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The Culture of consumerism

What Barbie Dolls
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The Culture of Consumerism
Christopher Lasch

Start | The Celebration of Waste | Resistance to Creative Waste | Spending for Prosperity
The Affluent Society | References

The Celebration of Waste

In the United States, a mass market in consumer goods began to take shape in the 1920s, collapsed in the Great Depression, and finally became the dominant fact of economic life in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to the combined effects of govern ment spending and the improvements in workers' standard of living achieved by labor unions. These developments in consumer culture tended to weaken moral traditions that stressed the value of hard work and self-command, cautioned against extravagant expectations of a trouble-free existence, and held individuals strictly accountable for their actions. In the 1920s, permissive moralities spread from elites to the masses. The postwar "revolution in manners and morals," much discussed at the time, in retrospect can be understood as the flowering of a consumer culture. The advertising industry, which first achieved prominence in the 1920s, allied itself with movements of cultural liberation or at least exploited liberationist ideologies for its own purposes. Edward Bernays, one of the founders of modern advertising and public relations, boasted of having broken the taboo that kept women from smoking in public. Seizing on cigarettes as "torches of freedom" and invoking the memory of pre war parades for woman suffrage, he per suaded a contingent of women to join New York's Easter parade in 1929, ostentatiously smoking "as a protest against women's inequality," as he put it (Stuart Ewen, Captains o f Consciousness, pp. 160–161).The flapper, who personified both the emancipation of women and the revolt of youth, appealed to advertisers as the personification of consumption as well. She embodied the spirit of change, the restless craving for novelty and excitement recognized by advertisers as the most important stimulus to consumption. Since young people were presumably more receptive to change than adults, advertising psychologists stressed the importance of introducing innovations by addressing them to the young. The rapid, pace of change made even children more knowledgeable about the new world of commodities than their parents. "Were it not for the children, some of you parents would not know even now what a tremendous change for the better Paramount has [made] in motion pictures" (Ewen, p. 148). Such advertisements had the effect of elevating the young to arbiters of taste, whose consumer preferences had to be respected by adults struggling to keep up with the changing times.

Advertisers made no secret of their intention to promote novelty for its own sake, in the hope that consumers would exchange perfectly serviceable goods for goods that conformed to the latest fashions. Earnest Elmo Calkins (1868-1964), one of the first to grasp the principle of "artificial obsolescence," distinguished between goods "we use" and "those we use up." It was the second category that fascinated advertisers and the manufacturers who followed their lead. "Artificial obsolescence," Calkins explained, meant the continual redesign of products, "entirely apart from any mechanical improvement, to make them markedly new, and encourage new buying, exactly as the fashion designers make shirts longer so you can no longer be happy with your short ones." The taste for "better things," as William L. Day pointed out, required an "ideal of beauty that happens to be current." "The world depends on obsolescence and new merchandise," said the industrial designer John Vassos (Jeffrey L. Meikle, Twentieth-Century Limited, pp. 16, 70, 83).

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