As a young American consumer, I often struggle to distinguish between what I want and what I need. It seems that there is always something out there that I should be saving up to purchase, whether it be the latest technological advancement or that beautiful—but very expensive—leather jacket. It has come to the point that if I didn’t want to buy something, it would be an anomaly. Where has that desire for consuming come from?
Brands dominate how we think and act. We are bombarded by images and ideas implemented by corporations trying to persuade us to purchase their products; oftentimes it feels like we lose our identity. No longer are we people with individual interests; rather, we are a target audience that can easily be swayed to purchase the latest fad item.
Why are brands so effective in persuading buyers? As Naomi Klein explains in her book, No Logo, brands are selling consumers a lifestyle. If you look at most commercials and ads today, many of them focus less on the details of a product and more on portraying a desirable feeling or lifestyle. For example, many perfume and cologne ads focus on sensual images of men and women; somewhere in the back of an average consumer’s mind, a connection is made linking that perfume or cologne to increased sex appeal.
Advertisements have come to appeal to and manipulate the desires of those who are exposed to them. For example, snob appeal, a technique used in many types of ads, make viewers feel envious of the luxury being experienced within that brand’s world. Oftentimes, those ads invite only the “elite” viewers to enter their world, despite the fact that the ad is being shown to millions. Phrases that allude to the product’s exclusivity entice viewers to want to become a part of the elite. On the other end of the spectrum are ads that market themselves as universal, global entities.
Take Coca-Cola, for instance—its marketing focuses on universal ideals such as “sharing” and “happiness.” The iconic red-labeled soft drink has successfully created a name for itself worldwide. Are people buying the product because they want it, or because they want that life?
Consumerism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing—it provides people with work, supplies and products that can be used to enhance their lives. It pushes innovation further and encourages hard work. At the same time, many corporations have found ways to exploit the relationship between buyer and seller so that the seller always comes out on top. Sales incite buyers to walk into stores and purchase more products than they otherwise would have spent money on.
For regularly marked items, prices are almost always marked up so that the buyer is paying much more for a product than what it cost to manufacture. Strategic marketing techniques have been employed to suck customers into a store and to keep them there for a long time. The longer that a customer stays in a store, the more likely they are to make a purchase. Ever notice how clothing stores tend to spread out their merchandise throughout the store? Customers have to traverse an entire store—and thus be inside the store for a longer period of time—before they adequately see a large portion of the merchandise being sold.
As consumers, we are forced to calculate worth. We ask ourselves, “Is what I’m paying for this product justified by the amount of happiness I will receive from it?” Corporations have been banking on the fact that happiness almost always trumps handing over a few (or not so few) extra dollars.
How do we find a balance between consuming and living? We live in a day and age where it is impossible not to consume. Our lives can sometimes feel like they become defined by the things we have or the things we buy.
Unfortunately, I do not have an exact solution or an answer to this problem, but what I can tell you is that awareness is crucial to taking the steps towards finding that balance.
Although it may seem that following Thoreau’s footsteps à la Walden and attempting to live a life in isolation may be the only way to be fully unaffected by advertisements and brands, I think it’s safe to assume that that’s not a desirable option for the majority of us. If we are conscious of how powerfully brands play in our lifestyles, then we can be aware of when we are being taken advantage of. If we can learn to have insight and see through the many advertisement techniques that convey images of a fantasy life, then perhaps we won’t be easily duped into handing over money for a product that we don’t really need.