In Praise of Unnecessary Stuff

        In his essay "In Praise of Consumerism" James B. Twitchell takes a unique perspective on America's (and the rest of the world's) increasing obsession with consumption.  In Twitchell's eyes, consumption is not a feat taken on by the listless and passive but a potentially liberating endeavor and the natural consequence of civilized culture striving to satiate its wants and needs. The reason consumers are no longer seen as active participants, but as idle submissives, damaging themselves while unwittingly aiding corporations in their greedy attempts to maximize profits at the expense of the consumer, is due to the fact that the "...well-tended and -tenured members of the academy," have been the ones analyzing
commercial texts (p.412). The academy's interpretation of advertising has worked its way into the mainstream and has become the generally accepted explanation for our culture's excessive consumption. Twitchell challenges this now readily adopted view arguing that corporations do not seek to create "artificial desires" or inject false needs into a docile populace,
but are merely providing what the people themselves have demanded: "stuff." While I don't think anyone's desires can ever be deemed "artificial" (how can one's feelings not be considered real?) they can most definitely be regarded as unnecessary or excessive and desires can also be unwillingly invoked in an individual. Through advertising, corporations can and do invoke unnecessary, excessive, and in some cases, although less frequently -unwanted- desires in individuals.
         "Once fed and sheltered our needs have always been cultural, not natural," says Twitchell making the case that advertising does not create artificial desires (p.413). Once fed and sheltered we no longer have needs but are left only with desires. And just because our desires may be cultural that in no way makes them justifiable or ethical. If we are provided with everything we need, anything more than that can be considered excessive. While advertising may not create
artificial desires it does have the tendency to create artificial needs, mixing up and confusing the two, making us think that our desires are in fact needs.
        Twitchell says capitalism is necessary to satisfy our needs (needs being defined as unnecessary stuff) because it is the only available and implementable system we have. Capitalism may in fact be the only, or best, system we currently have that enables us to acquire unnecessary items, but is this what we as a culture should be striving towards-that which is
unnecessary? And should we be striving for that which is unnecessary at the expense of ours and others' well-being?
        Consumerism may seem harmless on the surface. When you go to McDonald's, Wal Mart, Starbucks, or anywhere
at all it's unlikely that you stop to ponder the larger social significance of your purchase. You probably aren't aware of the increase in destruction of farmlands, water pollution, and greenhouse gases due to the raising of cattle. You probably don't think about who made the clothes you're wearing let alone the appalling working conditions they are subject to. Did you know that the majority of coffee and cocoa beans consumed in America are picked by slaves (many of whom are kidnapped children) on the Ivory Coast of Africa or in South America? Did you know that Coca-Cola has plants in Colombia where they have ties with the military who kidnap, torture, and kill employees that try to unionize? If you knew these things would it have an affect on what you consume and who you buy from? Do the corporations you support through your purchases seek to make you aware of these facts?
          "...advertising campaigns are not sources of product information, they are exercises in behavior modification. Appealing to our subconscious emotions rather than to our conscious intellects," says Jack Solomon in his essay "Masters of Desire."  If advertising appealed to our intellects rather than to our emotions we might be less likely to make rash
purchasing decisions; emotions are delicate things and can cause people to behave in all sorts of strange ways. If advertising's sole purpose were to provide the consumer with information about the product, they would not omit important or significant details and exaggerate completely irrelevant and unconnected information.
        A smiling child eating a happy meal is not directly related to the product, it doesn't tell me the ingredients in a hamburger let alone its health benefits or the damage beef consumption has on the environment. A smiling child eating a happy meal tells me that I can make myself or someone else happy by eating at McDonald's. Heart attacks due to arteries
clogged with cholesterol don't make me happy, neither do birth defects caused by water contaminated with nitrates from cow manure. McDonald's knows this and McDonald's wants to make me happy, because they want to sell me their products, so of course they are going to omit this relevant information.  But when I see an advertisement that is trying to appeal to my emotions and not taking into account my intellect, I feel that my intelligence has been insulted.
         Twitchell makes a sarcastic statement concerning the    manipulative factor in advertising saying, "While we    may think advertising is just 'talking about the product,' that packaging just 'wraps the object,' that retailing is just 'trading the product,' or that fashion is just 'the style of the product,' this is not so. That you may think so only proves their power
over you," (p.412). If advertisements were just "talking about the product" why is so much of the information contained within them totally unrelated to the product? Scantily clad women are often the subject of perfume advertisements. What does this tell me about perfume? Scantily clad women have nothing to do with perfume, so advertisements like these are
obviously not talking about the product. While advertising may not tell outright lies, I think omission of information and/or the addition of irrelevant information is enough to be considered manipulation. As a consumer, I have the desire to know
all the implications regarding the products I purchase, and considering corporations are the ones selling these products I believe they have at least partial responsibility in making these facts readily available.
        But all of the blame is not to be placed only on the advertisers. You as a consumer have just as much responsibility when it comes to being informed about the products you purchase. And once informed about the consequences of purchasing certain products you have the power to decide what to buy and what not to buy. If you do not want to contribute to the destruction of the environment, cruelty to animals, and a host of other negative effects you should stop consuming meat. If you do not want to contribute to the kidnapping of children or slavery you should make sure the coffee and chocolate you buy is fair-trade certified. If you do not want to contribute to the abuse and unfair treatment of workers in third-world countries you should purchase clothing made in the US or Europe. If you do not want to contribute to the death of Coca-Cola employees in Colombia you should not purchase Coca-Cola or other products they own.
        Many people would rather ignore the fact that along with consumption comes responsibility. They would like to think that their purchasing habits don't have far-reaching negative consequences of which they are directly contributing to. Many people choose to ignore or attempt to rationalize this because they do not want to take the effort required to change their
habits and don't want to have a guilty conscience. Advertising plays on this desire to ignore the bad and highlight the good (even if  in reality the good has nothing to do with the product.) Through omitting the negative consequences and exaggerating the supposed benefits, companies make consumers feel as if what they are doing is beneficial and acceptable.

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