In The Men Who Made Us Spend BBC TV programmes, journalist Jacques Peretti presents his evidence, and offers no simple solutions.
Back in 2002, when previewing Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self TV programmes, Bryan Appleyard wrote:
“The Century of the Self is a startling revelation of the way things that we take for granted are, in fact, the result of specific ideas and historical forces of which, most of the time, we know nothing. We know nothing because we are very bad at thinking outside the confines of our own time and perspective.”
Though his style of investigation is more measured than Curtis’, Peretti’s The Men Who Made Us Spend programmes are fascinating as they too may be able to momentarily dispel the hegemonic haze around our seemingly all pervading consumerism.
Obsolescence, fear and children
The first programme examines the development of planned obsolescence from its physical manifestion in products designed to break, to the “psychological re-programming” of the consumer to drive purchases. This programme also gives a selective overview of the development of consumerism – there are specific dates and faces are put to names.
In the second programme, Peretti piles up the evidence – showing us examples of how our fears and anxieties are used to drive consumption – from car purchases to the creation of medication to treat syndromes that have been invented by drug companies.
The third episode looks at how children are marketed to, and Peretti argues that it’s in the interests of big business to keep adult consumers “infantilised” for as long as possible – with credit and gamification – as children’s attitudes are more malleable.
In the series, Peretti does not explicitly express a viewpoint about the ethics of consumerism. He asks his interviewees about whether they feel remorse for manipulating people. But none do.
In fact, at the end of the first programme, Peretti’s conclusion that:
“Today we live in a world of relentless continuous spending. Not so much because we were manipulated, but because we the consumer chose to be part of the project.”
Has surely been undermined by his hour-long programme filled with examples of how we are manipulated – from printer cartridges to “theories of selling”.
It would be interesting to see, if this programme was made again a few years from now, whether a conclusion of consumer manipulation by the “Men Who Made Us Spend” would be more readily expressed.
On reflection, it’s the self-assurance of Anthony Fisher, the battery chicken farmer who “wanted freedom for the individual” and tech analyst Ben Evans saying that “it’s not the consumer’s job to know that something is better. It’s not the consumer’s job to have an opinion on things that they haven’t seen”, that jumps out at me.
In Peretti’s story, the consumerism we now know has been unleashed on the basis of freedom. Humans are rational and should be free to make their own decisions, said certain politicians in the 1970s.
“Nobody can *make* you do anything”
Seek out the online reaction to these programmes, and you’ll find comments from people denying that they are easily swayed. They consider themselves free agents:
“Nobody can *make* you do anything. People spend because they want. They’re the ones selecting the goods, opening their wallets and paying – there’s no one with a gun to their heads, ready to shoot if people don’t buy. I hate people who don’t take responsibility for their actions.”
But, as Adam Curtis will tell you, many of the politicians espousing freedom through consumerism, had also witnessed propaganda being used successfully in the Second World War.
Consumerism may not look so rosy, if it turns out that the “free, rational, consumer” is largely a flattering, convenient myth, endorsed by a well-meaning patrician class, as it helps to maintain their interests.
Fraud experts will remind us that “Why don’t more victims report fraud crimes? Because con artists are masters at instilling a sense of fear, shame, and guilt in their victims.”
In case you missed it, the summoning of “… fear, shame, and guilt” is the subject of episode two. Could it be possible that many of us do not realise just how easy it is for marketers to manipulate us?
With the publication of books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow, that offer “a whole new look at the way our minds work, and how we make decisions”, the notion that an individual’s choices are often not totally “free” at all, but are buffeted by a wide range of cognitive biases, instincts and emotions are seeping into the mainstream.
Once these biases are more widely recognised, will it also be seen that this game is rigged, that consumers are ill-equipped and no match for “The Men Who Made Us Spend” – who are, after all, guilty of cynical manipulation?
If the free, rational consumer is largely a myth then modern unrelenting consumerism may be seen as unfair, unethical and damaging – closer to psychological warfare than simple persuasion. It becomes a harmful confidence-trick that will have to be addressed, if we care for the health of our societies.
As Peretti points out, in the Dawn Of The Dead, “consumer society is portrayed not as a new type of freedom, but of slavery”.