Consumerism for Citizens and Democratic Societies
In the essay “How Markets Corrupt Children,” Barber discusses and criticizes modern mass culture and consumerism, its impact on children, and their tastes. Barber states that consumerism was born for the third time in this century as a result of a complex combination of circumstances, not the least of which was increasingly strained relations between current business practices and long-run consumer interests. To many businessmen, it came as a shock because they thought the economic machinery, creating the highest standard of living in the world, was beyond consumer complaints. But the movement was inevitable, partly because of the success of the economic machinery in creating complex, convenient, and pleasing products. Consumerism only awaited some precipitating factors to ignite the highly combustible social material. Two sparks specifically exploded the consumer movement. The one was General Motors’ unwitting creation of a hero in Ralph Nader through its attempt to investigate him; Nader’s successful attack against General Motors encouraged other organizers to undertake bold acts against the business system. The other was the occurrence of widespread and spontaneous store boycotts by housewives in search of a better deal from supermarkets. The progress and course of an incipient social movement depend on the reception it receives by those in social control, in this case, the industrial-political complex. A proper response by the agents of social control can drain the early movement of its force. But this did not happen.
Barber calls the process of consumption and changes in the marketplace creolization of society. “Even the most aggressive brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have undergone hybridization in the global marketplace as a result of anti-Western radicals hoping to use Western brands to undo Western hegemony.” Many members of the business community attacked, resisted, or ignored the consumer advocates in a way that only strengthened the consumerist cause. Most legislative bodies were slow to respond with positive programs, thus feeding charges that the political system was unresponsive to consumer needs and that more direct action was required. Barber underlines that the plight of the poor will continue to raise questions about whether the distribution system is performing efficiently in all sectors of the economy. There are more educated and more affluent consumers than ever before, and they are the mainstay of an effective social movement. The continuous outpouring of new products in the economy will continue to raise questions of health, safety, and planned obsolescence. Altogether, the issues that flamed the current consumer movement may be more profound and enduring than in the past. “Creolization does not create very much: it may sometimes slow the pace of homogenization, but it cannot arrest it altogether.”
Barber states that businessmen take the point of view that since consumerism imposes costs on them, it will ultimately be costly to the consumer. Since they have to meet more legal requirements, they have to limit or modify some of their methods for attracting customers. This may mean that consumers will not get all the products and benefits they want and may find business costs passed on to them. Businessmen also argue that they have the consumer’s interests at heart and have been serving him well, and that customer satisfaction is the central tenet of their business philosophy. Many sincerely believe that consumerism is politically motivated and economically unsound. The test of beneficiality lies not in the short-run impact of consumerism on profits and consumer interests but rather in its long-run impact. Neither consumerism nor any social movement can get very far in the absence of combustible social material. Protest movements are messages coming from the social system that say that something is seriously wrong. They are the body politics warning system.
To ignore or attack protest signals is an invitation to deepening social strains. Protest movements are social indicators of new problems which need joint problem solving, not social rhetoric. For instance, “Fast food’s toxic cultural impact comes from its speed-the fact that it is eaten on the run, corrupting eat-at-home family gatherings and long sit-down restaurant meals.” The essential legacy of consumerism promises to be beneficial in the long run. It forces businessmen to reexamine their social roles. The marketing concept calls for a customer orientation backed by integrated marketing aimed at generating customer satisfaction as the key to attaining long-run profitable volume. Businessmen have not worried about this so long as consumers have continued to buy their products. But while consumers buy as consumers, they increasingly express their discontent as voters. They use the political system to correct the abuses that they cannot resist through the economic system. Consumerism mobilizes the energies of consumers, businessmen, and government leaders to seek solutions to several complex problems in a technologically advanced society.