questionable than the others but definitely offer grist for the mind.

5 Credit

Credit and buy-now-pay-later buying doesn’t, by itself, explain consumerism, but the huge amount of debt with which Americans live—as individuals and as nation—is certainly fueled by the ease with which we are able to live beyond our actual, near-term means. Credit and consumerism have a codependent relationship. Neither is inherently bad; but in American society, they tend to bring out the worst in one another.

4 Social Classes

With the advent of mass production, consumer and luxury goods became more accessible to the average Jane. Marketers used the power of mass media and psychology to prey on the innate envy people in lower social strata feel for the more privileged in society. Ads paint pictures of ordinary people with luxury goods, or in exotic locations, enjoying a lifestyle associated with wealth or privilege. Mass production makes such goods more affordable. Envy and a desire for a better social class drive people to consume the products.

3 Social Responsibility

It may seem that the notion of being a socially responsible consumer is a rather recent trend, with movement toward green and sustainable products gaining mainstream momentum. In truth, however, the notion of social responsibility in consumer behavior has been around since the 1920s. Media insiders like Walter Lippmann, as well as the political elite, believed that ideas of social responsibility could be used to justify controlling the behavior of the masses, who were too selfish or otherwise limited to be trusted to act in socially responsible manner.

2 Freudian Psychology

Scholars peg the beginning of the consumerist movement to the 1920s, during the post-World War I boom, when money was plentiful and mass media such as film and radio became mainstream. Over the airwaves, on the big screen and in print, marketers used psychological theories developed by Sigmund Freud to persuade consumers into buying products. One famous example was overcoming the taboo of women smoking in public in order to expand the market for cigarettes. Ad executives used psychoanalytic theory and determined that the taboo was based on cigarettes as phallic symbols. Armed with this knowledge, the ad men marketed Lucky Strikes as “freedom torches,” symbols of women’s liberation with a subconscious nod to the Statue of Liberty. Decades of rampant smoking proved just how effective Freud’s theories are.

1 Government Propaganda

Some consumer theorists point toward government messages in times of national crisis as a way in which we’ve become indoctrinated consumers. As a country, we are expected to associate consumption of goods with patriotism. Who can forget President Bush’s message in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? He told the nation that we should not let the attacks deter us from working or shopping or buying things, because that’s what the terrorists wanted. Such messages may not be the cause of American consumerism, but they certainly fan the flames.

Trent Jonas accepted his first freelance assignment in 1988 from "The Minnesota Daily" and has been writing professionally ever since, primarily as a copywriter. He has experience in advertising and entrepreneurship, as well as writing on legal and travel topics. Jonas has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Minnesota and a Juris Doctor from Hamline University School of Law.

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