The Men Who Made Us Spend review: how consumerism took over

A new three-part BBC documentary takes aim at the culture of consumerism that has become predominant in our lives.

A new three-part BBC documentary takes aim at the culture of consumerism that has become predominant in our lives

A main target of documentarian Jacques Peretti’s critique of society’s turbo-consumerism is IKEA. The furniture retailers 1996 Chuck Out Your Chintz advert was a bacchanalian celebration of throwing things away – a gigantic skip descends from the sky into which housewives joyously throw away all their worldly possessions only to replace them with the ‘better’ more fashionable versions from IKEA.

The vagaries of fashion are such that IKEA now sells a line of floral granny-ish products designed by Cath Kidston – the epitome of the chintz we were previously being told to put in a landfill.

Then there was the 2002 ad by feature film director Spike Jonze deriding emotional attachment to old furniture. Sad music plays as an old lamp is dumped on a dark rain-swept street. The poignancy is broken as a Swedish man sets us straight: “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you crazy. It has no feelings and the new one is much better”.

The advert was part of a $50 million campaign to, in the words of Christian Mathieu, external marketing manager for Ikea North America, “attack that old-furniture culture head-on” so as to “revolutionize the furniture market”. The campaigns slogan was Unböring, implying that the viewer consumer was a dullard if they didn’t embrace the momentary frivolous thrill of buying a new cheap lamp from IKEA.

Alex Bogusky, the creative director at Crispin Porter, the ad agency responsible for the campaign, said at the time, “We’re trying to jolt people out of the mentality in buying furniture that ‘I’ll die with this.’”

IKEA was attempting to bring the disposability culture that has become so important to the clothing industry (with its ever changing fashions) to furniture. “Americans have as many coffee tables in their lives as they do spouses,” Bogusky said, “We’re trying to liberate them from that guilt”.

One page of IKEA’s 2012 catalogue declares itself to be the ‘Find your: “My old couch is so going to the curve” page’. When Peretti asks a former senior executive of the company whether he thinks IKEA ushered in the disposable throwaway culture, he can only reply “absolutely”.

The first episode also tackles planned obsolescence – the deliberate limiting of the lifespans of products. Goods are engineered to break so that people will have to buy more. In the early 1990s the German researcher Helmut Hoge discovered long-forgotten documents in a factory in East Berlin meticulously detailing a secret deal struck in Geneva in 1924 by a cartel of light bulb magnates. They had agreed to artificially shorten their products’ lifespan by 1000 hours in order to increase sales.

The practise continues – the clearest present day example, we are told, is the printer cartridge. According to The Economist, “the strategy of planned obsolescence is common in the computer industry too. New software is often carefully calculated to reduce the value to consumers of the previous version.

This is achieved by making programs upwardly compatible only; in other words, the new versions can read all the files of the old versions, but not the other way round”.

Warranty times have also decreased. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, “the newer the product, the shorter the lifespan: A black-and-white TV sold in 1979 lasted for about 12 years; today, a cutting-edge LCD-screen TV is replaced after five”.

The second episode’s take on the pharmaceutical industry is less convincing. Peretti also covers how our fears and anxieties are exploited to drive consumption and recapitulates the well-known case of Vitamin Water, a sugary and decidedly unhealthy drink cynically marketed as a health product.

The final episode focuses primarily on the way advertisers target children. “As late as the 60’s”, we are told, “only a few toys were advertised directly to children…It was the parents who held the purse strings and it was they who would need to be persuaded”.

Today, the average British child is watching 10,000 TV adverts every year. The Star Wars films ushered in a world of merchandise. Merchandise was so important that companies started to create toys first and then invent a story around them. The seminal example was Transformers, a TV show for which the backstory was created not by creative writers but by an ad agency, Griffin-Bacal.

The shows were effectively adverts masquerading as programmes. Sales reached 300 million dollars within two years.

Peretti also touches on compulsive shopping addiction and the rise of ‘gameification’ in marketing. Most interestingly, Peretti explains the way credit cards have taken people away from reflective, deliberative spending and given rise to infantilised spending habits of instant gratification.

According to the show, “studies of brain activity have shown that we experience a discomfort akin to pain when we hand over cash. Put simply when I pay with cash I’ll think more carefully about what I’m spending”. As one interviewee, a professor of behavioural economics, explains, “we lost the tight connection between the purchase and the actual payment itself”. We have deferred and disconnected the pain from the purchases. Credit cards have transformed our outlook to spending and facilitated impetuous, impulsive buying.

Peretti seeks to implicate everybody in his anti-consumerism polemic: the working class are portrayed as avid consumers. In his discussion of the British miners’ strike of the 1980s, miners are said to be angry that falling real incomes mean they could not partake in the dream of mass consumption. He presents the 2011 London riots as not a result of bad social conditions but an example of the grasping avarice unleashed by advertising and consumer culture, “the best example of consumer frenzy in recent times”.

There is a conundrum: Prices that make products disposable for the middle class make them affordable for the working class. In Britain some retail outlets like Primark are so cheap as to enable those on low incomes to consume some products as rapaciously as the rich. We are now all participants in the cycles of fashion and fads.

Ironically it is the rich who can afford the ethical products – the sustainable, recycled, fair-trade products that don’t rely on sweatshop labour always come with a price premium. Luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe advertises its products as being something one passes on to the next generation. It is the ultra-cheap low-quality IKEA furniture that is quickly discarded while expensive antiques survive for centuries.

There are plenty of interesting facts throughout the series. Apple invented a brand new screw to stop people replacing the batteries in their phone. Soap marketed as anti-bacterial is no better at killing bacteria than regular soap. While the scope of the documentary is expansive, the style is workmanlike and straightforward – Peretti is no Adam Curtis (although we do get clips from Fight Club and Dawn of the Dead, a 1970s horror film in which zombies are a metaphor for shoppers).

Indeed, Curtis’s own Century of the Self covered the same topic with much more visual and audial panache. Peretti has managed to get interviews with some high profile individuals. The documentary is, however, almost solely descriptive of the problem rather than prescriptive of a solution. Peretti is largely silent about the environmental impact of the endless churn of products as we succumb to ever shorter cycles of discarding and buying anew.

The predictable reaction to the show by neoliberals has been to complain that it portrayed adult human beings as lacking free will and presented a condescending and infantilising view of consumers as gullible lemmings unable to think for themselves. The Times thought Peretti “so little believes in free will that I fully expect his next series to be called The Men Who Made Us Pick Our Noses”, while The Telegraph complained, “That responsible adults might be capable of clear-headed decisions about their spending was a possibility he did not appear willing to countenance”.

The right believes that business only responds to and provides for the demands of consumers. Yet this is hardly the view of advertisers themselves. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers wrote in Harvard Business Review that “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed”.

Charles Kettering of General Motors also advocated “the organized creation of dissatisfaction”, while Edward Bernays was partial to the term engineering consent.

This is not the language of freedom. It is the language of manipulation. Bernays, the subject of Adam Curtis’s aforementioned documentary, is missing from The Men Who Made Us Spend. Bernays utilised the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. He saw human beings as driven by unconscious irrational forces, which he sought to exploit. Joseph Goebbels was a fan. Bernays said, “Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it. So what I did was to try some other words”. The words he came up with were Public relations.

Consumers are capable of rational introspection, deliberation and utilitarian calculation. It is wrong to portray the average human being as simply a brainwashed/brain-dead zombie mindlessly carrying out the imperatives of adverts. Many advertised products do, in fact, fail.

However, the evidence of behavioural economics (the synthesis of economics and psychology) shows that the entirely rational consumer is but a flattering myth. Unedifying as it may be, human beings are manipulable.

When libertarians talk of individual consumer freedom, we should remember that people make decisions in a social and cultural context. Companies collectively spend billions on advertising because they know it has an effect. Our desires are malleable and Peretti does a decent job documenting what cultural forces they are subject to.

Oliver Williams is an environmentalist. He is currently writing a book on resource scarcity

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